Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

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George Washington, copy of painting by Gilbert Stuart. (National Archives Identifier 532888)

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, Senior Registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.

On October 1, 2016, the Mount Vernon Museum opened a new and groundbreaking exhibition called “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

The exhibition explores the long and complex relationship between George Washington and his slaves and his evolving attitudes toward the evil institution as a whole.

Mount Vernon describes the exhibition:

Through archaeological discoveries, household furnishings, works of art, documents, and interactive displays, this exhibition, the largest temporary exhibition ever undertaken at Mount Vernon, spans 4,400 square feet throughout all seven galleries of Mount Vernon’s Donald W. Reynolds Museum. It demonstrates how closely intertwined the lives of the Washingtons were with those of the enslaved. Nineteen enslaved individuals are featured throughout the exhibit, represented with life-size silhouettes and interactive touchscreens providing biographical details.

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Visitors viewing documents from the National Archives in the exhibit, 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association)

We learned about plans for this exhibition some years ago as a result of conversations with Mount Vernon curators. I thought back to 2007-2008, when the National Archives had organized an exhibition with Library and Archives Canada to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

It was during research for the 1783 exhibit that I learned about the Inspection Roll of Negroes (aka the “Book of Negroes”). The Roll included the names of one or more of Washington’s former slaves, but it also contained the names and other information about thousands of slaves who had escaped to British lines and were headed to Nova Scotia and beyond.

It is truly one of the world’s greatest resources for African-American genealogy. The British have their own original copy at their National Archives. A microfilm copy of the American version is available at the Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax.

These documents came about as a result of a disagreement between General Washington and the British Commander of Forces in North America, Sir Guy Carleton. In the Preliminary Articles of Peace signed in Paris on November 30, 1782, Article 7 stipulated: 

All Prisoners on both sides shall be set at Liberty, & his Britannic Majesty shall, with all convenient speed, & without causing any Destruction or carrying away any Negroes, or other Property of the American Inhabitants withdraw all his Armies Garrisons and Fleets from the said United States, and from every Port, Place, and Harbour within the same . . .

On May 5, 1783, Washington met with Carleton to discuss the British evacuation from New York. Citing Article 7 , Washington demanded the return of escaped slaves, but Carleton countered that under the King’s orders slaves reaching British lines were to be freed.

The two leaders deferred the issue to future negotiations and ordered that the names be recorded of persons boarding the departing British ships. Among the former Washington slaves recorded in the rolls are Deborah Quash and Harry Washington.

Washington’s legislative record on slavery is mixed. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he presided over that assembly resulting in the Constitution of the United States, including its “Slave Clause:”

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

The same Constitution included a clause that counted slaves as 3/5 a person for representation purposes but allowed the international slave trade to end in 1808. In the middle of Washington’s Presidency, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which gave statutory force to the Slave Clause in the Constitution, enabling owners of escaped slaves the right to reclaim them:

That when a person held to labor in any of the United States . . . shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, and to take him or her before any Judge of the Circuit or District Courts of the United States . . . and upon proof to the satisfaction of such Judge or magistrate . . . that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the State or Territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such Judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent, or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.

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Fugitive Slave Act, February 12, 1793. (General Records of the United States Government, National Archives)

However, a year later, he approved the Slave Trade Act of 1794, an early step toward ending the international slave trade. Both of these documents are in the holdings of the National Archives.

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George Washington’s annotated copy of a draft of the U.S. Constitution, 1787. (National Archives Identifier 1501555)

Since 2012, the National Archives has been lending original records to Mount Vernon for display in their museum. The first was a page from George Washington’s copy of an early draft of the Constitution annotated with his notes. This was paired with the book Acts of Congress, which Mount Vernon had recently purchased at auction.

Acts of Congress includes the laws passed by the First Congress and approved by the first President and the texts of the Constitution and the proposed amendments to the Constitution, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights.

In Acts of Congress, Washington also wrote notes in the margins. Acts of Congress traveled to all 13 Presidential libraries in 2013 before returning for the opening of the new George Washington Presidential Library.

During periodic visits to Mount Vernon, we have been fortunate to go behind the scenes to see historic preservation in action. We visited the mansion, the slave quarters, the gardens, the conservation lab and the new Presidential library. We’ve saved the distillery for another trip.

My favorite moment was the climb into the cupola of the mansion for a birds-eye view of the estate. Did George and Martha have morning coffee in the cupola?  From here, did they watch the endless trail of approaching visitors to their front door? Was it from the cupola that Lund Washington, the General’s cousin and estate manager, viewed the British warship HMS Savage at anchor in the Potomac River in April 1781, when the British Capt. Thomas Graves demanded “a large supply of provisions.”

Meanwhile, 17 of the Washington slaves escaped from the estate to the ship. Fearing that a failure to comply with the captain’s demands would result in the British burning everything in sight, Lund capitulated.  When General Washington learned of Lund’s actions, he was furious, writing: “It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with [the HMS Savage’s request], they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins.”

“Lives Bound Together” will be at Mount Vernon through September 30, 2018. For additional information, visit their website.

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“Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” runs through September 30, 2018. (Photo Courtesy of the Mt. Vernon Museum)

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