'The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret'

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matthew mckeon

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The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret' George Washington, Slavery and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon
by Mary Thompson

Mary Thompson was the research historian at Mount Vernon was many years, and has gathered an immense amount of material about the community of enslaved people at Mount Vernon.

When we say "Mount Vernon" it means a complex of five major farms, about 8000 acres, producing grain and tobacco. Washington got 150 slaves when he married Mary Custis, bought and sold slaves for most of his working life, and had 300 when he died. 47 managed to run away from a man that Thompson says was "not easy to work for," which in the context of slavery meant recourse to the whip.

Washington had a fierce temper, over which he exerted an iron self control, and an equally fierce work ethic. Up at dawn to survey his estate, he demanded constant work and results from his slaves and their white managers. For those who fell short, he could be "tremendous in his wrath."

He never seemed to question slavery up to the Revolution, but reexamined his beliefs and the place of slavery in America during and after the war. He stopped selling human beings, wrote approvingly to abolishing slavery, and freed his half of the slaves(the other half belonged legally to Martha Washington) in his will. The other 150 were passed on, like other property, to Martha's descendants.

Washington's unparalleled place in the creation of America makes any anti-slavery language or action significant. But he didn't use his reputation to give a clarion call to end slavery.*

*some of the ideas in this review were taken from Eric Foner's essay in the London Review of Books, vol. 41, Number 24,19 Dec.2019.
 
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