Apologists have suggested that slavery was seldom brutal and treatment generally quite benign. This was certainly not true when cotton dominated the economy in the nineteenth century as The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist documents. Increasingly torturous treatment of slaves was employed to boost productivity on plantations. But while methods may have been even worse later, the Mount Vernon exhibits indicate that slavery was hardly benign in the eighteenth century even under the control of the enlightened George Washington. Mount Vernon was not the equivalent of one big happy family. Slaves were whipped at Mount Vernon, and even though Washington hesitated to sell slaves, there were exceptions. He sold several slaves to the West Indies, where conditions were more brutal than in Virginia because, in Washington’s eyes, the slaves had persistently misbehaved. The misbehavior? Trying to run away. Seeking freedom was punishable. It had to be. Slavery could not exist if the slave society did not punish those who sought to escape captivity.
The stories of the two most famous Mount Vernon slaves to escape to freedom are quite telling. The Mount Vernon exhibits explain that Hercules was the personal cook for the Washingtons. His abilities were noticed and appreciated, and Hercules was given privileges not extended to other slaves. He was one of nine slaves brought to Philadelphia when Washington was president. While in Philadelphia, Hercules disappeared. This angered and upset Washington, who did not understand the flight to freedom for this favored slave, and the President unavailingly sought Hercules to bring him back to Mount Vernon.
The enslaved Ona (or Oney) Judge was the personal servant to Martha Washington. She, too, was brought to Philadelphia, and she, too, in spite of her special status, escaped while in that city. Unlike Hercules whose history after fleeing is not known, we know, as did George and Martha, that Ona made it to New Hampshire. Martha was, as George was with Hercules, offended that this favored slave would show the ingratitude of seeking freedom. George and Martha tried mightily, but unsuccessfully, to have Ona returned to Mount Vernon. Instead she remained in New Hampshire, married, had children, learned to read and write, and died in 1848.
Master Washington favored Hercules and expected gratitude for the granted privileges. Mistress Washington favored Ona Judge and similarly expected gratitude. George and Martha were incapable of truly understanding the people that they considered their possessions. Indeed, such empathy would seem impossible if they were to continue being slaveholders. On the other hand, what seems clear is that Ona and Hercules, even if their lives were less harsh than other slaves and even if they did have appreciation for the treatment they received, had to see George and Martha Washington not as the President and his wife, but as a slave master and slave mistress. They had the constant reminder of the fact that overrode every other one–they were not free.
One more interesting tidbit from the Mount Vernon exhibit. As noted above, in his will, George Washington granted emancipation to his slaves on the death of his wife. However, only a year after his death and while Martha was very much alive, she freed his slaves. This was not an act of magnanimity. Washington’s slaves had learned of his will, and suspicious fires had broken out at Mount Vernon. Fearing that the slaves were becoming restive with freedom in sight, Martha freed the slaves.