Tl;dr version: George Washington owned enslaved people. There is no such thing as a “good slave owner”. Yet, there are Good Things that POTUS1 did, and the truth is complex and uncomfortable (for people not descended from enslaved people) and one's response to such contradictions is not easily resolved.
I was in DC for study section last week. My partner came at the end, so we could have a short holiday. My first choices of tourist things to do are the National Air & Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery and the Hirschhorn Museum (especially its sculpture garden).We spent one day Seeing Art and then one day doing the History Things a lawyer who is passionate about the Constitution and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would chose to do. For this trip, it meant that we went to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, love, and yes, southern plantation.
I had been there as a child, and now it’s quite different now. It’s a Destination, an Educational Destination. Some professional museum person has applied the principles of modern museuming to Mt. Vernon. Very interestingly, it is not a Federal US, or government site. It is not part of the National Park System, and in many places they note that they take no money from any government. In its current incarnation, it was established in the mid-19th century by a group of do-gooder ladies who lunch. They purchased it, and renovated it, and got professional historians and archeologists involved in it. These ladies, and their cognitive descendants made some important choices about the place, including that the history of the enslaved people who lived there be not only preserved and presented, but honored.
So a couple of things about Mt. Vernon, for reference: it is the home that George Washington built and designed and turned into the place he loved best in the world. He expanded the land holding greatly, and it included four outlying, but contiguous farms. It was a functional place: raising crops that were sold (for a profit) as well as the meat and veg and fruit to sustain the constant flow of visitors to see him.
Here is a distribution of the people who lived on the property. And, interestingly, this is directly from their museum. Yellow are Washington family, Red are free or indentured people, usually skilled, who worked there. Green are enslaved people.
There are two aspects of my problem, which is stronger than discomfort. Firstly, and most importantly, George Washington owned enslaved people. Owned. Owned. Enslaved People. People who were enslaved, and had nearly no autonomy or choice in their lives.
Secondly, how this was handled in presentation at this place. When visiting, one can chose from multiple secondary tours (after the first tour of the mansion house), and one of these was “history of enslaved people at Mt Vernon“, which is what we decided to do.There were many good things in how information was presented, which in fact can be traced back to the vision of the (largely white) founders of this place: they insisted that the enslaved people’s lives be included, represented, described and highlighted. Here is their history of the development of the site and while there are good things, it is also painful. All of the people who spoke to us at the Mt. Vernon did not use the word “slave”, but always said “people who were enslaved”. These were people, human beings, who were enslaved. The “people” comes first.There is a shrine to the enslaved people (one of three photos I took), and ongoing archeology to discover what we can about their lives. After, I felt there was glossing over and telling some of the “good” stories (the enslaved woman who escaped, the ones Washington freed), and not enough about the horrors. My partner felt differently, and that led to lengthy discussion on our part about what we saw and how our perceptions of Washington changed.
So, what did we come to? There is no such thing as a “good slave owner”. Washington was an acute, perceptive and successful businessperson. But he owned human beings. He was responsible for the break-up of families, and probably other atrocities, but we didn’t get told about many of those. He did not, for example, let enslaved women who spun wool take small bits of wool to repair their clothes (one set in the spring and one in the fall) and the clothes of their families. When he discovered this happening, he started weighing the wool before and after spinning, so these people would not “steal from him”.
He owned human beings. This thought was, and continues to, bang around in my head. How could someone do this?
Ah. How could someone do this? Someone who believed and wrote and fought and risked his life for “freedom and liberty”. Did Washington not see these people as people? It is frequently said that Washington operated within the context of his time. This is undoubtedly true. He was a Virginian and he had, essentially, a plantation. What did people think in those days? We can only know through writing and records and those indicate complexity. Yet, it was not so complex for the Quakers and people like John Adams (who had his own litany of unacceptable behaviors and positions). There are people at that time who knew that "Slavery was wrong" and all human beings deserve dignity and freedom.
But this brings to the crux of my unease? Unhappiness? Something stronger, but I can’t find the word right now. There are many things wrong in America today, but there are also many things that are good. And some of that goodness, and the ability, nay right and freedom, to object to the wrongness, can be traced back to the founders of the country. There is no question that Washington did things that were important, and had ramifications that have resonated down through 250 years of American history. Without him (and Jefferson), would America still be part of Britain? Would we have gently eased into independence (like Canada) or in fact our lack of independence kept the British Empire intact, up until the point it fell to either Kaiser Wilhelm in WWI or the Nazis in WWII?
My partner says playing those games is futile. It has, I maintain, produced some excellent science fiction, but indeed, does not necessarily give us insight into how we should think about Washington. My partner says, we need to look at good and bad, we need to see the whole story.
And that is where I am right now. The Lord of the Rings is easy: good and bad are, if not defined, at least marked, by the quality of skin and teeth and hair: good is clear and bad is, well, yucky. Characters can have flaws (Boromir) or doubts (Aragorn) or amusing flaws (Gimli), but they are ultimately good and their skin is clear. Orthodontia is an entitlement of Good People. They come through in the end. We love those legends, the stories, and the glorious movies they make.
The trouble for adults, and all right thinking human beings, of course, is that it is not that simple. And human beings are an amalgam of good and bad, or sometimes good and evil. Are Jefferson and Washington’s statements and formulations about freedom less valid, if applied to all human beings, because they didn’t chose to include all human beings?
In my head, I try to balance this with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. Many chose to live with the knowledge of a child kept in the closet. But the ones who walk away, could they walk away if they didn’t know of the closet? If they didn’t have the contrast between the beautiful life and the enslaved, suffering child, would they have the option of making the choice? Is there any justification for the existence of the suffering child? What if the child only existed in the past? And you were not part of that past?
Here is the other pictures I took. It is from the museum about the history of enslaved people. These are the names of the people on glass, with Mt. Vernon in the background. They are not good pictures. But they were the ones that I took.