George Washington was a fourth-generation plantation holder. Over his life span, he spent more than 2,000 dollars on captive labor and in the years leading up to the revolution, he doubled the number of enslaved people he owned.[1] This focuses on George Washington’s role as a slave owner and further displays the narrative of multiple enslaved people of George Washington.

George Washington was a constant presence around Mount Vernon. He would rise at dawn and work all day until sunset, expecting the same from the enslaved people who worked his plantation. He valued productivity and hard work—meaning that if he deemed any of his captives as having those qualities they would be kept healthy and fed. To determine who was worthy of benefits, Washington required overseers to write a report with a breakdown of all the tasks of enslaved males and females and how much time was spent on each task.[2] Washington saw most of his enslaved people as economic units with no concern for their personal happiness. He required constant supervision of enslaved people after witnessing that they worked faster when they were being watched. He also relied on a system of fear and escalating punishment as well as rewards and punishments to motivate people to work. He wrote multiple times in his diary of certain people needing “correction” which could mean anywhere from a demotion to corporal punishment.[3],[4]

Another important aspect of Washington as a slaveholder was he knew each enslaved person individually, which was unusual at that time. Commonly, owners would only know some names and faces, but not the whole of their enslaved population. In Washington’s diaries, he would record intricate detail of scars and facial features with every name. In one instance, one of the enslaved people named Jack ran away and Washington wrote in his diary from memory distinct features of Jack such as having a cut down his cheek and his shoe size.[5] Furthermore, Washington wrote extensive complaints, accusations, sarcastic remarks, and cynical observations about his enslaved laborers. In one instance, he wrote about Betty Davis and his insistence that she was lazy and faked ill frequently. Through his diary entries, it becomes apparent that Washington did not trust African Americans. He wrote about how he had gained the skill of detecting illness and that most of his captives would try to fake illness.[6] Overall, Washington kept constant vigilance over his enslaved laborers and valued them only as economic units.

[1] Hirschfeld, F. (1997). George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal. Missouri: University of Missouri Press: 11-12.

[2] Ibid., 36-40.

[3] Ibid., 38-40.

[4] Wiencek, H. (2003) An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: 94-95.

[5] Ibid., 98.

[6] Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery, 33-35.