Memories of my visit decades ago to George Washington’s home are hazy. I remembered that Mount Vernon is situated on a beautiful section of the Potomac, but I could have given no detailed description of the house or its grounds. But I did carry away one firm memory. I asked a guide about George Washington’s slaves. She gave a curt, dismissive reply, “General Washington only referred to his ‘servants.’” How dare I refer to “slaves”!

Mount Vernon today sings a different song about slavery. I found on a recent trip that not only was slavery at Mount Vernon now openly acknowledged, the importance of slavery to Mount Vernon was stressed. There was a guide in each room of the house, and many talked about slaves. The nearby quarters that housed the slaves who worked in and around the house contained many informative descriptions of what life was like for these African-Americans. Special presentations are made throughout the day at Mount Vernon. When I was there, many of them were about slavery. The “Women of Mount Vernon Tour,” for example, included a discussion of “enslaved women who made [Washington’s] hospitality possible.” I could have had an “immersive experience as Christopher Steele, General Washington’s enslaved manservant, goes about his daily activities.” I could have dropped in to “hear from Caroline Branham, enslaved housemaid and seamstress.” I could have participated in the daily “Tribute at the Slave Memorial and Cemetery.” I could have walked with others on the “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour.” An exhibit in the educational center extensively explained and explored slavery at Mt. Vernon and in George Washington’s life.

Since slavery is an integral part of American history, I appreciated that Mount Vernon now considers slavery something that should be discussed and studied. We don’t really understand our country unless we know about slavery. But as I went through the exhibits in the educational center, once again I felt that although I could learn about slavery, but I could never truly understand it. American slavery rested on deeply ingrained precepts that now seem so foreign and appalling—or at least I want to believe that those precepts are now foreign and appalling—that the institution of slavery cannot really be grasped.

The cliché is that Washington had a complicated relationship with slavery, but that seemed to me just another way of saying he had a relationship with slavery we cannot understand. Try to grasp this: When he was eleven, he inherited ten slaves. What does it mean that one prepubescent boy “owned” men, women, girls, and boys? How did this affect his developing psyche? Was it better or worse for the psyche of the enslaved people to be owned by an eleven-year-old or by an adult? Did Washington as a youth ever discipline his “possessions”? Whip them himself? Have others whip them? To think about this for a few moments brings a torrent of unanswerable questions.

When Washington died, 317 slaves were at Mount Vernon and its five outlying farms. I did not learn how many non-slaves were there at Washington’s death, but surely it was many fewer, probably not one tenth as many. What did it do to a white person to be so outnumbered by enslaved people, almost all of whom, did not desire continued captivity? This “town” had to be maintained and organized. How much fear had to be instilled into the slaves to accomplish this? How was the fear instilled? Can we possibly understand the effects of slavery on the psyches both the enslaved and the non-enslaved?

Washington, the owner of slaves from boyhood to death, did not have static views about the institution. As he grew older, he stated more than once that he hoped that a plan of gradual emancipation would be adopted. Washington also said that he would not sell any of his slaves because he did not want to break up families. On the other hand, he spoke out against the “tactics” of many abolitionists, and he never publicly supported a plan of gradual emancipation, even though Pennsylvania adopted such a plan during Washington’s lifetime.

In his will, executed a few months before his death in 1799, Washington granted the manumission of his slaves upon the death of his wife Martha. Of course, this might be seen as hypocritical. He used the enslaved people during his life, and he was going to allow Martha to use them during her life, too. George and Martha would benefit from slavery as long as both should live. Therefore, only after George and Martha would suffer no “inconvenience” from the emancipation would freedom reign.

The Mount Vernon exhibits, however, suggest that a more complicated reason may have also caused the delayed emancipation.

(Continued on March 23, 2018)

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