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United States


Slavery & President's Day

alec vanderboom

Gilbert Stewart (1755-1828), "Athenaeum Portrait",
Oil on canvas, 1796
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon, Virginia
(President George Washington's Estate)
"The cabin is located at the George Washington Pioneer Farmer site, which includes a barn, stables, and corn houses modeled after the ones that existed at Washington’s Dogue Run Farm. Given the connection with Dogue Run Farm, we have elected to interpret the cabin as if it were occupied by one of the families that lived at that farm. Priscilla, also known as “Silla,” lived and worked at Dogue Run, while her husband, “Slamin” Joe, worked as a ditcher at the Mansion House Farm; they had at least six children in 1799, aged from one to 14 years. Joe would have walked the roughly three miles to spend time with his family during his off hours, from Saturday night to Monday morning.""Slave Cabin,"(Mount Vernon Visitor Website)

As a little girl, I visited my maternal grandparents in Alexandria, Virginia (a suburb of Washington D.C.) every President’s Day. Each trip included an annual pilgrimage to Mount Vernon. (On February 18, Mount Vernon waves it’s visitor fee in honor of our Nation’s First President. )

I have many memories of treading up the sandy paths holding my Grandpa George’s hand, listening to my Father rattle on about interesting stories from Colonial America. I scribbled with slate pencils in the little schoolhouse. I gazed at the Bastille prison key, a gift from Marquis de Lafayette. I learned that a young George didn’t really chop down a cherry tree (that “fact” is mere political campaign propaganda). My American History degree started as a small spark at age six, rocking on the great porch over looking the soothing Potomac River, imaging “what would I have felt if I lived back then?”

When we moved back to Washington D.C. in 2006, one of my first bold acts was to reestablish the tradition of visiting Mount Vernon on President’s Day. I had a husband now, a 2 1/2 year old and a 1 year old. The house tour proved a dangerous temptation for a squirmy boy. The barnyard was the central focus of our visit now. We petted sheep and admired handsome carriages. Jon and I marveled over innovative farming methods while the kids were happy to race around childproof fields.

This year, we won’t be making our regular trip. I had every intention of going this year. There is a new museum open at Mount Vernon. The smallest town parade starts at 1:30 PM. A fife and drum corps will play and there will be free cherry cake for all guests. The party is still the same, only I’ve changed this year.

During an intense reading of "Slaves in the Family,", I ran across a passage that chilled my former reverence to our founding father. Unfortunately, I didn’t save the author's glorious prose. His basic thought was beneath all of the celebrated Southern Belle Culture lies a “work camp” of slavery that rivaled the brutality and harshness of Auschwitz.

Once I read that sentence, I became unnerved by the connection. How can I take my kids to cheerfully celebrate a Southern plantation that relied on slave labor? Every glorious carriage, every whitewashed hen house, every pretty garden path, bears the handprint of a fellow human being who was made to suffer.

Am I being neurotic?

I’m not a sissy in regards to uncomfortable historical facts. I shelter my kids from violent cartoons on Saturday morning. Yet, I take them the Children’s Exhibit in the Holocaust museum. We are Catholics with a Jewish family name. It is doubly incumbent upon us to not shrink from evil.

My discomfort with Mount Vernon is that its exhibits don't clearly confront the “evil” of racism in the same way that the Holocaust museum clearly confronts the evil of the Nazi’s religious bigotry.

It’s horrid to reflect that one of our beloved National heroes happened to become rich by enslaving other people. How do you square that fact? The danger is that you slide into “moral relativism.” President Washington becomes just another “product of his time.” He was helpless to change the course of an entire slave-owning society.

Here is what I found on the official Mount Vernon website: “George Washington was born into a world in which slavery was accepted. He became a slave owner when his father died in 1743. At the age of eleven, he inherited ten slaves and 500 acres of land. When he began farming Mount Vernon eleven years later, at the age of 22, he had a work force of about 36 slaves. With his marriage to Martha Custis in 1759, 20 of her slaves came to Mount Vernon. After their marriage, Washington purchased even more slaves. The slave population also increased because the slaves were marrying and raising their own families. By 1799, when George Washington died, there were 316 slaves living on the estate.”"Slavery & Washington,"(Mount Vernon Visitor Website).

There are a few difficulties with this paragraph. First, it is clear that George Washington was not a passive recipient of a slave-owning family. A young George inherits ten slaves. At his death, he owns 316 human beings. Second, Washington's active participating in buying more and more human souls remains unquestioned by historians. Instead, this act is just brushed over and excused. Poor George was just a man born into flawed times.

God’s truth, and hence human morality, is never tied to mere social conventions. God’s truth is timeless. Thousands of years before George Washington's birth, Moses had led his people out of slavery. Ancient Rome, with its slave system, had already fallen. In the 1790s, England outlawed the slave trade. (Check out the recent movie, “Amazing Grace” for more information on this topic). Each one of us is born into a flawed society stepped in human sin. Yet we are all called upon to more fully embrace’s the true values of Christ and show them to the world.

The second paragraph of the website article appears to applaud President Washington’s progress in this regard. “Although George Washington was born into a world where slavery was accepted, his attitude toward slavery changed as he grew older. During the Revolution, as he and fellow patriots strove for liberty, Washington became increasingly conscious of the contradiction between this struggle and the system of slavery. By the time of his presidency, he seems to have believed that slavery was wrong and against the principles of the new nation. As President, Washington did not lead a public fight against slavery, however, because he believed it would tear the new nation apart. Abolition had many opponents, especially in the South. Washington seems to have feared that if he took such a public stand, the southern states would withdraw from the Union (something they would do seventy years later, leading to the Civil War). He had worked too hard to build the country to risk tearing it apart.” (Mount Vernon, George Washington & Slavery).

Thus, the official position is that President Washington’s hands were tied. He couldn’t do anything politically on the issue of abolition, so he did what he could privately. Yet, what did President Washington really do? How did his personal treatment of his own slaves reflect his new belief that "All Men are Created Equal Under God?"

Here is a diary excerpt from a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon in 1798, one year before Washington’s death and many years after his supposed conversion of the heart:

“We entered one of the huts of the Blacks, for one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot. A boy of 15 was lying on the ground, sick, and in terrible convulsions. The G[enera]l had sent to Alexandria to fetch a doctor. A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them; for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities. They allot them each …one gallon maize per week; this makes one quart a day, and half as much for the children, with 20 herrings each per month. At harvest time those who work in the fields have salt meat; in addition, a jacket and a pair of homespun breeches per year.” (Slave Cabin, Mount Vernon Website.)

The living conditions of George Washington's field slaves were beyond terrible. It shocks the Polish visitor as being "more miserable" then the poorest Polish peasant. One of the richest farms in America can not "afford" to give more than the barest essentials of food, clothing, and shelter to its 316 workers. Washington might soothe his conscience with the expensive gifts of a teapot and doctor from Alexandria. These few gifts do little to lift his workers out of their miserable poverty. In further contrast to the European peasants, the Mount Vernon slaves do not even "own" themselves or their children.

The facts reveal a fundamental contraction on President Washington’s life. He led an army to fight for liberty from the British Crown. Yet he was unable to give liberty to slaves on his own farm. What the men of the American Revolution wanted for themselves, they were unwilling to grant to others, particularly men of a different skin color. As we Catholics would say, “the measure they sought to obtain from God did not match the measure they granted to others.”

I cannot sit in judgment of President Washington, nor should you. Life is hard. We live in a fallen world where the struggle to love Christ and remain faithful to the Gospel appears to be impossible.

We Americans have a truly “unfinished portrait of George Washington.” We want the clean, easy answers that lead us to “hero worship” and not towards the messy, historical answers of the man behind the myth. It’s a shame, because an accurate reflection on the beliefs and actions of President Washington will teach us much about ourselves.

I’m sure I’ll get this squared away someday. Maybe next year, we'll head back to Mount Vernon. My family can pray first at the slave cemetery and then eat cherry cake on the grand lawn. Just not this year. Not during Lent. I’m wandering around with ashes on my forehead, still trying to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of American History that were left deliberately unpainted in my youth.

Prayer: Father, protect America. Continue to remake us into the home of the free and the brave.