Enslaved people spent most of their waking hours working without pay on Mount Vernon’s five farms.
Whether fieldhands, craftsmen, or household workers, they had little control over their schedules, work assignments, or living arrangements. George Washington expected them to “do their duty” by working diligently at all times. Those who did not meet his expectations faced punishment.
My people [must] be at their work as soon as it is light—work ’till it is dark—and be diligent while they are at it…
– George Washington, 1789
Yet enslaved men, women, and children persevered in the face of harsh physical and psychological conditions. They used subtle tactics to negotiate with Washington and overseers for better treatment. They acquired personal possessions to make their homes more comfortable. They grew vegetables and raised poultry to eat and sell. They practiced religion, played music, and told stories. They married, celebrated the births of children, and mourned loved ones who died. And they faced great risks to resist Washington’s authority, sometimes even running away.
Details of Edward Savage’s c. 1787-1792 painting, showing enslaved people near the Mount Vernon Mansion.
See the Entire Painting