Topic: Slavery

“My method of behaviour to my domesticks”: Christianity and Slavery in Elizabeth Foote Washington’s Diary

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
May 11, 2017

Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.1

Her guidelines for the management of slaves are particularly interesting to a 20th-century reader. Elizabeth Foote Washington and her husband lived together at Mount Vernon for the first four years of their marriage, but in 1784, as they prepared to move into their newly built home,2 she decided to “lay down rules how I would conduct myself in my family—by treating my domesticks with all the friendly kindness that is possible for me to do . . .”

Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary, as photographed by author. Original manuscript located at the Library of Congress.

Her first rule for managing slaves was to “never find fault of a servant before their master.” She believed if her slaves thought of her as an ally “they may be brought to endeavor to please me—& feel some gratitude towards me for hiding their faults as they will think—I dare say I shall hide many of their faults—”

Next, she determined “If I should have children I will avoid if possible ever finding fault of a servant before them.” This was in order to keep her household “in great peace & quietness” because she was sure that that was “Mr. Washington’s desire,—& that alone would make me endeavour after—if I did not feel a principle of religion in me that causes me to desire it.”

In 1789, nearly five years after writing her guidelines on how to work with slaves, Elizabeth Foote Washington updated her journal with the results of these measures. She determined that “no one could have put the foregoing resolutions more in practice then I have, or taken more pains then I have to perswaid my servants to do their business through a principal of religion—I have frequently told them that it was my most earnest desire that they should do their duty as a servant for their Saviours sake—not for mine.”

This argument did not prove to be the motivating influence that Mrs. Washington hoped it would. While she was proud to report that “our visitors think we have the best of servants, & that I have no trouble,” she confided in her diary, “If our visitors knew how little my servants did they would not think them good—nay there is few would put up with their servants doing so little as mine.” She found it frustrating “to consider how mine has ever been treated they are not such servants as a person would expect—for surely they ought to be the best of servants,—which is not the case.”

Elizabeth Foote Washington imagined that her slaves would be grateful to her for abstaining from “scolding & whipping” and would repay her with obedience. Forced to labor without pay, living under the constant threat of separation from their families, and aware that they were not seen as fully human in the eyes of the law or of white society, the slaves were not grateful for being enslaved.

Three years later, Mrs. Washington wrote in her diary that her slaves “is got so Baptistical in their notions” that they “think they commit a crime to join with me in prayer.” This bothered her, as she considered being a religious guide to her slaves an essential part of her role as housekeeper. Ultimately, she was unable to convince her slaves to return to her church, as they would “go out of the way at the time they are going to be calld to Prayer—it is impossible for them to have it,—& then if they are made to come—they appear quite angry.”

By attempting to coerce her slaves into practicing her faith, Mrs. Washington intruded into one of the few areas of their lives where they had some control: their spirituality.

In January 1796, Elizabeth Foote Washington wrote to “anyone come a cross this Book” that “I strongly suspect my female servants will take every manuscript Book they can lay their hands on, & many of my other religious Books—tho’ it is my intention, if I am in my senses when on my death bed & I should have a friend with me—to warn them of my servants.” She prayed that the Lord “influence the hearts of my servants & cause them to treat me with respect.”

It is rare to find a historic document that gives such an honest and personal description of the relationship between a plantation mistress and the enslaved people under her authority. Mrs. Washington’s paternalistic view of her slaves blinded her to their motivations for rebelling. While severely constrained by their status as possessions, her slaves still managed to maintain control over some aspects of their lives, such as their pace of work and choice of religion. Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary provides insight into the mindset of a Christian woman slaveowner, and strategies enslaved people used to survive.

Notes

1. Diary of Elizabeth Foote Washington, 1779-1796, Washington Family Collection, Library of Congress.

2. “From George Washington to William Gordon, 20 December 1784,” n.3, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series 2: 196.

Did George Washington’s false teeth come from his slaves?: A look at the evidence, the responses to that evidence, and the limitations of history

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
October 19, 2016

Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Link to original.

Photo courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Link to original.

George Washington’s false teeth were not wooden, as you may have heard. They were actually made from a variety of materials, including human teeth. According to the accounting record in Mount Vernon’s Ledger Book B, the teeth may have been pulled from Washington’s slaves.

I get a broad range of reactions to this fact when it comes up in conversation. At one end of the spectrum are those who accept my suggestion: stunned, they imagine George Washington riding around his plantation in search of an unlucky person from the fields, whose teeth he wrenches out. On the other side are those who immediately deny that George Washington would ever have done anything so horrible, and who quickly provide an alternative.

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An Enslaved Chef in a “Free” City

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
April 7, 2016

My last blog post about slavery at Mount Vernon received a boost in readership when it came out around the same time a children’s book about slavery at Mount Vernon was pulled by its publisher. The book was about Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef.

With controversy surrounding the book, I thought it would be useful to provide some documentation from the papers of George Washington about Hercules, his life with Washington, and his escape.

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“To Set the Captives Free”: Christianity and Slavery in George Washington’s Youth

Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
March 11, 2016

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”1

"Sanctuary at Sea's Edge." St. Joseph's Parish Church, Barbados. Photo by Kaspar Coward, used with permission.

“Sanctuary at Sea’s Edge.” St. Joseph’s Parish Church, Barbados. Photo by Kaspar Coward, used with permission. Link to source.

Perhaps the two most controversial aspects of modern Washington scholarship are the question of his Christian faith and the undeniable fact of his ownership of human beings. The first has been the object of heated argument for a century (when it is not overlooked entirely or de-emphasized by modern studies), though historians of the 19th century rarely questioned its centrality in George Washington’s life.2 Slavery, on the other hand, is the skeleton in the closet: a matter of fact that is difficult to accept and understand.3 I would argue that these dilemmas are a double-edged sword, forged by the paradoxical relationship between the two institutions of religion and slavery (and specifically between Christian doctrine and the practice of 18th-century Anglicanism). Moreover, their foundation in the spiritual realm—the salvation and liberty of souls, not just of bodies—further marginalizes their dynamic relationship as a topic of academic scrutiny.

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“I am determined to lower her Spirit or Skin her Back”

01-15 KG 'I am determined....' - Seamstress [Public Domain - NYPL]

A photograph of a seamstress, circa 1910. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
January 15, 2016

While transcribing one of Martha Washington’s letters, I was struck by a reference Martha made to an enslaved seamstress named Charlotte.

“she is so indolent that she will doe nothing but what she is told […] if you suffer them to goe on so idele they will in a little time doe nothing but work for them selves[.]”1

Those familiar with the history of slavery will probably know that not working, or working slowly, was a way enslaved people resisted their master’s control. Slaveholders tended to describe that behavior as laziness, and that description has left a stubborn, racist legacy.

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