Associate curator Jessie MacLeod talks in depth about how George Washington treated his enslaved workers at Mount Vernon. She explains how Washington followed the Virginia slave codes, which dictated how slave owners treated their slaves, and how slaves could live their lives.
89:48is going on here if we could have pulledthe soldiers in the Army and Potomac atGettysburg right after Gettysburg andsaid what did you accomplish here theywould have talked all about Union thatis what they would have talked aboutfirst to last first to last it was a warabout Union it was a war about Unionthat also killed slavery and most whiteAmericans eventually supportedemancipation but they but not for thereasons we’d want them to they don’tcare about black peoplewish they did they didn’t they sawemancipation as a tool to defeat therebels to punish what they consideredoligarchy slaveholders they didn’t thinkslaveholders believed in democracy theysaw them as oligarchs they call themoligarchs all the time the South is notwhat the founders had in mind and theycould work it out in their mind thateven though a lot of the founders areprominent slaveholders the documents andthe traditions that they bequeathunionists in the loyal States would havesaid the oligarchic slaveholding southis totally out of step with this theyare inimical to the intent of thefounders and if they succeed in tearingthe nation apart oligarchs everywherecan point to the United States and saysee we told you people are not capableof self-government look at them theycan’t even have a presidential electioncan’t even do that they rip their nationapart that’s what’s at stake that’s whatand if the Union gives you those thingswhat is your obligation as a male awhite male of military age yourobligation is you pick up a musket andyou go do your small R Republican dutyand who is your model there who is themodel for disinterested Republicanservice Stuart’s Washington GeorgeWashington didn’t even take a salaryduring the American Revolution andGeorge Washington did something twicethat absolutely blew people’s minds atthe time he didn’t do it once he did ittwice at the end of the RevolutionaryWarhe gave up power he was theGeneralissimo they couldn’t believe itin Europe he what did he show he’s notJulius Caesar he’s not Oliver Cromwellhe is a man with small our Republicanvirtue he went back to Mount Vernon thenhe’s made president he would have beenpresident for life if he wanted to beFDR had to think about it Washingtondidn’t they would have just elected heuntil they hauled him out of theExecutive Mansion but he did it againhe gave up power a second time and itjust absolutely mystified most people inEurope how that could happendidn’t mystify Americans they said thisis that’s the pointhe’s the point he’s the model so in ourown little way each of us were allmembers of the third Vermont in ourlittle way we are emulating GeorgeWashington
In 1752 Washington made his first land purchase, 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, Virginia. This act inaugurated the second and more profitable phase of his cartographic career, in which he assumed the role of land speculator. Over the next half century Washington would continue to seek out, purchase, patent, and eventually settle numerous properties. His will, executed in 1800, lists 52,194 acres to be sold or distributed in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley. In addition to these properties, Washington also held title to lots in the Virginia cities of Winchester, Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), and Alexandria, and in the newly formed City of Washington.
In 1758 Washington left military service and returned to civilian life and in January 1759 married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow. No sooner had the couple settled at Mount Vernon, which had become Washington’s home, than he begin to expand the estate. In 1760 a neighbor, William Clifton, approached Washington with an offer to sell a 1,806-acre tract on the northern border of the estate, and the two men settled on a price of £1,150 sterling. Shortly afterwards, however, Clifton agreed to sell the same tract of land to another neighbor, Thomson Mason, for a slightly higher price. Despite Clifton’s original agreement and a series of angry letters, Washington eventually paid £1,250 sterling to secure the land for himself.11 The area became the Washingtons’ River Farm.
Western Lands and the Bounty of War
Washington’s lifelong interest in land speculation is illustrated in the fight over bounty lands promised to the veterans of the Virginia Regiment who fought with him in the French and Indian War. In this episode Washington acted on behalf of his fellow veterans as well as vigorously, sometimes aggressively, in staking out his own land claims.
In 1754, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie issued a proclamation designed to encourage enlistment in the local militia for the war against the French. In addition to their pay, those who enlisted in Lieutenant Colonel George Washington’s fledgling Virginia Regiment were offered a share in two hundred thousand acres west of the Ohio River. Unfortunately for the men who fought under Washington in the Braddock and Forbes expeditions against the enemy at Fort Duquesne, they were not to see these bounty lands until more than twenty years had passed, during which time Washington led the struggle to secure their title.
At first, the formal conclusion in 1763 of the worldwide war between Britain and France, of which the French and Indian War had been a part, aroused hope that the land would be quickly granted. These expectations were overshadowed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which (among other provisions) forbade colonial governors from issuing land grants west of the Allegheny Mountains. Yet Washington chose to forge ahead, as evinced by a September 1767 letter to William Crawford, a Pennsylvania surveyor:
. . . I can never look upon the Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands. Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges surveying and patenting the same . . . . By this time it be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity.12
Washington was clearly willing to take considerable risks in seeking out choice land for himself. In the same letter, however, he warned Crawford “to keep the whole matter a secret, rather than give the alarm to others or allow himself to be censured for the opinion I have given in respect to the King’s Proclamation.” He concluded by offering Crawford an alibi should his behavior be called into question. “All of this can be carried on by silent management and can be carried out by you under the guise of hunting game, which you may, I presume, effectually do, at the same time you are in pursuit of land. When this is fully discovered advise me of it, and if there appears a possibility of succeeding, I will have the land surveyed to keep others off and leave the rest to time and my own assiduity.” In fact, the letter marked the beginning of a very profitable fifteen-year partnership. Less than two weeks after he had received it, Crawford informed Washington about several tracts in the vicinity of Fort Pitt, and the two men continued to collaborate until Crawford’s death in 1782.
A little-known story of how one woman stood up to one of the most powerful men in American history. Her story comes to us from Uncivil, a history podcast from Gimlet where they go back to the time our divisions turned into a war, and bring you stories left out of the official history.