In a previous blog post, my colleague Lynn Price described the contradiction of Bushrod Washington (nephew to George Washington, and the owner of Mount Vernon in the early 19th century) owning slaves and at the same time serving as the first president of the American Colonization Society. For a man to lead a purportedly “antislavery” organization while holding people in bondage seemed, to many, hypocritical. Abolitionists in Washington’s time who pointed out this contradiction did not always do so politely.
George Washington was known to have a temper as a young man, and his ability to master that flaw promoted his rise to leadership positions. That emotion, however, likely lurked beneath his typically composed exterior. Purportedly, it exploded in the sizzling heat of the battlefield at Monmouth, N.J., on June 28, 1778, when Washington saw troops under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee withdrawing contrary to orders. An observer later recalled that Washington’s wrathful bellowing shook the leaves on the trees. Legitimate doubt surrounds that recollection, but unquestionable documentary evidence can be advanced to support Washington’s capacity for anger.
Isaac and Kitty were a married couple who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, as a result of being enslaved by the Washington and Custis families, there are not many records that document the lives of Isaac and Kitty. In reviewing and visualizing George Washington’s correspondence and financial papers, we can recover some information about them—from the family and community they cultivated to the independent labor they pursued.
From early in the Revolutionary War, George Washington argued that soldiers enlisted for the duration of the conflict were better for the army than those who joined for annual or shorter terms. Reforming and retraining regiments and companies each year consumed scarce resources of all sorts and prevented the army from reaching a high degree of effectiveness, and even from being ready to fight when necessary. Amid the challenges and frustrations of a war that had gone on for more than five years, it came as an encouraging sign that Congress reorganized the Continental army in fall 1780 in a manner that emphasized the recruitment of soldiers for the war.
Since George Washington made lists of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon for his own benefit (and not for the benefit of future historians), he only recorded the information he needed to know. Still, historians can glean valuable information from these materials. With some effort, researchers can use a detached and dehumanizing resource such as a slave list to tell a human story. I recently learned this lesson while annotating a legal document (likely created in 1802) that divided Martha Washington’s slaves amongst her four heirs. I wanted to identify the people named in that list by more than just a first name and price, so I read through George Washington’s slave lists to learn as much as I could.
The American Colonization Society (ACS), founded in 1816, supported the mission of removing free African Americans and freed enslaved individuals from the United States. The concept of colonizing a portion of the national population was founded upon the belief that America could not exist as a multi-racial society. Between 1822, when the colony of Liberia was founded on the western coast of Africa, and Liberia’s independence in 1847, the ACS facilitated the emigration of more than 11,000 black Americans to Africa. The federal government gave no funds to the venture.
The circus is not what usually comes to mind when thinking about George Washington, though it seems Washington was intrigued by it. According to his Presidential Household Financial Accounts, Washington “[paid] for 8 tickets for the Circus” on April 24, 1793. This was the first circus to take place in the United States, and it had debuted only a few weeks prior.
Information on George Washington and slavery rose to a new level with the publication of Mary V. Thompson’s “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, Va., 2019). Unsurprisingly, Thompson frequently refers to William “Billy” Lee, arguably the most famous slave whom Washington owned because of Lee’s service as the general’s valet during the full course of the Revolutionary War. Lee also was the only slave whom Washington freed outright in his will at the time of his death. Research on the discovery and aftermath of Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s treachery for volume 28 in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, revealed an overlooked observation about Billy Lee.
Attached to a page in the first of nearly 300 red-leather-bound, near-atlas-sized folio volumes of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress (LOC) is a small manuscript that lays bare the foundation of 18th-century power and violence. Unfolded, the manuscript is approximately 7 ¼ by 9 ½ inches, but when folded into thirds, this lightweight rag paper presents as a neat 7- by 3-inch package. The LOC catalog describes the manuscript as a “Genealogy Chart” and dates it to 1753. But this manuscript should actually have three dates, and none of them is 1753. And this manuscript is much more than a “Genealogy Chart.”
One of [Martha’s] responsibilities as manager of the Mount Vernon estate was acting as primary caregiver to family members as well as to enslaved and non-enslaved workers. This emphasis on the physical wellbeing of herself and of those around her influenced Martha’s everyday decisions and interactions.