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brought from Pennsylvania, was dead. He had already received six
hundred pounds of pork and more wages than were due him as advances for
the coming year. What should be done? asked the manager. "His Wife and
Children will be in a most Distressed Situation." As I examined the
papers that followed I said to myself: "I will see if I know what his
answer will be." I thought I did, and so it proved. Back from
Philadelphia came the answer:

"Altho' she can have no _right_ to the Meat, I would have none of it
taken from her. - You may also let her have middlings from the Mill, - and
until the house may become indispensably necessary for the succeeding
Miller, let her remain in it. - As she went from these parts she can have
no friends (by these I mean relations) where she is. If therefore she
wishes to return back to his, or her own relations, aid her in
doing so."

Not always were his problems so somber as this. Consider, for example,
the case of William M. Roberts, an employee who feared that he was about
to get the sack. "In your absence to Richmond," writes anxious William,
November 25, 1784, "My Wife & I have had a Most Unhappy falling out
Which I Shall not Trouble you with the Praticlers No farther than This.
I hapened To Git to Drinking one Night as She thought Two Much. & From
one Cros Question to a nother Matters weare Carred to the Langth it has
been. Which Mr. Lund Washington will Inform you For My part I am
Heartily Sorry in my Sole My Wife appares to be the Same & I am of a
pinion that We Shall Live More Happy than We have Don for the fewter."

In his dealings with servants Washington was sometimes troubled with
questions that worry us when we are trying to hire "Mary" or "Bridget."
Thus when Mrs. Washington's ill health necessitated his engaging in 1797
a housekeeper he made the following minute and anxious inquiries of
Bushrod Washington at Richmond concerning a certain Mrs. Forbes:

"What countrywoman is she?

"Whether Widow or Wife? if the latter

"Where her husband is?

"What family she has?

"What age she is?

"Of what temper?

"Whether active and spirited in the execution of her business?

"Whether sober and honest?

"Whether much knowledge in Cookery, and understands ordering and
setting out a Table?

"What her appearance is?

"With other matters which may occur to you to ask, - and necessary for me
to know.

"Mrs. Forbes will have a warm, decent and comfortable room to herself,
to lodge in, and will eat of the victuals of our Table, but not set at
it, at any time _with us_, be her appearance what it may, for if this
was _once admitted_, no line satisfactory to either party, perhaps,
could be drawn thereafter. - It might be well for me to know however
whether this was admitted at Govr. Brookes or not."

Considerate and just though he was, his deliberate judgment of servants
after a long and varied experience was that they are "necessary
plagues ... they baffle all calculation in the accomplishment of any
plan or repairs they are engaged in; and require more attention to and
looking after than can be well conceived."

Perhaps the soundest philosophy upon this trying and much debated
servant question is that of Miles Standish, who proceeded, however,
straightway to violate it.




CHAPTER XII


BLACK SLAVES

It is one of the strange inconsistencies of history that one of the
foremost champions of liberty of all time should himself have been the
absolute owner and master of men, women and children.

Visitors at Mount Vernon saw many faces there, but only a few were white
faces, the rest were those of black slaves. On each farm stood a village
of wooden huts, where turbaned mammies crooned and piccaninnies gamboled
in the sunshine. The cooks, the house servants, the coachmen, the stable
boys, almost all the manual workers were slaves. Even the Mansion House
grounds, if the master was away, were apt to be overrun with black
children, for though only the progeny of a few house servants were
supposed to enter the precincts, the others often disregarded the
prohibition, to the destruction of the Farmer's flowers and rare shrubs.

From his father Washington inherited ten or a dozen slaves and, as
occasion required or opportunity offered, he added to the number. By
1760 he paid taxes on forty-nine slaves, in 1770 on eighty-seven and in
1774 on one hundred thirty-five. Presently he found himself overstocked
and in 1778 expressed a wish to barter for land some "Negroes, of whom I
every day long more to get clear of[7]." Still later he declared that he
had more negroes than could be employed to advantage on his estate, but
was principled against selling any, while hiring them out was almost as
bad. "What then is to be done? Something or I shall be ruined."

[7] In 1754 he bought a "fellow" for £40.5, another named Jack for £52.5
and a woman called Clio for £50. Two years later he acquired two negro
men and a woman for £86, and from Governor Dinwiddie a woman and child
for £60. In 1758 he got Gregory for £60.9. Mount Vernon brought him
eighteen more. Mrs. Washington was the owner of a great many slaves,
which he called the "dower Negroes," and with part of the money she
brought him he acquired yet others. The year of his marriage he bought
Will for £50, another fellow for £60, Hannah and child for £80 and nine
others for £406. In 1762 he acquired two of Fielding Lewis for £115,
seven of Lee Massey for £300, also one-handed Charles for £30. Two years
later he bought two men and a woman of the estate of Francis Hobbs for
£128.10, the woman being evidently of inferior quality, for she cost
only £20. Another slave purchased that year from Sarah Alexander was
more valuable, costing £76. Judy and child, obtained of Garvin Corbin,
cost £63. Two mulattoes, Will and Frank, bought of Mary Lee in 1768,
cost £61.15 and £50, and Will became famous as a body servant; Adam and
Frank, bought of the same owner, cost £38. He bought five more slaves in
1772. Some writers say that this was his last purchase, but it is
certain that thereafter he at least took a few in payment of debts.

In 1786 he took a census of his slaves on the Mount Vernon estate. On
the Mansion House Farm he had sixty-seven, including Will or Billy Lee,
who was his "val de Chambre," two waiters, two cooks, three drivers and
stablers, three seamstresses, two house maids, two washers, four
spinners, besides smiths, a waggoner, carter, stock keeper, knitters and
carpenters. Two women were "almost past service," one of them being "old
and almost blind." A man, Schomberg, was "past labour." Lame Peter had
been taught to knit. Twenty-six were children, the youngest being Delia
and Sally. At the mill were Miller Ben and three coopers. On the whole
estate there were two hundred sixteen slaves, including many
dower negroes.

If our Farmer took any special pains to develop the mental and moral
nature of "My People," as he usually called his slaves, I have found no
record of it. Nor is there any evidence that their sexual relations were
other than promiscuous - if they so desired. Marriage had no legal basis
among slaves and children took the status of their mother. Instances
occurred in which couples remained together and had an affection for
their families, but the reverse was not uncommon. This state of affairs
goes far toward explaining moral lapses among the negroes of to-day.

I have found only one or two lists of the increase of the slaves, one
being that transmitted by James Anderson, manager, in February, 1797, to
the effect that "there are 3 Negro Children Born, & one dead - at River
Farm 1; born at Mansion house, Lina 1; at Union Farm 1 born & one
dead - It was killed by Worms. Medical assistance was called - But the
mothers are very inattentive to their Young."

Just why the managers, when they carefully mentioned the arrival of
calves, colts, lambs and mules, did not also transmit news of the advent
of the more valuable two-legged live stock, is not apparent. In many
reports, however, in accounting for the time of slaves, occur such
entries as: "By Cornelia in child bed 6 days." Occasionally the fact and
sex of the increase is mentioned, but not often.

Washington was much more likely to take notice of deaths than of
increases. "Dorcas, daughter of Phillis, died, which makes 4 Negroes
lost this winter," he wrote in 1760. He strove to safeguard the health
of his slaves and employed a physician by the year to attend to them,
the payment, during part of the time at least, being fifteen pounds per
annum. In 1760 this physician was a certain James Laurie, evidently not
a man of exemplary character, for Washington wrote, April 9, 1760,
"Doctr. Laurie came here. I may add Drunk." Another physician was a
Doctor Brown, another Doctor William Rumney, and in later years it was
Washington's old friend Doctor Craik. I have noticed two instances of
Washington's sending slaves considerable distances for medical
treatment. One boy, Christopher, bitten by a dog, went to a "specialist"
at Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for treatment to avert madness, and another,
Tom, had an operation performed on his eyes, probably for cataract.

When at home the Farmer personally helped to care for sick slaves. He
had a special building erected near the Mansion House for use as a
hospital. Once he went to Winchester in the Shenandoah region especially
to look after slaves ill with smallpox "and found everything in the
utmost confusion, disorder, and backwardness. Got Blankets and every
other requisite from Winchester, and settied things on the best footing
I could." As he had had smallpox when at Barbadoes, he had no fear of
contagion.

Among the entries in his diary are: "Visited my Plantations and found
two negroes sick ... ordered them to be blooded." "Found that lightening
had struck my quarters and near 10 Negroes in it, some very bad but by
letting blood recovered." "Found the new negro Cupid ill of a pleurisy
at Dogue Run Quarter and had him brot home in a cart for better care of
him.... Cupid extremely ill all this day and night. When I went to bed I
thought him within a few hours of breathing his last." However, Cupid
recovered.

In his contracts with overseers Washington stipulated proper care of the
slaves. Once he complained to his manager that the generality of the
overseers seem to "view the poor creatures in scarcely any other light
than they do a draught horse or ox; neglecting them as much when they
are unable to work; instead of comforting and nursing them when they lye
on a sick bed." Again he wrote:

"When I recommended care of and attention to my negros in sickness, it
was that the first stage of, and the whole progress through the
disorders with which they might be seized (if more than a slight
indisposition) should be closely watched, and timely applications and
remedies be administered; especially in the pleurisies, and all
inflammatory disorders accompanied with pain, when a few day's neglect,
or want of bleeding might render the ailment incurable. In such cases
sweeten'd teas, broths and (according to the nature of the complaint,
and the doctor's prescription) sometimes a little wine, may be necessary
to nourish and restore the patient; and these I am perfectly willing to
allow, when it is requisite."

Yet again he complains that the overseers "seem to consider a Negro much
in the same light as they do the brute beasts, on the farms, and often
times treat them as inhumanly."

His slaves by no means led lives of luxury and inglorious ease. A
friendly Polish poet who visited Mount Vernon in 1798 was shocked by the
poor quarters and rough food provided for them. He wrote:

"We entered some negroes' huts - for their habitations cannot be called
houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of
our peasants. The husband and his wife sleep on a miserable bed, the
children on the floor. A very poor chimney, a little kitchen furniture
amid this misery - a tea-kettle and cups.... A small orchard with
vegetables was situated close to the hut. Five or six hens, each with
ten or fifteen chickens, walked there. That is the only pleasure allowed
to the negroes: they are not permitted to keep either ducks or geese
or pigs."

Yet all the slaves he saw seemed gay and light-hearted and on Sundays
played at pitching the bar with an activity and zest that indicated that
they managed to keep from being overworked and found some enjoyment
in life.

To our Farmer's orderly and energetic soul his shiftless lazy blacks
were a constant trial. In his diary for February, 1760, he records that
four of his carpenters had only hewed about one hundred twenty feet of
timber in a day, so he tried the experiment of sitting down and watching
them. They at once fell to with such energy and worked so rapidly that
he concluded that each one ought to hew about one hundred twenty-five
feet per day and more when the days were longer.

A later set of carpenters seem to have been equally trifling, for of
them he said in 1795: "There is not to be found so idle a set of
Rascals. - In short, it appears to me, that to make even a chicken coop,
would employ all of them a week."

"It is observed by the Weekly Report," he wrote when President, "that
the Sowers make only Six Shirts a Week, and the last week Caroline
(without being sick) made only five; - Mrs. Washington says their usual
task was to make nine with Shoulder straps, & good sewing: - tell them
therefore from me, that what _has_ been done _shall_ be done by fair or
foul means; & they had better make a choice of the first, for their own
reputation, & for the sake of peace and quietness otherwise they will be
sent to the several Plantations, & be placed at common labor under the
Overseers thereat. Their work ought to be well examined, or it will be
most shamefully executed, whether little or much of it is done - and it
is said, the same attention ought to be given to Peter (& I suppose to
Sarah likewise) or the Stockings will be knit too small for those for
whom they are intended; such being the idleness, & deceit of
those people."

"What kind of sickness is Betty Davis's?" he demands on another
occasion. "If pretended ailments, without apparent causes, or visible
effects, will screen her from work, I shall get no work at all from
her; - for a more lazy, deceitful and impudent huzzy is not to be found
in the United States than she is."

"I observe what you say of Betty Davis &ct," he wrote a little later,
"but I never found so much difficulty as you seem to apprehend in
distinguishing between _real_ and _feigned_ sickness; - or when a person
is much _afflicted_ with pain. - Nobody can be very sick without having a
fever, nor will a fever or any other disorder continue long upon any one
without reducing them. - Pain also, if it be such as to yield entirely to
its force, week after week, will appear by its effects; but my people
(many of them) will lay up a month, at the end of which no visible
change in their countenance, nor the loss of an oz of flesh, is
discoverable; and their allowance of provision is going on as if nothing
ailed them."

He not only deemed his negroes lazy, but he had also a low opinion of
their honesty. Alexandria was full of low shopkeepers who would buy
stolen goods from either blacks or whites, and Washington declared that
not more than two or three of his slaves would refrain from filching
anything upon which they could lay their hands.

[Illustration: Spinning House - Last Building to the Right]

[Illustration: The Butler's House and Magnolia Set out by Washington the
Year of his Death]

He found that he dared not leave his wine unlocked, because the servants
would steal two glasses to every one consumed by visitors and then
allege that the visitors had drunk it all.

He even suspected the slaves of taking a toll from the clover and
timothy seed given them to sow and adopted the practice of having the
seed mixed with sand, as that rendered it unsalable and also had the
advantage of getting the seed sown more evenly.

Corn houses and meat houses had to be kept locked, apples picked early,
and sheep and pigs watched carefully or the slaves took full advantage
of the opportunity. Nor can we at this distant day blame them very much
or wax so indignant as did their master over their thieveries. They were
held to involuntary servitude and if now and then they got the better of
their owner and managed to enjoy a few stolen luxuries they merely did a
little toward evening the score. But it was poor training for
future freedom.

The black picture which Washington draws of slavery - from the master's
standpoint - is exceedingly interesting and significant. The character
he gives the slaves is commended to the attention of those persons who
continually bemoan the fact that freedom and education have ruined
the negroes.

One of the famous "Rules of Civility," which the boy Washington so
carefully copied, set forth that persons of high degree ought to treat
their inferiors "with affibility & Courtesie, without Arrogancy." There
is abundant evidence that when he came to manhood he was reasonably
considerate of his slaves, and yet he was a Master and ruled them in
martinet fashion. His advice to a manager was to keep the blacks at a
proper distance, "for they will grow upon familiarity in proportion as
you will sink in authority." The English farmer Parkinson records that
the first time he walked with General Washington among his negroes he
was amazed at the rough manner in which he spoke to them. This does not
mean that Washington cursed his negroes as the mate of a Mississippi
River boat does his roustabouts, but I suspect that those who have heard
such a mate can form an idea of the _tone_ employed by our Farmer that
so shocked Parkinson. Military officers still employ it toward
their men.

Corporal punishment was resorted to on occasion, but not to extremes.
The Master writes regarding a runaway: "Let Abram get his deserts when
taken, by way of example; but do not trust to Crow to give it to
him; - for I have reason to believe he is swayed more by passion than by
judgment in all his corrections." Tradition says that on one occasion he
found an overseer brutally beating one of the blacks and, indignant at
the sight, sprang from his horse and, whip in hand, strode up to the
overseer, who was so affrighted that he backed away crying loudly:
"Remember your character, General, remember your character!" The General
paused, reprimanded the overseer for cruelty and rode off.

Among his slaves were some that were too unruly to be managed by
ordinary means. In the early seventies he had such a one on a plantation
in York County, Will Shag by name, who was a persistent runaway, and who
whipped the overseer and was obstreperous generally. Another slave
committed so serious an offense that he was tried under state law and
>vas executed. When a bondman became particularly fractious he was
threatened with being sent to the West Indies, a place held in as much
dread as was "down the river" in later years. In 1766 Washington sent
such a fellow off and to the captain of the ship that carried the slave
away he wrote:

"With this letter comes a negro (Tom) which I beg the favor of you to
sell in any of the islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch,
and bring me in return for him

"One hhd of best molasses

"One ditto of best rum

"One barrel of lymes, if good and cheap

"One pot of tamarinds, containing about 10 lbs.

"Two small ditto of mixed sweetmeats, about 5 lbs. each. And the
residue, much or little, in good old spirits. That this fellow is both a
rogue and a runaway (tho he was by no means remarkable for the former,
and never practiced the latter till of late) I shall not pretend to
deny. But that he is exceedingly healthy, strong, and good at the hoe,
the whole neighborhood can testify, and particularly Mr. Johnson and his
son, who have both had him under them as foreman of the gang; which
gives me reason to hope that he may with your good management sell well,
if kept clean and trim'd up a little when offered for sale."

Another "misbehaving fellow" named Waggoner Jack was sent off in 1791
and was sold for "one pipe and Quarter Cask" of wine. Somewhat later
(1793) Matilda's Ben became addicted to evil courses and among other
things committed an assault and battery on Sambo, for which he received
corporal punishment duly approved by our Farmer, whose earnest desire it
was "that quarrels be stopped." Evidently the remedy was insufficient,
for not long after the absent owner wrote:

"I am very sorry that so likely a fellow as Matilda's Ben should addict
himself to such courses as he is pursuing. If he should be guilty of any
atrocious crime that would affect his life, he might be given up to the
civil authority for trial; but for such offenses as most of his color
are guilty of, you had better try further correction, accompanied by
admonition and advice. The two latter sometimes succeed where the first
has failed. He, his father and mother (who I dare say are his receivers)
may be told in explicit language, that if a stop is not put to his
rogueries and other villainies, by fair means and shortly, that I will
ship him off (as I did Waggoner Jack) for the West Indies, where he will
have no opportunity of playing such pranks as he is at present
engaged in."

A few of the negroes occupied positions of some trust and
responsibility. One named Davy was for many years manager of Muddy Hole
Farm, and Washington thought that he carried on his work as well as did
the white overseers and more quietly than some, though rather negligent
of live stock. Each year at killing time he was allowed two or three
hundredweight of pork as well as other privileges not accorded to the
ordinary slave. Still his master did not entirely trust him, for in 1795
we find that Washington suspected Davy of having stolen some lambs that
had been reported as "lost."

The most famous of the Mount Vernon negroes was William Lee, better
known as Billy, whose purchase from Mary Lee has already been noticed.
Billy was Washington's valet and huntsman and served with him throughout
the Revolution as a body servant, rode with him at reviews and was
painted by Savage in the well-known group of the President and his
family. Naturally Billy put on airs and presumed a good deal upon his
position. On one occasion at Monmouth the General and his staff were
reconnoitering the British, and Billy and fellow valets gathered on an
adjoining hill beneath a sycamore tree whence Billy, telescope in hand,
surveyed the enemy with much importance and interest. Washington, with a
smile, called the attention of his aides to the spectacle. About the
same time the British, noticing the group of horsemen and unable to
distinguish the color of the riders, paid their respects to Billy and
his followers in the shape of a solid shot, which went crashing through
the top of the tree, whereupon there was a rapid recession of coat tails
toward the rear.

Billy was a good and faithful servant and his master appreciated the
fact. In 1784 we find Washington writing to his Philadelphia agent: "The
mullatto fellow, William, who has been with me all the war, is attached
(married he says) to one of his own color, a free woman, who during the
war, was also of my family. She has been in an infirm condition for some
time, and I had conceived that the connexion between them had ceased;
but I am mistaken it seems; they are both applying to get her here, and
tho' I never wished to see her more, I can not refuse his request (if it
can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has served me faithfully
for many years. After premising this much, I have to beg the favor of
you to procure her a passage to Alexandria."

Next year while Billy and his master were engaged in surveying a piece
of ground he fell and broke his knee pan, with the result that he was
crippled ever after. When Washington started to New York in 1789 to be
inaugurated Billy insisted upon accompanying him, but gave out on the
way and was left at Philadelphia. A little later, by the President's
direction, Lear wrote to return Billy to Mount Vernon, "for he cannot be
of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon
him constantly ... but if he is still anxious to come on here the
President would gratify him, altho' he will be troublesome - He has been
an old and faithful Servant, this is enough for the President to gratify
him in every reasonable wish."

When Billy was at Mount Vernon he worked as a shoemaker. He kept careful


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Online LibraryPaul Leland HaworthGeorge Washington: Farmer → online text (page 10 of 17)