An Interview with Mary V. Thompson on the Lives of the Enslaved Residents of Mount Vernon
tags: slavery,George Washington,Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon Historian Mary V. Thompson is the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press, 2019).
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Drawing on years of extensive research and a wide variety of sources from financial and property records to letters and diaries, Ms. Thompson recounts the back-breaking work and everyday activities of those held in bondage. Without sentimentality she describes oppressive working conditions; the confinement; the diet and food shortages; the illness; the drafty housing; the ragged clothes; the spasms of cruel punishment; the solace in religion and customs; and the episodic resistance.
Ms. Thompson also illuminates the lives of George and Martha Washington through their relationships with black slaves. Washington was a strict disciplinarian with high expectations of himself and his slaves. As a young man, he callously bought and sold slaves like cattle. However, as Ms. Thompson explores, his attitudes toward slavery and race changed with the American Revolution when he saw black men fight valiantly beside white troops. Although not a vocal abolitionist, his postwar statements reveal that he found slavery hypocritical and incompatible with the ideals of democracy and freedom for which he had fought. He was the only Founding Father who freed his slaves in his will.
Ms. Thompson brings to life this complicated history of enslaved people and their legendary owner. Her careful explication of the many aspects of life at Mount Vernon offers a vivid microcosm for readers to better understand the institution of slavery and its human consequences during colonial period and early decades of the republic.
Since 1980, Mary V. Thompson has worked at George Washington's Mount Vernon in several capacities, and currently serves as Research Historian who supports programs in all departments at Mount Vernon, with a primary focus on everyday life on the estate, including domestic routines, foodways, religious practices, slavery, and the slave community. She has lectured on many subjects, ranging from family life and private enterprise among the slaves, to slave resistance, to religious practices and funerary customs in George Washington's family. Her other books include “In the Hands of a Good Providence:” Religion in the Life of George Washington, and A Short Biography of Martha Washington.Ms. Thompson also has written chapters for several books, entries in encyclopedias, and numerous articles. She earned an M.A. in History from the University of Virginia.
Ms. Thompson generously responded by email to a series of questions on her work and her new book on the slave community at Mount Vernon.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Ms. Thompson on your recent book on George Washington and enslavement at Mount Vernon. Before getting to your book, I wanted to ask about your background. How did you decide on a career as a historian?
Mary V. Thompson: My father was a major influence on that. He served for 32 years as an Army Chaplain and, through quite a few moves, would drag us to nearby museums and historic sites and encourage us to read about the next place we were going and all the exciting things that happened there, so we were pretty psyched by the time we got there. He was also the first curator of the Army Chaplains Museum, when it was in Brooklyn, during the Bicentennial of the Revolutionary War. As part of that job, he also edited a 5-volume history of the Chaplains Corps, while writing the first volume, which covered the American Revolution. So, as I went through high school, I helped in the museum with some of the exhibits, helped with acquisitions, and with research. I loved all of it.
Robin Lindley: I understand that you’ve spent most of your professional career as a historian at Mount Vernon. How did you come to work at this historic plantation and what is your role?
Mary V. Thompson: This was definitely a result of serendipity---or providence, depending on your world view. I was getting ready to finish a master’s degree at the University of Virginia, while working as a volunteer for the Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and sending out what felt like bazillions of resumes for jobs all over the country. I started out part-time [at Mount Vernon] as an historic interpreter (giving tours to about 8,000 visitors per day). From there, I moved on to doing special projects for the Curator, then to assisting full-time in the Curatorial Department. I moved up to being the Registrar in the Curatorial Department, which involved cataloguing new objects as they came into the collection, keeping track of where everything was, doing inventories, working with insurance companies, etc.
To keep me from going nuts, they gave me one day per week to do research on a specific, agreed-upon topic, the first of which dealt with foodways. After a few years, my boss asked me to switch to studying slavery and slave life at Mount Vernon. In the late 1990s, as the 200thanniversary of George Washington’s death was rapidly approaching, I worked on three major projects: a travelling exhibition entitled, “Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed,” which opened in late 1998 and travelled to five cities around the country; redoing the furnishings in the mansion, with special exhibitions to make the house look as though the Washingtons had just walked out of the room; and the recreation/reenactment of George Washington’s funeral, a three-hour event on C-Span.
I was then moved to the Library, where I worked as the Research Specialist and then as Research Historian. This involved dealing with questions from people all over the country, generally dealing with domestic life here at Mount Vernon; helping authors, illustrators, and publishers by vetting publications; helping pretty much every department on the estate with helpful quotes and deciding whether we had enough information on a particular subject to do a special exhibit or program built around it. Best of all was the opportunity to give talks on and publish my own research.
Robin Lindley: What sparked your recent book on enslavement at Mount Vernon?
Mary V. Thompson: I actually started working on the topic in the late 1980s, because Mount Vernon really needed to be able to teach its staff and visitors about this issue, but it was probably about seven or eight years after that before it knew it wanted to be a book. It was in the early 1960s that I first learned about slavery, as a result of the Civil War centennial, which was going on when I was an elementary school student, at the same time that the Civil Rights movement was playing out on the news every night during dinner. Then in graduate school at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s, slavery was the subject of much of our reading and classroom discussions.
Robin Lindley: Your book has been praised for its impressive detail and extensive research. What was your research process?
Mary V. Thompson: Thankfully, I was able to start with some of the sources compiled by prior members of our Library staff. One of the Librarians had put together a bound volume of statements by George Washington on the topic of slavery, which she’d typed up back in the 1940s. I went through that, page by page, listing the topics covered on each and then photocopied the pages and put them into loose-leaf binders for each of those topics.
I also went through bound volumes of photostats of the Weekly Work Reports that Washington required from his overseers, as well as photostats of his financial records. The Weekly Reports provided detailed information on the work being done on each of the five farms that made up the Mount Vernon estate, as well as information on the food being delivered to each, the weather on each day, food delivered to each farm, the number of people working on each farm, and explanations for why certain people were not working each week. This last category was really interesting, because it provides information on illnesses, injuries, childbirth, and how long women were out of work because they were recovering from giving birth.
Another great source was correspondence by family members other than George Washington, as well as descriptions of Mount Vernon by visitors to the plantation, that often mention those enslaved there. In order to understand where Mount Vernon fit in the overall picture of plantations in Virginia, it was also necessary to learn about life at Monticello, Montpelier, Sabine Hall, and elsewhere in the colony/state.
Robin Lindley: You reconstruct and put a human face on the lives of slaves at Mount Vernon—despite the virtual lack of any contemporary documents by slaves from that period. How did you deal with that challenge?
Mary V. Thompson: Getting at the enslaved community was one of my favorite parts of this project. I started by taking the two fullest slave lists, from 1786 and 1799, and used them to try to reconstruct families. Thankfully, these two lists enumerated the people on each of the five farms and what their work was, with the 1786 list linking mothers and their children who were too young to work, and the ages of those children. The 1799 list did the same, but also linked women and their husbands and told where those husbands lived (whether they were on the same farm with their wives and children, lived on another of Washington’s farms, or belonged to another owner altogether, or were free men).
Comparing the two lists made it possible to start reconstructing extended, multigenerational families. I put together a document for each of the farms, organized by family, and then, as people would be named in the work reports, the financial records, or correspondence, would put those references in the individual records, if I was as sure as I could be that I’d found the right person.
For most of the people, I was keeping track of such things as information about what work they were doing; references to their health; children; ways they might have made extra money; rations of food and clothing; instances of resistance; etc.
Robin Lindley: I was impressed by your description of the massive size of Mount Vernon and the number of slaves who worked there. How would you briefly describe the Mount Vernon plantation in Washington’s era in terms of area, farming, crops, forests, and number of slaves?
Mary V. Thompson: Mount Vernon reached an ultimate size of 8,000 acres during Washington’s lifetime. While Washington, like many plantation owners prior to the American Revolution, started out as a tobacco grower, by the late 1760s, he was making the switch from tobacco to grain and from markets in Europe to American and West Indian markets. Much of the land was still forested after switching in crops and markets. As I understand it, in order to keep fireplaces running on a daily basis for heating, cooking, and washing, it takes ten acres of forest to get enough trees and branches dying naturally to do those things, without the need to cut any more trees. The largest number of enslaved people on the plantation was 317 in 1799, the last year of George Washington’s life.
Robin Lindley: What are a few salient things you learned about Washington’s treatment of slaves?
Mary V. Thompson: Washington was a stickler for detail and a strict disciplinarian. He was also approachable when his enslaved workers had problems with their overseers, needed to borrow something, or someone was interested in moving from one plantation job to another that required more responsibility. They even talked to him to clarify things, when he didn’t understand a particular problem.
Robin Lindley: How did Washington’s military background affect his treatment of slaves and other workers?
Mary V. Thompson: Washington used the same methods to keep an eye on his army as he did on the plantation with his slaves. He directed that both officers and overseers spend time with his soldiers and slaves, respectively; he expected regular reports from them so that he had a very good idea about how things were going and would also travel daily through his military camps and farms to catch problems before they became major issues. He also insisted on proper medical care for both soldiers and slaves and was a strict disciplinarian in both situations.
Robin Lindley: How did Martha Washington see and treat slaves? It seems she was more dismissive and derogatory than her husband concerning black people.
Mary V. Thompson: Like her husband, Martha Washington tended to doubt the trustworthiness of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon. Upon learning of the death of an enslaved child with whom her niece was close, she wrote that the younger woman should “not find in him much loss,” because “the Blacks are so bad in th[e]ir nature that they have not the least grat[i]tude for the kindness that may be sh[o]wed them.”
The Washingtons never seemed to realize that they only knew Africans and African-Americans as people who were enslaved, which meant that they were not interacting as equals and any ideas they may have had about innate qualities of this different culture were tainted by the institution of slavery.
Robin Lindley: I realize that direct evidence from slaves is limited, but what did you learn about how slaves viewed George Washington?
Mary V. Thompson: Because Washington was so admired by his contemporaries, many of whom came to Mount Vernon to see his home—and especially his tomb—those visitors often talked with the slaves and formerly enslaved people on the plantation in order to learn snippets about what the private George Washington was like.
Extended members of the Washington family, former neighbors, official guests, and journalists, often wrote about their experiences at Mount Vernon and what they learned about Washington from those enslaved by him. Some people were still angry about how they were treated, while others were grateful for having been freed by him.
Robin Lindley: In his early years as a plantation owner, Washington—like most slave owners—saw his slaves as his property and he bought and sold slaves with seeming indifference to the cruelty and unfairness of this institution. He broke up slave marriages and families, and he considered black people indolent and intellectually inferior. However, as you detail, his views evolved. How do you see the arc of Washington’s life in terms of how he viewed his slaves and slavery?
Mary V. Thompson: That change primarily happened during the American Revolution. Washington took command of the American Army in mid-1775. Within three years, he was confiding to a cousin, who was managing Mount Vernon for him, that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner. In those years, Washington was spending long periods of time in parts of the country where agriculture was successfully practiced without slave labor and he saw black soldiers fighting alongside white ones. He also could see the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty and freedom, while keeping others enslaved. There were even younger officers on his staff who supported abolition.
While he came to believe that slavery was something he wanted nothing more to do with, it was one thing to think that slavery was wrong, and something else again to figure out what to do to remedy the situation. For example, it was not until 1782 that Virginia made it possible for individual slave owners to manumit their slaves without going through the state legislature. After an 8-year absence from home, during which he took no salary, Washington also faced legal and financial issues that would also hamper his ability to free the Mount Vernon slaves.
Robin Lindley: Many readers are familiar with the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Did you find any evidence that George Washington had intimate relationships with any of his slaves or any free blacks?
Mary V. Thompson: Not really. As a young officer on the frontier during the French and Indian War, one of his brother officers wrote a letter, teasing him about his relationship with a woman described as “M’s Nel.” The wording suggests several possibilities: she might have been a barmaid working for a tavern owner or pimp, whose first initial was M; another possibility is that she was the mistress of a brother officer; or perhaps that she was enslaved to another person. With the minimal evidence that survives, there are many unanswered questions about this mystery woman.
The oral history of an enslaved family at Bushfield, the home of Washington’s younger brother, John Augustine Washington, alleges that George Washington was the father of a young male slave named West Ford, who was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, roughly 95 miles from Mount Vernon, about a year or two after the American Revolution. Here, the surviving documentary evidence contradicts the oral history, indicating that Ford’s father was someone in the Bushfield branch of the family.
Robin Lindley: What struck you particularly about the working conditions for slaves at Mount Vernon and how did they compare to conditions at other plantations?
Mary V. Thompson: As was true on other Virginia plantations in the eighteenth century, the enslaved labor force at Mount Vernon worked from dawn to dusk six days per week, with the exception of four days off for Christmas, two days each off for Easter and Pentecost, and every Sunday throughout the year, Because Easter and Pentecost took place on Sunday, which was already a day off, the slaves were given an additional day off on the Monday following the religious holiday. If they were required to work on a holiday, there is considerable evidence that they were paid for their time on those days.
Robin Lindley: What are a few things you’d like readers to know about the living conditions of slaves at Mount Vernon?
Mary V. Thompson: Most of the enslaved residents at Mount Vernon lived in wooden cabins—the smaller ones served as homes for one family, while the larger “duplexes” housed two families, separated by a fireplace wall.
The majority of Americans at this period, free and enslaved, lived in very small quarters. In comparing the sizes of cabins used by enslaved overseers and their families at two of the farms at Mount Vernon with those of the overseer on a plantation in Richmond County, the two at Mount Vernon had a total living space of 640 square feet, while the other had 480 square feet.
The homes of 75% of middle-class white farmers in the southwestern part of Virginia in 1785 were wooden cabins ranging from 640 square feet to 394 square feet. Our visitors tend to be very surprised to learn that the entire average Virginia home for middle class or poor families in the eighteenth century would fit easily into just “the New Room,” the first room they enter in the Mount Vernon mansion. In other words, pretty much everyone was on the poor end of the scale, unless they were like the Washingtons, the Custises, or the Carters.
Robin Lindley: I was surprised that some of the Mount Vernon slaves were literate. I had thought that education of slaves was illegal then.
Mary V. Thompson: There were no restrictions on teaching slaves to read in eighteenth century Virginia, and, in fact, it might have been a useful skill, especially for slaves working in more of a business capacity, than in agricultural labor. It was not until after a slave revolt known as Gabriel’s Rebellion (1800), that the state passed a law forbidding enslaved people to gather together in order to learn to read. At least one historian has suggested that between 15 and 20 percent of slaves could read in the 18thcentury.
Robin Lindley: You found evidence that many slaves were aware of African lore and practices—at times from stories passed down through generations and at times from black people more recently arrived from Africa. What are some things you learned about African influences?
Mary V. Thompson: African influence can be seen in everything from naming practices within families, to family lore and folk tales told to children, the languages spoken in the quarters, religious beliefs and practices, and even some of the food and cooking traditions.
Robin Lindley: You note that slaves were punished physically at Mount Vernon and that even Washington at times applied the lash. What did you find about forms of punishment at the plantation?
Mary V. Thompson: One of the changes on the plantation after the war, recorded by Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear, was that his employer was trying to put limits on the physical punishment doled out to the slaved. According to Lear, Washington wrote that no one was to be punished unless there was an investigation into the case and “the defendant found guilty of some bad deed.” After the war, Washington also tried to use more positive reinforcement, instead of punishment, in order to get the sort of behavior he wanted. Those positive reinforcements included such things as the chance to get a better job, earning monetary rewards, or even better quality clothing.
Robin Lindley: What happened to slaves at Mount Vernon who escaped and were recaptured?
Mary V. Thompson: It would depend on the circumstances and how difficult it was to get them back. Some people might run away briefly because of a conflict with someone else in the quarters, or with an overseer and needed a breather to let the situation cool off. Others might have left to visit relatives on another plantation. If they were not gone long and came back on their own, there might be little punishment. In other cases, if someone continually ran away or was involved in petty crimes, they might be punished physically or even sold away.
We know of at least one slave, who was sold to another plantation in Virginia, after running away four times in five years; three times when George Washington sold a person to the West Indies, something many people today consider akin to a death sentence; and one case where a young man at Mount Vernon—and his parents—were told that he would be sold there, as well, if he didn’t start exhibiting better behavior.
Robin Lindley: Did you find examples of slave resistance?
Mary V. Thompson: Yes, many. When people today think of resistance, most probably are thinking of things like running away, or physically fighting back with an overseer, stealing something to eat, or poisoning someone in the big house. Not everyone was brave enough or desperate enough to do something so easily detectable. They might well have tried something less obvious, like slowing down the pace of work, procrastinating on finishing a particular job, or even pretending to be sick or pregnant.
Robin Lindley: Oney Judge Staines was a Mount Vernon slave who escaped to New Hampshire a few years before Washington died. He was angry and vigorously sought her return, but was unsuccessful. Did you find new information on this fascinating case?
Mary V. Thompson: It wasn’t exactly new information, but the fact that this young woman was one of the “dower slaves” from the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, meant that Martha did not own her or any of the others, but only had the use of them (and any offspring they had) until her death. George Washington would lose access to those slaves upon Martha’s death, when the dower slaves would be divided among the heirs of her first husband, who in this case were her four Custis grandchildren.
According to a Virginia law at the time, if any dower slave from that state was taken to another state, without the permission of the heirs—or presumably the guardian of those heirs if they were minors—then the heirs or the guardian acting on their behalf would be entitled to take the entire estate immediately, without having to wait for the death of either the husband or wife. Oney’s escape may well have threatened the entire Custis estate.
Robin Lindley: You note that Washington was the only slave-owning Founder who freed all of his slaves in his will. You also note that he seemed circumspect and perhaps ashamed about owning slaves later in his life. Did he ever speak out publicly for the abolition of slavery in his lifetime?
Mary V. Thompson: It depends on what a person means by “publicly”. Washington corresponded with quite a few abolitionists, both British and American, after the Revolution. In response to those people who were pushing him to emancipate those he held in bondage, Washington typically responded that he thought the only legitimate way to do that was through a gradual process of manumission, much like the northern states were setting up. He noted that he would always vote to forward such a plan, however, he never stood in front of a legislative body as a proponent of a plan like that.
Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers take from your groundbreaking book?
Mary V. Thompson: I would like people to understand that slavery in eighteenth-century Virginia differed from the same institution in both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and that it was a complex institution. For example, there were people at Mount Vernon who were free, hired, indentured, and enslaved. They came from many countries and cultures on two continents, represented a variety of both European and African religious traditions, and began their relationships speaking many different languages.
Robin Lindley: It’s a complicated story. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments Ms. Thompson, and congratulations on your illuminating book on the Father of the Country and enslavement on his plantation.
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