GW's slaves? Mount Vernon confronts the issue now





Shortly before George Washington retired as president in 1797, two of his cherished house slaves—Martha's helper Oney Judge and their chef, Hercules—ran away. Tracked down at Washington's order, Oney tried to set strict conditions for her return, which the old general refused. As for Hercules, he just disappeared.

Despite Washington's indignation over the "disloyalty" of his "Negroes," slavery was one of the few subjects in his life that the first president was ambivalent about. Financially he knew that he and Martha could not run the presidential house in Philadelphia or his beloved estate Mt. Vernon in Virginia without their several hundred slaves. But in his later years, Washington came to hate slavery for dividing families and undermining the best ideals of the Revolution.

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which in 1858 heroically rescued Washington's by then weedy, decaying estate (the front portico was being held up by a sailboat's mast), was itself long ambivalent about how to treat the subject—especially during the civil-rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.

This month a replicated Mt. Vernon slave cabin—home to Washington's slaves Silla and Slamin Joe and their six children—will open, one of the final touches on a $100 million effort to augment Washington's mansion and gardens with exhibits providing context for Americans who, with each passing generation, sadly seem to know less and less about their first president.



comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/1/2007

I don't see how they could possibly squander $100 million on Mount Vernon. The last time I was there, about 15 years ago, it seemed in good shape. Archivism has become a highly venal business. Take the newly replicated slave cabin you mention. They had several of those there before, and what does one more tell us about George Washington? Not much, and certainly not $100 million worth, but like all such profligate spending on historical monuments today, it was politically correct, to put it mildly. No doubt there were lots of cocktail parties and travel vouchers for the insiders, too, of whom few actually care about (or know about) the artifacts... These people tend to run away from anyone who does. Somehow one expected better of the M.V. Ladies Association. Shed a tear for its founders.

Subscribe to our mailing list