George Washington would stop in awe if he could see today’s rural Nebraska. He’d gape open-mouthed at the thousands of acres, the pivots and tractors and combines and technology that farmers rely on these days.
Washington managed his five large farms acres with around 300 slaves.
I thought of that last month as I visited Washington’s Mount Vernon 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. Mount Vernon’s high-ceilinged rooms, fine furniture and priceless artwork were admirable, as was its setting on the Potomac River, but peek behind the curtain and you see its working engine: its 300 slaves.
When I first explored Mount Vernon 60 years ago, slavery was hush-hush. That finally has changed, as well it should. Slaves — “enslaved laborers,” the signs said — were the heart and soul of that place. There was no Hy-Vee back then, no hardware store, no power lines, no water lines. There were only slaves. At the time, they were believed to be less than human.
Statistics were staggering. Washington inherited his first 10 slaves at the age of 11, when his father died. Throughout the next 66 years, he owned 577 slaves, including 123 after he married Martha Dandridge Custis. She was a wealthy 26-year-old widow who owned 153 more.
Washington inherited Mount Vernon, a tobacco plantation, from his late brother. Every bite of food eaten by the Washington family and its 300-plus slaves had to be raised or grown or slaughtered. That’s 350 people to feed per day, not to mention the endless array of overnight guests. One year alone, 560 guests spent the night at Mount Vernon. Slaves prepared the lavish banquets that fed them.
Slaves, including children aged 12 and up, planted, tended, weeded and harvested from sunrise to sundown, working 14-hour days in the summer. Because tobacco was unprofitable and labor intensive, Washington switched to corn, wheat, carrots and cabbage, all tended by slaves.
Some of the reconstructed slave cabins were like barracks, with bunks for 12 and a gaping hearth at one end. Other slaves lived in tiny cabins.
It was slaves who worked in the gardens, the stables and the smokehouse. They did the laundry, first lugging water from a distant spring and heating it over the fire. They ironed that laundry, too.
Slaves did all the cooking, food preserving, spinning, floor-scrubbing, painting and roof repair. Some kitchen slaves worked from 4:30 a.m. till dark. Every spring when the fish began running on the Potomac, slaves plunged into a frantic six-week sprint of fishing, cleaning, salting and packing. The fish supported the plantation for nearly half the year.
Other slaves — butlers and cooks — fed guests, set the tables, and made tea and coffee. Enslaved laborers carried heavy armfuls of wood and pails of water up the grand staircase to the six guest rooms. They carried clean linens upstairs and made the bed for guests. In the morning, the laborers emptied chamberpots.
Near the tombs of George and Martha Washington, Howard University students discovered a slave cemetery with unmarked graves. They not only built a memorial to them; in 2014, they began archaeological digging. So far, 87 graves have been discovered. A wreath is laid daily at that memorial.
As Washington aged, he began questioning slavery on moral and economic grounds. Profits from his five farms did not cover the cost of feeding and clothing his slaves. He declined to serve a third term as president and retired to Mount Vernon in 1797. When he died in 1799, his will decreed that his 123 slaves were to be freed when Martha died. That was done when she passed away in 1802.
Some might scorn Washington for owning slaves, but he was a man of his time. We don’t expect to see paintings of Washington wearing a T-shirt and running shoes or toting a smartphone. Why do we expect him to have contemporary attitudes?
Don’t be too quick to judge him. His gifts to this nation are timeless None of us is perfect. We’re all people of our time. In 200 years, people will mock us for our faults, too.