by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
May 11, 2017
Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.1
Her guidelines for the management of slaves are particularly interesting to a 20th-century reader. Elizabeth Foote Washington and her husband lived together at Mount Vernon for the first four years of their marriage, but in 1784, as they prepared to move into their newly built home,2 she decided to “lay down rules how I would conduct myself in my family—by treating my domesticks with all the friendly kindness that is possible for me to do . . .”
Her first rule for managing slaves was to “never find fault of a servant before their master.” She believed if her slaves thought of her as an ally “they may be brought to endeavor to please me—& feel some gratitude towards me for hiding their faults as they will think—I dare say I shall hide many of their faults—”
Next, she determined “If I should have children I will avoid if possible ever finding fault of a servant before them.” This was in order to keep her household “in great peace & quietness” because she was sure that that was “Mr. Washington’s desire,—& that alone would make me endeavour after—if I did not feel a principle of religion in me that causes me to desire it.”
In 1789, nearly five years after writing her guidelines on how to work with slaves, Elizabeth Foote Washington updated her journal with the results of these measures. She determined that “no one could have put the foregoing resolutions more in practice then I have, or taken more pains then I have to perswaid my servants to do their business through a principal of religion—I have frequently told them that it was my most earnest desire that they should do their duty as a servant for their Saviours sake—not for mine.”
This argument did not prove to be the motivating influence that Mrs. Washington hoped it would. While she was proud to report that “our visitors think we have the best of servants, & that I have no trouble,” she confided in her diary, “If our visitors knew how little my servants did they would not think them good—nay there is few would put up with their servants doing so little as mine.” She found it frustrating “to consider how mine has ever been treated they are not such servants as a person would expect—for surely they ought to be the best of servants,—which is not the case.”
Elizabeth Foote Washington imagined that her slaves would be grateful to her for abstaining from “scolding & whipping” and would repay her with obedience. Forced to labor without pay, living under the constant threat of separation from their families, and aware that they were not seen as fully human in the eyes of the law or of white society, the slaves were not grateful for being enslaved.
Three years later, Mrs. Washington wrote in her diary that her slaves “is got so Baptistical in their notions” that they “think they commit a crime to join with me in prayer.” This bothered her, as she considered being a religious guide to her slaves an essential part of her role as housekeeper. Ultimately, she was unable to convince her slaves to return to her church, as they would “go out of the way at the time they are going to be calld to Prayer—it is impossible for them to have it,—& then if they are made to come—they appear quite angry.”
By attempting to coerce her slaves into practicing her faith, Mrs. Washington intruded into one of the few areas of their lives where they had some control: their spirituality.
In January 1796, Elizabeth Foote Washington wrote to “anyone come a cross this Book” that “I strongly suspect my female servants will take every manuscript Book they can lay their hands on, & many of my other religious Books—tho’ it is my intention, if I am in my senses when on my death bed & I should have a friend with me—to warn them of my servants.” She prayed that the Lord “influence the hearts of my servants & cause them to treat me with respect.”
It is rare to find a historic document that gives such an honest and personal description of the relationship between a plantation mistress and the enslaved people under her authority. Mrs. Washington’s paternalistic view of her slaves blinded her to their motivations for rebelling. While severely constrained by their status as possessions, her slaves still managed to maintain control over some aspects of their lives, such as their pace of work and choice of religion. Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary provides insight into the mindset of a Christian woman slaveowner, and strategies enslaved people used to survive.
1. Diary of Elizabeth Foote Washington, 1779-1796, Washington Family Collection, Library of Congress.
2. “From George Washington to William Gordon, 20 December 1784,” n.3, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series 2: 196.