George Washington’s life has been scrutinized by historians over the past three centuries, but the day-to-day lives of Mount Vernon’s enslaved workers have been largely left out of the story.

Historian Mary Thompson's new book, "The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon explores the enslaved community. Thompson recently answered questions about her new book.

What is your book about?

The book examines both George Washington’s relationship with slavery as an institution and with slaves as people. In addition it shines light on what daily life was like for Africans and African-Americans who were enslaved at Mount Vernon, as well as for those people of European background who were hired and indentured by the Washingtons.

Why did you write this book? 

Research for what became the book began in the late 1980s, when it was clear that Mount Vernon—and other historic homes/locations in Virginia—needed to learn more about and interpret the story of slavery at their particular sites. I wrote up my findings on four of the topics in 1993, as background material for staff and interns working at the Pioneer Farm site and those later involved in what we then called “The Slave Life Tour.”

There were other historians working on books about slavery at Mount Vernon, but it was taking a very long time for them to complete their works (something about which I am much more sympathetic now, than I was at the time). Two of those individuals, Henry Wiencek and Fritz Hirschfeld, completed—and published—their books, but I was disappointed in the results. Two others, both of whom were history professors, had health issues that were interfering with the completion of their work. So it eventually looked as if the only way the topic was going to be dealt with, was if I did it—and like it was for the others, there were health and other issues that impeded progress.

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What do you hope readers take away?

I’d like readers to come away with an understanding that the enslaved people at Mount Vernon were real people, that they were individuals living under a dreadfully stressful and physically difficult system, who still managed to make lives for themselves and to survive. They had families, made friends (and enemies), played together, cried together, and tried to resist the system that held them in bondage.

I would also like readers to understand how deeply-rooted and entrenched slavery was as a social and economic system in Virginia by the 18th century, so much so that trying to get out of slave-owning was pretty much impossible for most of George Washington’s life. When it became possible, Washington found himself beset by economic problems and pulled away into national politics, that drew his time and attention. He never gave up, however, wanting to ultimately do the right thing and free the people he could.

How long did you work on this book? 

 About thirty years, although for a lot of that time, it didn’t know that it wanted to be a book. I also worked on several other book projects during those years: “In the Hands of a Good Providence”: Religion in the Life of George Washington (2008); The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association: 150 Years of Restoring George Washington’s Home (2010); Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon (2011); and A Short Biography of Martha Washington (2017), to name a few.

Where did the title come from?

The title comes from the following statement that George Washington seems to have made to one of his early biographers, his former military aide, David Humphries:

The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.

What surprised you during your research?

There were a number of things: the fact that there were sometimes three and four generations of the same family living on the plantation; that as late as the last couple of decades of the 18th century, there still seemed to be a knowledge of African languages among the enslaved people; the indications that there were Muslim slaves at Mount Vernon. On the Washington side, just how strict George Washington was and his distrust of pretty much everyone who worked for him, white and black.

What sources did you use to tell the story of people who left few written records?

The sources included George Washington’s diaries and letters, as well as the weekly work reports that were turned in by his farm managers, financial ledgers, and Martha Washington’s correspondence. Letters and journal entries by visitors, both American and European, who came to Mount Vernon were often very helpful, as were reminiscences by other Washington and Custis family members, neighbors, descendants of the enslaved people on the plantation. Government records could also be of great use in tracking people through time.

What was daily life like on the plantation for the enslaved community?

Daily life was filled with work, from dawn to dusk, six days a week. For a number of families, those in which husbands and wives were assigned to work on different farms, and because slaves generally lived on the farm where they worked, it meant they could only be together on Saturday nights and all day on Sunday. So the children in those families were largely raised by single mothers during the week. Days off were times to be together with family and friends, play games, to take produce, chickens, and eggs from their own family gardens to Alexandria to the Sunday market.

What were the living conditions like for the majority of those enslaved at Mount Vernon?

The majority of the slaves lived in small wooden cabins near the fields where they worked. Living conditions tended to be crowded, because families were often large; crowding could lead to the rapid spread of communicable diseases (generally respiratory issues in the winter and gastrointestinal problems in the summer). The cabins were small, with dirt floors and unglazed windows that could be closed by means of shutters. They would have been hot in summer, cold in winter, and dark.

In what ways did the enslaved community try to preserve their humanity?

We know from the reminiscences of Martha Washington’s grandson and a white woman who grew up in Alexandria in the early 19th century, that both traditional African folk tales and personal stories about growing up in Africa, being captured, and brought to America, were being told in the Mount Vernon slave quarters. These would help to transmit both culture and history to the children being raised in those cabins.

There is evidence that slaves from Mount Vernon were worshipping with several Christian denominations in the area, and that there was at least one religious leader, an enslaved man named Caesar who worked in the fields during the week, and preached on Sundays to the slaves. There is also evidence for the practice of both traditional African religions and Islam on the plantation.

Examples of two mouth or jaw harps were found here by archaeologists and date to the 18th century—these were simple instruments that required little to no training to play. We know from other plantations that music was a major element in slave life, but there are no 18th-century descriptions of music in the Mount Vernon slave quarters. There are a number of wonderful examples of African-American music at or near the plantation in the 19th century. 

What kind of slave owner was George Washington?

List of enslaved people at Mount Vernon, by George Washington, MVLA.

List of enslaved people at Mount Vernon, by George Washington, MVLA.

Both white and black workers found George Washington difficult to work for. While he was very clear about his expectations, which was a good thing, he tended to be something of a workaholic and expected everyone else to share his work ethic, not understanding that they did not have the same incentives to work long and hard that he did. He was always disappointed—and angry—when he learned that people had let him down once again.

He tended to be very caring with those who were sick, but often had doubts that his slaves were really sick (pretending to be sick was a not uncommon method of resisting slavery). In cases where people were genuinely ill, he often had doctors brought in or sent the person to a specialist for treatment. By doing this he was protecting his investment in the person, but he also genuinely sympathized with the sick, since he himself had had several severe illnesses in his life, from which he did not expect to survive.

How did George Washington's views on slavery change? 

Those views seem to have changed during the American Revolution, a time when he had to realize the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty and freedom, while holding other people in life-long bondage. It was also during the war that he traveled away from home and lived for years in colonies/states which were “societies with slaves,” as opposed to “slave societies,” in which slavery was practiced on a large scale and was the basis of the economy. In these other parts of the country, he could see agriculture being successfully carried out by hired white workers, rather than slaves. Washington also headed an integrated army and could see African-born and African-American people doing a fine job as soldiers. And he came in contact with ardent young abolitionists, whose opinion he valued: men like Alexander Hamilton; John Laurens; and the Marquis de Lafayette.

What were Martha Washington's views on slavery?

Martha Washington shared many of her husband’s negative beliefs about slaves and others who worked for her. She also expected assignments to be done well and in a timely fashion. She seems to have developed especially close relationships with those who served as her body servants/lady’s maids and with the seamstresses & knitters who worked with her to produce clothing for the other enslaved people on the estate.

Within the last twenty years or so, many people have been very critical of Martha Washington for not seeming to be as advanced as her husband on the issue of the abolition of slavery. While he made arrangements to free his slaves after his death, she did not free her own dower slaves. It might help to think about some things to help put her in context:

a) Martha Washington would never have seen the black soldiers in battle (although she was with the army for half of the war, she was not with them on the march or in the field). Although she knew all three of the young men who so influenced her husband, she would not have stayed at the table after dinner, talking with them about issues like abolition. So her education on this topic was different than that of George Washington.

b) Martha Washington did not own the dower slaves, so she could not free them. Her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, had died without making a will. According to both British common law and 18th century Virginia law, in such cases, the man’s widow received a life interest in/lifetime use of one-third of his property, including the slaves (the other two-thirds would go to the other heirs when they either reached adulthood or were married). This is so that the widow would be taken care of until her death, after which her one-third share was to be divided among whatever heirs of that first husband were still alive. If she remarried, that new husband would have control of the dower property, but he could not sell or free those slaves. In this case, after Martha Washington’s death, her share of the dower property, including the slaves, was divided among her four Custis grandchildren. The one slave she owned outright, who was purchased by her after George Washington’s death and could have been freed by her, was bequeathed to her grandson.

c) It is important to remember that, as a devout 18th century Virginia Anglican, Martha Washington would have had it drilled into her from childhood that among her most important religious obligations was to do her duty to God, her family, and her community. From the time she was 26 years old and her first husband died, she would have felt that it was her responsibility to keep together the Custis dower estate for those heirs, in order to provide for them. For forty-five years, this would have been something she felt she had to do. At almost 71 years old, she did not have the will or the energy for a landmark legal case to free the dower slaves and disinherit her grandchildren.

Slavery

Mount Vernon was the home to hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. Washington depended on their labor to build and maintain his household and plantation. They, in turn, found ways to survive in a world that denied their freedom.

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