Yesterday, on the 4th of July (if I get this posted in time), my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Mt. Vernon (specifically “George Washington’s Mt. Vernon”). She is a big fan of presidential historic sites, and since we were in Maryland for the week so I could retrieve some things to store in my near-mythical storage unit, we decided to take the drive on down to see George Washington’s old digs. In addition, it seemed like a vaguely patriotic thing to do on a day when most fireworks displays were otherwise cancelled.
The particular bit of George Washington myth-making that intrigues me the most is the vision of a man who only really ever wanted to be a farmer, but kept acquiescing, with great reluctance, to lead a revolutionary army or serve as President of the United States. It is the central myth of George Washington, a myth that serves to embody in a man the notion that the revolution the founding fathers fought was for the people and by the people, and not for the aggrandizement of any one person. The nice lady at the tomb made sure to call out the myth explicitly: the one thing she said that stuck was her noting that peopled called ole’ GW the “American Cincinnatus.” It is also a myth that could be true. The facts are a matter of the historical record: George Washington did fight the revolutionary war, and did resign his commission when it was done. George Washington did serve as President of the United States, and did quit after two terms despite no one forcing him to. The story you tell around those bare-bones facts is a story about his motivation for doing so, the truth of which is unknowable without being in George Washington’s head.
Some of the vegetable gardens.
One version of the myth I toyed with as we explored the grounds of Mt. Vernon was George Washington as just a conservation farming nerd. I imagined him as willing to fulfill the duties to which he was called, but viewing those duties as a distraction from his true passions of soil improvement and crop rotation. I like to picture him meeting an ambassador for the first time, and sure, yeah, doing the whole diplomacy thing, but most desperately interested in having the ambassador send over seeds for exciting new crops. That’s a man that quits the presidency only because he just can’t get anyone in the government to get as excited as he does about manure processing.
Greenhouse framed with some palms.
Touring Mt. Vernon makes this an easy version of George Washington to conjure. Although there is a museum, the site isn’t a presidential library or anything of that sort, and besides for the whole President thing visiting Mt. Vernon is really just a plantation tour. Like my personal vision of the man, I too am a conservation farming enthusiast, and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around and checking out some of the traditional crops they have growing there and the extensive gardens. The plaques describe Washington’s extensive efforts at growing living fences, and makes note of the garden he would personally tend as he recorded the successes and failures of different experiments. His careful forest management, innovative barn designs, and greenhouse with exotic fruits are all lauded in detail.
As we wandered up towards the main house, which is surrounded by outbuildings, I wondered what it would have sounded like in 1798. This is my schtick at places like this; you can see the buildings easily enough, but can you really get a sense of the place? As all plantations were, Mt. Vernon was essentially a small town. It was fairly crowded on July 4th, 2020 (masks were worn and social distancing measures were in place), but there was a whole wide array of sounds the landscape was missing. What would it have sounded like with horses pulling carriages up the path? With the roaring fire in the greenhouse keeping the orange trees warm, fed by an enslaved tender? With enslaved women doing the washing in the wash house? With the enslaved blacksmith pounding away in the blacksmith shop? With an enslaved carpenter repairing the roofs on the buildings? With the enslaved cooks chopping meat in the kitchen?
The myth of George Washington as a humble farmer who just really wanted to tend to his fields works well in the 20th century, against the backdrop of the US presidency as the most powerful position in the world. Why would any one man give up so much power over the running of the entire country? But in 1797, the landscape was much different. The presidency was a small job in a new, daring, but weak nation. But at home, at Mt. Vernon, George Washington was instead the lord and master of over 500 enslaved persons, wielding over them the power of life and death. He was, as the museum tells me, one of the richest men in America. So that’s my other vision of George Washington, as a man who returns from his duties, back to Mt. Vernon, so he could finally exercise real power.
1983 monument to the enslaved persons of Mt. Vernon.
Mt. Vernon confronts George Washington’s legacy of slavery, but it is in no way a reckoning. At the slave cemetery, nearby Washington’s tomb, there are two markers, one dating from 1929 and another from 1983, and archaeological efforts are ongoing. Throughout the site, there are constant references to the work that enslaved persons did. In all these references, the interpretation falls far short. They all report, I assume, facts, but fail to contextualize them in ways that speak to truth.
Near the main house, there are bunk rooms for both enslaved men and enslaved women. “Why Bunk Rooms?,” one plaque asks, before answering that “the unusual barracks-style1 bunk rooms were useful here because most of 59 adult slaves at the Mansion House Farm were either single men, or men whose jobs required them to live apart from their families six days a week.” That is a strange and underhanded way to phrase that George Washington, in his power over these people, decided it was more important that he have a butler on-hand than to allow these men to see their families for more than one day a week.
Down by the water, nearby a model slave house made up to look quaint and cozy, there’s another plaque describing a punt. A punt “is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow that was designed for use on small rivers or other shallow water.” At the bottom, the plaque tells a touching tale about how “Sambo Anderson, one of George Washington’s enslaved carpenters, had a punt that he probably used to cross Little Hunting Creek in order to visit River Farm, where his wife and children lived. Although Washington owned many boats, he sometimes borrowed Anderson’s small vessel. Years later, Anderson recalled that Washington always asked permission to use the boat and invariably returned it to the location where he found it.” This story tells us that George Washington was nice to the people he enslaved. He asked permission to borrow Sambo’s boat! And returned it to the same spot! The plaque doesn’t bother to delve into why Sambo was forced to live away from his family. The insidious task the plaque undertakes is to polish the sharp edges of the relationship between Sambo and George Washington. George Washington had the power to order Sambo killed at any time and for any reason. George Washington personally prevented Sambo from living his own life as he chose. If you’re George Washington, why not be nice to a fellow human being whose life you could end at any time?
Outside of the COVID-19 era, we might have come across it sooner, but it wasn’t until we were really heading out of Mt. Vernon that we found the portion of the museum dedicated to discussing the lives of enslaved persons on Mt. Vernon. Here, the museum works to paint a picture of a man torn in his very soul about the legacy of slavery. It’s a picture I just couldn’t buy.
In the submarine force, we had these training modules, called SOBTs (Submarine On-Board Training), that detailed events that lead up to various submarine accidents. Almost invariably there was a note in there, along the lines of “and the Quartermaster thought the ship was in trouble and this was a Bad Idea, but he told no one and did nothing about it.” I always felt you didn’t get credit for that; no one cares if you thought something was a bad idea if you didn’t do anything about it. Right from the start the museum spins a similar tale about Washington. It explains that his views on slavery changed over time, and towards the end of his life he thought it was a bad idea. But he didn’t do anything about it. You don’t get credit for freeing enslaved persons after you die and don’t need them anymore. I found frustrating the line that he was “unable to extricate himself from slavery during his lifetime.” That’s not true. What is true is that he couldn’t find a way to do it, and maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.
In my head as I was imagining this post it was an eloquent analysis of the mythmaking surrounding the founding fathers, a notion buoyed by a viewing of Hamilton last night on Disney+. It’s turned into more of a screed, but one that’s necessary, I think. The museum continues to shy away from truth while reporting facts. It discusses how slavery was economically unviable, how George Washington lamented that many of the enslaved persons didn’t really earn enough to make their “upkeep” profitable. That turns slavery into a charity case: these people couldn’t survive on their own, being unable to do productive work, but good ole’ George Washington keeps them on the farm anyways so they could stay fed and clothed. Let’s ignore why they were never able to save up for a retirement on their own.
The museum details the various punishments that George Washington could employ to keep the enslaved persons under control. The direst was selling them to the West Indies, which the museum noted was tantamount to a death sentence. This was reserved for only the most pernicious troublemakers, for whom George felt there was no real remedy. This puts the onus on the enslaved persons: if only they had acted better, Washington wouldn’t have been forced to send them to their deaths. The crimes for which these men paid with their lives? Fighting for their freedom and inconveniencing George Washington.
The most galling was the museum noting that freedom for many of the people George Washington freed in his will was “bittersweet.” Washington did not really own all of the enslaved persons on his farms; many he controlled via his marriage to Martha Washington, who had inherited them via the Custis line. Since the persons enslaved by Washington and persons enslaved by the Custis’ had intermarried, in some cases only parts of some families were freed upon Washington’s death. This is what made freedom “bittersweet,” in the museum’s telling. In that telling, sure, slavery was bad, but at least it kept families together!
The museum is wrought with, at first I was going to say “contradictions” like that, but “contradictions” is not quite right. There is no way to tell the whole truth of the life of a slaveowner and make that slaveowner look anything but evil. Whatever ideals George Washington fought for, he compromised them at home. The only question we have to answer is how much can a man compromise, and still get credit for fighting? In the year 2020, we can no longer accept a moral compromise that entailed the enslavement of hundreds of people so one man could continue to live a particular lifestyle. George Washington could have freed his slaves in his lifetime, but he just couldn’t figure out a way to do it and still be the “gentleman farmer” that he, or maybe just historians, imagined himself to be. When people argue against tearing down Confederate statues on the slippery-slope principle that, before you know it, we’ll be tearing down George Washington, they think they have a pretty rock-solid argument. Instead, I think we must reevaluate these men with every new generation. While it is imperative to learn about the context in which history happened, in order to actually understand the decisions people like George Washington made, we are not bound by the moral judgements of the past. It is the right of every present generation to look back and judge these men by the standards to which we would like to uphold, and only then take the lessons from their lives to help us live ours.
1I also want to say, the plaque notes that the bunkhouse as it is shown at Mt. Vernon today is based off of barracks occupied by Continental Army troops, which they make note of I guess as a way of citing their sources, but also seems to me says something like “look, George Washington treated enslaved persons just as well as Army troops! Couldn’t have been all that bad!”