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Washington’s thoughts on slavery documented

April 18, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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The greenhouse constructed by George Washington in 1793 with wings for four slave rooms. Photo courtesy of The Ladies' Association of Mount Vernon.
An archaeological site in the making was sealed one day between late 1792 and the early months of 1793, not too far from the Mount Vernon Mansion House. A 6- by 6-foot cellar under a two-story frame building had been a collecting spot over 30 years for thousands of artifacts used daily by the resident slaves. When the "House for Families" was demolished, the small cellar was sealed for nearly 200 years, until it was unearthed by Mount Vernon archaeologists.

In 1793, new brick slave quarters were added as wings to the 1784 greenhouse. They are still on the site. The four rectangular rooms (about 34 by 18 feet) proved housing for most of the Mansion House Farm slaves.

These rooms provided more amenities than other housing types associated with the five Mount Vernon farms. They each had a fireplace and glazed windows, and were constructed of brick. Today you can peek into some of these rooms furnished in a manner of the historic period.

Mary V. Thompson, Curatorial Registrar for George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, has conducted a great deal of research into the Washington slaves. She has been generous in sharing the fascinating information accrued about slave life, work, housing, and the individuals. Her papers, "Slavery at Mount Vernon and "Freeing of George Washington's Slaves" are the basis of the data presented here.

While the slaves living in the new brick rooms attached to the Greenhouse may have been more comfortable, they decidedly had a more constricted lifestyle. Ms. Thompson writes that the Mansion House Farm slaves had housing with better style and quality; "From considerations of privacy, however, field workers on the four outlying farms had an advantage, both because of the configuration of their quarters, the largest of which probably housed no more than two families, and because these quarters were a greater distance from their master's supervision.

The outlying farm houses were "log-houses." The cabins were made of wood and mud. The latter material was used as a mortar between the house logs as well as a plaster over the exterior chimneys constructed of sticks. George Washington described two black overseer cabins as 16 by 20 feet in size with a loft. There were also duplex style cabins with two families having separate quarters and a shared chimney. Clearly, the new brick rooms constructed in 1793 provided a higher degree of material comfort.

The year 1793 is another significant landmark for the Mount Vernon slaves. In that year, precised between September 1 and December 12, James Thomas Flexner writes: "Washington reached what was for him an even more revolutionary conclusion than when he had decided to raise his sword against his King."

Waashington wrote on December 12, 1793 to an English agricultrual reformer Arthur Young "the thoughts I am now about to disclose to you" were not "even in embryo" when he wrote Young three months earlier. Flexner documents Washington's evolutinary thought pattern on the issue of slavery over the years in his last biographical volume. But he points this letter to Young, as the critical moment when Washington dramatically shifted his stand on slavery and began to develop his plans to free his slaves. He was home at Mount Vernon at that time, while yellow fever raged through Philadelphia, and he put forth the scheme to Young of breaking up his property by renting all the farms, except the Mansion House "for my own residence, occupation, and amusement in agriculture." He sees the revolutionary concept of his ideas and commands Young to burn the letter if need be. Yet, he was not candid; Washington wrote a "private" section in another letter to Tobias Lear stating that his motive in dismembering the estate was "to liberate a certain species of propety which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings...." What did happen to the 316 slaves on the estate?

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.