In my opinion, one of the most interesting stories that began in an earlier volume of the Papers of George Washington is the career of Samuel Birch, a British officer who first appears in volume 20 of the Revolutionary War Series. Birch’s effort to capture Washington was certainly one of the more colorful episodes of the Revolutionary War, but I am also interested in Birch because his career vividly illustrates the many ironies of that complicated conflict.
During the tense years leading up to the Civil War, Robert E. Lee found himself under the close scrutiny of a group of abolitionists (who his wife described as “fanatical,” “unprincipled & cruel”). Lee’s marriage to Mary Custis, daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, came with public visibility and certain expectations. People who Lee had never met demanded that he live up to the precedent set by George Washington and free his slaves.
None of Martha Washington’s writings implies that she held any moral opposition to the institution of slavery. As late as 1795 she wrote to her niece, who was upset that a young enslaved child had died, “Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints—that one is heardly sure of keeping them—I hope you will not find in him much Loss—the Blacks are so bad in thair nature that they have not the least Gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them.”
In April 1781, about six months before the American victory at Yorktown, an opportunity for a different kind of liberty arose for Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old at Mount Vernon. A fleet of British “plundering vessels” had appeared in the Potomac, burning homes and destroying property as they advanced. The Savage, a sloop of war commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, approached within a quarter mile of the home of the Continental Army’s commander in chief. Deborah saw an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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).
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[.]”