It’s not surprising that there’s an official Web site devoted to Mount Vernon, the home of first U.S. president George Washington. What is a little weird, though, is the pages that detail how Washington kept his more than 300 slaves in line.
In addition to having overseers monitoring work on site, George Washington utilized a number of methods to try to control the labor and behavior of the Mount Vernon slaves. Since work as a house servant or skilled laborer was viewed as higher-ranking than field work, Washington could threaten to demote an artisan who would be punished by becoming a field worker.
Violent coercive measures were used as well, including whippings and beatings. In some instances, physical restraints were utilized to ensure that slaves would not run away. When Tom, the slave foreman at River Farm, was sold in the West Indies in 1766 as a punishment for being “both a Rogue & Runaway,” Washington wrote to the ship’s captain to “keep him handcuffd till you get to Sea.”1
Although one houseguest noted in his journal that George Washington prohibited the use of whips on his slaves, evidence in the historical record proves otherwise.2 In 1758, Washington—while serving in the French and Indian War—received a letter from his farm manager explaining that he had “whipt” the carpenters when he “could see a fault.”3 In 1793, farm manager Anthony Whiting reported that he had “gave…a very good Whiping” with a hickory switch to the seamstress Charlotte. The manager admitted that he was “determined to lower Spirit or skin her Back.”4 George Washington replied that he considered the treatment of Charlotte to be “very proper” and that “if She, or any other of the Servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.”5 Washington instituted a system of review in order to determine when he deemed physical abuse as a punishment.
Well, this certainly stirs my enthusiasm for visiting the home of my ancestors’ oppressor. I’m sure any tours I take during my visit will focus on the unimaginable human tragedy rather than the deification of one of the nation’s founding fathers.