George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851
,,,Visitors at Mount Vernon saw many faces there, but only a few were white faces, the rest were those of black slaves...The cooks, the house servants, the coachmen, the stable boys, almost all the manual workers were slaves...
From his father Washington inherited 10 or 12 slaves and, as occasion required or opportunity offered, he added to the number. By 1760 he paid taxes on 49 slaves, in 1770 on 87 & in 1774 on 135. Presently he found himself overstocked & in 1778 expressed a wish to barter for land some "Negroes, of whom I every day long more to get clear of." Still later he declared that he had more negroes than could be employed to advantage on his estate, but was principled against selling any, while hiring them out was almost as bad. "What then is to be done? Something or I shall be ruined."
In 1754 he bought a...a woman called Clio for £50. Two years later he acquired...a woman for £86, & from Governor Dinwiddie a woman & child for £60. In 1758...Mount Vernon brought him 18 more. Mrs. Washington was the owner of a great many slaves, which he called the "dower Negroes," & with part of the money she brought him he acquired yet others. The year of his marriage he bought...Hannah & child for £80 & nine others for £406. Two years later he bought...a woman of the estate of Francis Hobbs for £128.10, the woman being evidently of inferior quality, for she cost only £20. Another slave purchased that year from Sarah Alexander was more valuable, costing £76. Judy & child, obtained of Garvin Corbin, cost £63. He bought five more slaves in 1772. Some writers say that this was his last purchase, but it is certain that thereafter he took a few in payment of debts.
In 1786 he took a census of his slaves on the Mount Vernon estate. On the Mansion House Farm he had sixty-seven, including...two cooks...three seamstresses, two house maids, two washers, four spinners...knitters & carpenters. Two women were "almost past service," one of them being "old & almost blind."...Lame Peter had been taught to knit. Twenty-six were children, the youngest being Delia & Sally... On the whole estate there were 216 slaves, including many dower negroes.
...I have found only one or two lists of the increase of the slaves, one being that transmitted by James Anderson, manager, in February, 1797, to the effect that "there are 3 Negro Children Born, & one dead--at River Farm 1; born at Mansion house, Lina 1; at Union Farm 1 born & one dead--It was killed by Worms..."
Washington was much more likely to take notice of deaths than of increases. "Dorcas, daughter of Phillis, died, which makes 4 Negroes lost this winter," he wrote in 1760. He strove to safeguard the health of his slaves & employed a physician by the year to attend to them, the payment, during part of the time at least, being fifteen pounds per annum...
When at home the Farmer personally helped to care for sick slaves. He had a special building erected near the Mansion House for use as a hospital. Once he went to Winchester in the Shenandoah region especially to look after slaves ill with smallpox "and found everything in the utmost confusion, disorder, & backwardness. Got Blankets & every other requisite from Winchester, & settied things on the best footing I could." As he had had smallpox when at Barbadoes, he had no fear of contagion.
Among the entries in his diary are: "Visited my Plantations & found two negroes sick ... ordered them to be blooded." "Found that lightening had struck my quarters & near 10 Negroes in it, some very bad but by letting blood recovered."
In his contracts with overseers Washington stipulated proper care of the slaves. Once he complained to his manager that the generality of the overseers seem to "view the poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draught horse or ox; neglecting them as much when they are unable to work; instead of comforting & nursing them when they lye on a sick bed." Again he wrote: "When I recommended care of & attention to my negros in sickness, it was that the first stage of, & the whole progress through the disorders with which they might be seized (if more than a slight indisposition) should be closely watched, & timely applications & remedies be administered; especially in the pleurisies, & all inflammatory disorders accompanied with pain, when a few day's neglect, or want of bleeding might render the ailment incurable. In such cases sweeten'd teas, broths & (according to the nature of the complaint, & the doctor's prescription) sometimes a little wine, may be necessary to nourish & restore the patient; & these I am perfectly willing to allow, when it is requisite."
Yet again he complains that the overseers "seem to consider a Negro much in the same light as they do the brute beasts, on the farms, & often times treat them as inhumanly."
His slaves by no means led lives of luxury & inglorious ease. A...Polish poet who visited Mount Vernon in 1798 was shocked by the poor quarters & rough food provided for them. He wrote: "We entered some negroes' huts--for their habitations cannot be called houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants. The husband & his wife sleep on a miserable bed, the children on the floor. A very poor chimney, a little kitchen furniture amid this misery--a tea-kettle & cups.... A small orchard with vegetables was situated close to the hut. Five or six hens, each with ten or fifteen chickens, walked there. That is the only pleasure allowed to the negroes: they are not permitted to keep either ducks or geese or pigs."
..."It is observed by the Weekly Report," he wrote when President, "that the Sowers make only Six Shirts a Week, & the last week Caroline (without being sick) made only five;--Mrs. Washington says their usual task was to make nine with Shoulder straps, & good sewing:--tell them therefore from me, that what has been done shall be done by fair or foul means; & they had better make a choice of the first, for their own reputation, & for the sake of peace & quietness otherwise they will be sent to the several Plantations, & be placed at common labor under the Overseers thereat. Their work ought to be well examined, or it will be most shamefully executed, whether little or much of it is done--and it is said, the same attention ought to be given to Peter (& I suppose to Sarah likewise) or the Stockings will be knit too small for those for whom they are intended; such being the idleness, & deceit of those people."
"What kind of sickness is Betty Davis's?" he demands on another occasion. "If pretended ailments, without apparent causes, or visible effects, will screen her from work, I shall get no work at all from her;--for a more lazy, deceitful & impudent huzzy is not to be found in the United States than she is." "I observe what you say of Betty Davis &ct," he wrote a little later, "but I never found so much difficulty as you seem to apprehend in distinguishing between real & feigned sickness;--or when a person is much afflicted with pain.--Nobody can be very sick without having a fever, nor will a fever or any other disorder continue long upon any one without reducing them.--Pain also, if it be such as to yield entirely to its force, week after week, will appear by its effects; but my people (many of them) will lay up a month, at the end of which no visible change in their countenance, nor the loss of an oz of flesh, is discoverable; & their allowance of provision is going on as if nothing ailed them."
...His advice to a manager was to keep the blacks at a proper distance, "for they will grow upon familiarity in proportion as you will sink in authority." The English farmer Parkinson records that the first time he walked with General Washington among his negroes he was amazed at the rough manner in which he spoke to them..."
Billy was a good & faithful servant & his master appreciated the fact. In 1784 we find Washington writing to his Philadelphia agent: "The mullatto fellow, William, who has been with me all the war, is attached (married he says) to one of his own color, a free woman, who during the war, was also of my family. She has been in an infirm condition for some time, & I had conceived that the connexion between them had ceased; but I am mistaken it seems; they are both applying to get her here, & tho' I never wished to see her more, I can not refuse his request (if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has served me faithfully for many years. After premising this much, I have to beg the favor of you to procure her a passage to Alexandria."
Washington's kindness to Billy was more or less paralleled by his treatment of other servants. Even when President he would write letters for his slaves to their wives & "Tel Bosos" & would inclose them with his own letters to Mount Vernon...
Once when President word reached his ears that he was being criticized for not furnishing his slaves with sufficient food. He hurriedly directed that the amount should be increased & added: "I will not have my feelings hurt with complaints of this sort, nor lye under the imputation of starving my negros, & thereby driving them to the necessity of thieving to supply the deficiency. To prevent waste or embezzlement is the only inducement to allowancing them at all--for if, instead of a peck they could eat a bushel of meal a week fairly, & required it, I would not withold or begrudge it them..."
The regulations to which they had to conform were rigorous. Their Master strove to keep them at work & to prevent them from "night walking," that is running about at night visiting. Their work was rough, & even the women were expected to labor in the fields plowing, grubbing & hauling manure as if they were men. But they had rations of corn meal, salt pork & salt fish, whisky & rum at Christmas, chickens & vegetables raised by themselves & now & then a toothsome pig sequestered from the Master's herd....
...But as early as 1786 he wrote to John F. Mercer, of Virginia: "I never mean, unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law."
In 1794, in explaining to Tobias Lear his reasons for desiring to sell some of his western lands, he said: "Besides these I have another motive which makes me earnestly wish for these things--it is indeed more powerful than all the rest--namely to liberate a certain species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings; but which imperious necessity compels, & until I can substitute some other expedient, by which expenses, not in my power to avoid (however well I may be disposed to do it) can be defrayed."
Later in the same year he wrote to General Alexander Spotswood: "With respect to the other species of property, concerning which you ask my opinion, I shall frankly declare to you that I do not like even to think, much less to talk of it.--However, as you have put the question, I shall, in a few words, give my ideas about it.--Were it not then, that I am principled agt. selling negroes, as you would cattle at a market, I would not in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one as a slave.--I shall be happily mistaken, if they are not found to be a very troublesome species of property ere many years pass over our heads."
"I wish from my soul that the Legislature of the State could see the policy of a gradual abolition of slavery," he wrote to Lawrence Lewis 3 years later. "It might prevent much future mischief."
His ideas on the subject were in accord with those of many other great Southerners of his day such as Madison & Jefferson. These men realized the inconsistency of slavery in a republic dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, & vaguely they foresaw the irrepressible conflict that was to divide their country & was to be fought out on a hundred bloody battle-fields. They did not attempt to defend slavery as other than a temporary institution to be eliminated whenever means & methods could be found to do it...
During this period he was loath to bring the fact that he was a slaveholder too prominently before the public, for he realized the prejudice already existing against the institution in the North. When one of his men absconded in 1795, he gave instructions not to let his name appear in any advertisement of the runaway, at least not north of Virginia.
His final judgment on slavery is expressed in his will. "Upon the decease of my wife it is my will & desire," he wrote, "that all the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom--To emancipate them during her life, would tho earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties, on account of their intermixture by marriages with the Dower negroes as to excite the most painful sensations,--if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor, it not being in my power under the tenure by which the dower Negroes are held to manumit them."
The number of his own slaves at the time of his death was 174. Of dower negroes there were 153, & besides he had 40 leased from a Mrs. French...As a matter of fact, Mrs. Washington preferred to free her own & the General's negroes as soon as possible & it was accordingly done before her death, which occurred in 1802.