Mary Thompson is the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Here is a taste of Robin Lindley’s interview with Thompson at History News Network:
Robin Lindley: How did Martha Washington see and treat slaves? It seems she was more dismissive and derogatory than her husband concerning black people.
Mary V. Thompson: Like her husband, Martha Washington tended to doubt the trustworthiness of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon. Upon learning of the death of an enslaved child with whom her niece was close, she wrote that the younger woman should “not find in him much loss,” because “the Blacks are so bad in th[e]ir nature that they have not the least grat[i]tude for the kindness that may be sh[o]wed them.”
The Washingtons never seemed to realize that they only knew Africans and African-Americans as people who were enslaved, which meant that they were not interacting as equals and any ideas they may have had about innate qualities of this different culture were tainted by the institution of slavery.
Robin Lindley: I realize that direct evidence from slaves is limited, but what did you learn about how slaves viewed George Washington?
Mary V. Thompson: Because Washington was so admired by his contemporaries, many of whom came to Mount Vernon to see his home—and especially his tomb—those visitors often talked with the slaves and formerly enslaved people on the plantation in order to learn snippets about what the private George Washington was like.
Extended members of the Washington family, former neighbors, official guests, and journalists, often wrote about their experiences at Mount Vernon and what they learned about Washington from those enslaved by him. Some people were still angry about how they were treated, while others were grateful for having been freed by him.
Robin Lindley: In his early years as a plantation owner, Washington—like most slave owners—saw his slaves as his property and he bought and sold slaves with seeming indifference to the cruelty and unfairness of this institution. He broke up slave marriages and families, and he considered black people indolent and intellectually inferior. However, as you detail, his views evolved. How do you see the arc of Washington’s life in terms of how he viewed his slaves and slavery?
Mary V. Thompson: That change primarily happened during the American Revolution. Washington took command of the American Army in mid-1775. Within three years, he was confiding to a cousin, who was managing Mount Vernon for him, that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner. In those years, Washington was spending long periods of time in parts of the country where agriculture was successfully practiced without slave labor and he saw black soldiers fighting alongside white ones. He also could see the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty and freedom, while keeping others enslaved. There were even younger officers on his staff who supported abolition.
While he came to believe that slavery was something he wanted nothing more to do with, it was one thing to think that slavery was wrong, and something else again to figure out what to do to remedy the situation. For example, it was not until 1782 that Virginia made it possible for individual slave owners to manumit their slaves without going through the state legislature. After an 8-year absence from home, during which he took no salary, Washington also faced legal and financial issues that would also hamper his ability to free the Mount Vernon slaves.
Read the entire interview here.