Americans are familiar with Mount Vernon as the fabled Virginia plantation of George Washington. Yet few people realize that a series of slave-owning Washington relatives owned Mount Vernon following the deaths of George and Martha Washington.
The estate was eventually purchased, just prior to the Civil War, by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, a preservation group. Mount Vernon was turned into a shrine and tourist attraction, which it remains to this day.
And what has always been overlooked, if not deliberately ignored, is the story of a complex African-American community that called Mount Vernon home.
Historian Scott Casper engaged in diligent research to discover the names, family connections, and life stories of some of the African Americans whose lives were intertwined with Mount Vernon throughout the 1800s. His book, Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine, is also inhabited by such characters as the first president's nephew Bushrod Washington, a justice on the United States Supreme Court who inherited Mount Vernon and bought and sold slaves who worked its fields.
Author Scott Casper spoke by telephone with Robert McNamara on February 15, 2008, two days after appearing at Mount Vernon to read from his book.
McNamara: We have always heard the story that George Washington freed his slaves in his will. But the story is more complicated, and Washington’s will did not end slavery at Mount Vernon.
Casper: No, it didn’t. The story is more complicated in several ways.
Other historians have studied George Washington’s views through the 1780s and 1790s, and found that he was more and more concerned about slavery over the last decades of his life. And his concern was as much economic as it was moral. That is, he was concerned that slaves had no incentive to work. They were not the best workers because they had no incentive to work hard.
And then, when George Washington died, the complex part is that his will did not free all the slaves at Mount Vernon. It freed the slaves that he owned, which constituted a little more than a third of the slave force there. But more of the people there were the property of Martha Washington, as they had belonged to her first husband. And they would be inherited by her grandchildren.
In other words, George Washington had no power to free those people. In any event, all of those slaves, whether they were George Washington’s or Martha Washington’s, all of them were not going to remain slaves at Mount Vernon after George and Martha Washington died.
George’s slaves would be free and Martha’s would be enslaved to her grandchildren, who didn’t inherit Mount Vernon. Which meant that the new Washington owners, beginning with George Washington’s nephew Bushrod, would have to bring their own slaves to Mount Vernon to work the land and work in the household. And that’s exactly what they did.
McNamara: Bushrod Washington is an interesting character who turns up in the book. He is Washington’s nephew, and he’s also a justice on the US Supreme Court. And at Mount Vernon he buys and sells other humans. At one point he sells more than 50 slaves, entire families including children and grandchildren, to a plantation owner from Louisiana.
So there are times when you put the book down and you shake your head. As a historian, you would deal with this material all the time. But are there times when you just have to take a step back and think about it?
Casper: Oh, absolutely. If you think about the time when Bushrod Washington sold something like two-thirds of his slave labor force, you have to wonder, what was he thinking? And what were his motivations?
At the same time, you have to think about people in their own context. In Bushrod Washington’s day, slave owners firmly believed that they had the power to buy and sell human beings. And that was largely taken for granted.
The abolitionist movement really doesn’t gather steam until the 1830s and 1840s. So in Bushrod Washington’s day, up into the 1820s, his actions were both criticized and defended. And so you try to understand people in their own context.
You don’t want to dispense with your own sense of outrage. But you also don’t want to pass moral judgment on people who lived in a different moral universe than we do.
McNamara: Most of the book deals with the African-American community centered around Mount Vernon in the 1800s. How did you come to discover these people? How did this story emerge in your sight?
Casper: It began as a very different kind of project. I was doing research on the way that Americans, mostly white Americans, imagined George Washington’s family over the last, approximately, three centuries. That is, from his own lifetime to the present.
How has George Washington’s family been depicted in visual arts, in written works, in all kinds of other media? One of the ways in which people came to think they knew George Washington’s family was by visiting Mount Vernon. So I was reading a lot of visitor’s accounts of “my trip to Mount Vernon.”
Some of those were in newspapers, some were in magazines, some were in letters and diaries. But over and over again, these visitors in the 19th century encountered black people at Mount Vernon. And at first, what I thought I was doing was looking at how white visitors imagined black people at Mount Vernon. Which would be kind of a story about race and memory.
But then, other kinds of research, including research in the census, and research in Mount Vernon's archives, started enabling me to place names and biographical information to the pictures of African Americans that were in people’s letters and diaries. I could begin to read a letter or a diary, and, based on other information, figure out which African Americans the visitor was talking to.
And that was when I really started asking, okay, how will I tell the story from the African Americans’ perspective? Instead of just the visitors' perspective.