Why didn't George Washington free his slaves?

The founding father's slaves

The hut made of roughly hewn oak logs on the banks of the Potomac measures just four by five meters, the only window is small and unglazed. Inside, a flat frame made of gnarled branches lies on the clay floor, covered by a sack of straw. "Right one

The hut made of roughly hewn oak logs on the banks of the Potomac measures just four by five meters, the only window is small and unglazed. Inside, a flat frame made of gnarled branches lies on the clay floor, covered by a sack of straw. "There weren't any real beds for George Washington's slaves," says Steve Bashore, "for them the cheapest was good enough."

Steve Bashore is the project manager of the Mount Vernon Memorial on the former estate of the first American president. The carefully renovated mansion with its gardens and outbuildings is located 25 kilometers south of Washington. It has been a national shrine since 1860 and one of the largest tourist attractions in the country. Bashore, dressed in late 18th-century costume, stands next to the hard bed, on which lies a doll made of rags. There were hardly any other toys for the six children of Slammin 'Joe and his wife Silla, who were kept as slaves in a hut like this on George Washington's estate around 1795. Bashore directed the construction of the hut on the basis of original templates, which has recently been presented to the public.

"Faithful colored servants"

The project met with great interest in the USA: "Now visitors to Mount Vernon can see for the first time how the field slaves of George Washington lived," explains Rohulamin Quander, who works as a judge in the American capital and numerous slaves on Mount Vernon is one of his ancestors. The name Quander appears in colonial documents for the first time in 1684 and goes back almost as far as the Washington’s: "Many African-Americans prefer not to know anything about slavery on the Washington plantations, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison and react angrily and bitterly to it." says Quander, "but the history of this country is also ours."

The founding father of the United States as a slave owner is a fact that the nation and the curators of Mount Vernon have been slow to get used to. Dennis Pogue, the historical director of the memorial, points to a marble slab that was laid in a wood on the Potomac in 1929. Hundreds of slaves were anonymously buried there until 1860. The stone honors them as “loyal colored servants” of the president, a phrase that outrages not only Afro-Americans like Quander, but also Pogue. Although a narrow quarter of house slaves was restored in the building complex at the manor house in 1962, it was not until 1983 that the administrators of Mount Vernon had an appropriate monument built at the slave cemetery under pressure from press reports and the Afro-American community. At the same time, the revolution of the time in historical research also found its way into Mount Vernon, where visitor numbers had dropped drastically around 1980. Through this story from below, Washington transformed from a flawless hero to a man of his time, whose complex personality suddenly made him interesting for his nation again.

Part of the inventory

Around 1795, 316 slaves were running the huge estate of the president and his wife Martha. “They not only toiled in the fields, but also acted as overseers and foremen. Our ancestors kept Mount Vernon running so Washington could run the nation, ”Quander says. Mount Vernon was far more than the famous mansion on a hill above the Potomac, visible from afar: with its five farms and forests rich in game, the large whiskey distillery and fishing business, gardens and grain fields, stables, workshops and a brick kiln was Mount Vernon a model estate on which Washington experimented with the most modern agricultural methods of its time. The revolutionary general and president proudly saw himself as “the nation's first peasant”. Regardless of the war of liberation, he was in lively correspondence with the leading agronomists, especially in England, and had his administrator send him weekly reports to Philadelphia, the first official seat of the US government. With an obsession with detail, Washington has drawn up construction plans and given instructions on crop rotation and fertilization.

In his meticulously kept inventory lists, in addition to the names of his beloved horses, those of his slaves have been preserved, says Steve Bashore: “We have selected Slammin 'Joe and Silla among them. We know of Joe that he was around 40 years old in 1795. As his nickname suggests, Joe must have been a strong man. His specialty was work like digging drainage trenches. " Joe was employed on the manor house while his wife Silla and the children lived six kilometers away on the Dogue Run farm. Like most slaves, Silla toiled in the grain fields. Since the slaves had to work from sunrise to sunset every day and could only rest from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night, "Joe and his family were separated for the week," Bashore said. The slaves could grow their own small gardens in their hut colonies far away from the manor house, keep chickens and other small livestock and thus earn additional food beyond their meager corn meal rations. They brought part of their income to the market in Alexandria or sold it directly to Washington. Steve Bashore also runs the recently rebuilt corn mill and distillery at Mount Vernon. Thanks to his Scottish administrator, the innovative President George Washington was one of the most important whiskey distillers in Virginia: “Washington thought like an entrepreneur, for him his economic success was central. He saw the slaves primarily as a means of production, ”says Bashore. Washington has not hesitated to have its living property flogged for violations of its commandments or, on rare occasions, to sell it to the infamous sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where slaves usually died after a few years of drudgery.

Washington saw slavery as a “necessary evil,” says Dennis Pogue: “He understood that a modern business can only flourish with a free, self-motivated workforce. But the policy of the time did not allow the slaves to be liberated. " In addition, it emerges from letters from Washington that, despite all profit thinking, he could not bring himself to sell individual slaves and thereby tear families apart. As a result, before Washington's death in 1799, Mount Vernon had an overwhelming number of slaves for whom the squire no longer had any use. Pogue therefore regards the release of 123 slaves from his personal property, as stipulated in the President's will, not only as the humane gesture described by older historical research: “It was also economically motivated. He wanted to get rid of surplus eaters. " Martha Washington had brought the other slaves into the marriage. These remained in the family until the relatives of the childless founding father sold the property to a foundation in 1858.

In the fog of history

While, according to Pogue, "far too little is known about the fate of these people after Washington's death," the memory of Mount Vernon was passed on from generation to generation in a number of slave families. Judge Quander reports that his free ancestors kept vigil at the Washington family crypt on the estate and were employed there as housemaids well into the last century: “After that, my aunt Gladys Tancil spent more than 26 years as tourists until her death in 2002 Mount Vernon led. " Quander himself is writing a book about his family and exchanging ideas with the experts at the memorial. The trail of Slammin 'Joe and Silla is lost in the fog of history. Dennis Pogue says, “The wife and children belonged to George Washington and were released. Joe, however, was owned by Martha and was not allowed to leave Mount Vernon. We don't yet know whether the family could somehow stay together. "

Washington has not hesitated to have its living property flogged for violating its commandments.