Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon
Lives Bound Together explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.
Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of his desire to end the practice. At the end of his life Washington made the bold step to free all his slaves in his 1799 will - the only slave-holding Founding Father to do so.
When Washington’s father Augustine died in 1743, George Washington became a slave owner at the early age of eleven. In his will, Augustine left his son the 280 acre family farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. In addition, Washington was willed ten slaves. As a young adult, Washington purchased at least eight more slaves, including a carpenter named Kitt. Washington purchased more enslaved people in 1755, including four men, two women, and a child.
Of the 317 enslaved people living at Mount Vernon in 1799, a little less than half (123 individuals) were owned by George Washington himself. Another 153 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799 were dower slaves from the Custis estate. When Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died without a will in 1757, she received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Neither George nor Martha Washington could free these slaves by law and upon Martha’s death these individuals reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among her grandchildren.
After marrying Martha Dandridge Custis in January of 1759, George Washington's slaveholdings increased dramatically. As the widow of a wealthy planter who died without a will in 1757, Martha’s share of the Custis estate brought another eighty-four enslaved people to Mount Vernon. The stark increase in the enslaved population at Mount Vernon at this time reflected similar trends in the region. When George Washington took control of the Mount Vernon property in 1754, the population of Fairfax County was around 6,500 people, of whom a little more than 1,800 or about 28% were slaves of African origin. The proportion of slaves in the population as a whole rose throughout the century; by the end of the American Revolution, over 40% of the people living in Fairfax County were slaves.
Sources offer differing insight into Washington's behavior as a slave owner. On one end of the spectrum, Richard Parkinson, an Englishman who lived near Mount Vernon, once reported that "it was the sense of all his [Washington's] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man."
Conversely, a foreign visitor traveling in America once recorded that George Washington dealt with the people he enslaved "far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia."
What is clear is that Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.
Influences from both African and European religious practices can be found amongst Mount Vernon’s enslaved population. Some slaves at Mount Vernon participated with local, organized Christian congregations, to some degree. Also, Mount Vernon's enslaved community developed at least one spiritual leader from within their own community, named Caesar, according to a runaway slave advertisement from the spring of 1798.
Further, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon had contact with at least three other Christian denominations: Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. There were also several remnants of religious traditions from Africa continuing to some degree at Mount Vernon, including both Vodoun and Islam.
Mount Vernon’s enslaved community took opportunities, when possible, to physically escape their enslavement. For example, in April of 1781 during the American Revolution, seventeen members of the Mount Vernon enslaved population—fourteen men and three women—fled to the British warship HMS Savage anchored in the Potomac off the shore of the plantation. In other instances, members of the enslaved community who were directly connected to the Washingtons either attempted to or were successful in their escape plans. These individuals included Washington’s personal assistant Christopher Sheels, whose plan to escape with his fiancée was thwarted; the family cook Hercules; and Martha Washington’s personal maid Oney Judge, both of whom escaped successfully.
Running away was a risky venture that often did not succeed. As a result, Mount Vernon’s enslaved population frequently resisted their bondage through a variety of methods while working on the plantation. Individuals utilized less noticeable methods of resistance, including feigning illness, working slowly, producing shoddy work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment. More active methods of protest included actions such as theft, arson, and sabotage of crops. Theft was a particularly frequent act of visible slave resistance. Over the years enslaved people at Mount Vernon were accused of stealing a wide variety of objects, including tools, fabrics, yam, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes.
Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved woman brought to Boston from West Africa at just seven years of age. Uncommon for practices at the time, Wheatley received instruction in subjects ranging from Greek, Latin and poetry from the daughter of her owners. By age twelve Wheatley began writing poetry and by eighteen had become well-known for the publication of an elegy she wrote commemorating the death of a prominent preacher. In the winter of 1775, Wheatley sent Washington a letter containing an ode to the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The poem concluded: "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine."
Washington responded kindly to Wheatley in a letter, the only known missive that he wrote to an enslaved individual, and even addressed the letter to "Miss Phillis," an unusually polite way for a member of the gentry to address an enslaved person. Although there is no proof that the two met in person, General Washington invited Wheatley in March 1776 to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Mount Vernon’s enslaved community usually worked a six-day week, with Sunday generally being the day off for everyone on the plantation. On a daily basis, in addition to their day's work, the enslaved had their own housekeeping work such as tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing. With precious little free time and control over their own schedules, enslaved people at Mount Vernon attempted to exert some control over their personal lives. Some spent their free time socializing at Mount Vernon, or neighboring plantations where their spouses lived. Others used their time to play games and sports. A visitor to Mount Vernon from Poland during the summer of 1798 recorded witnessing a group of about thirty people divided into two teams, playing a game he referred to as "prisoner's base," which involved "jumps and gambols.”
Washington wrote his will several months before his death in December 1799. In the document, Washington left directions for the eventual emancipation of his slaves after the passing of Martha Washington. Of the 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon in 1799, 123 of the individuals were owned by George Washington and were eligible to be freed as per the terms of the will.
By law, neither George nor Martha Washington could free the Custis dower slaves. Upon Martha Washington’s death in 1802, these individuals were divided among the Custis grandchildren. By 1799, 153 of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon were part of this dower property.
In accordance with state law, George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly enslaved people or those who were too sick to work were to be supported by his estate in perpetuity. The remaining non-dower enslaved at Mount Vernon did not have to wait for Martha Washington’s death to receive their freedom. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams explained that Martha Washington’s motives were largely driven by self-interest. “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,” Adams explained, “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her–She therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.” In December 1800, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission for her deceased husband's slaves, a transaction that is recorded in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Court Records. They would finally be emancipated on January 1, 1801.