The True George Washington: Master and Employer: Servants

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff


Washington by no means restricted himself to slave servitors. Early in life he took into his service John Alton at thirteen pounds per annum, and this white man served as his body-servant in the Braddock campaign, and Washington found in the march that "A most serious inconvenience attended me in my sickness, and that was the losing the use of my servant, for poor John Alton was taken about the same time that I was, and with nearly the same disorder, and was confined as long; so that we did not see each other for several days." As elsewhere noticed, Washington succeeded to the services of Braddock's body-servant, Thomas Bishop, on the death of the general, paying the man ten pounds a year.

These two were his servants in his trip to Boston in 1756, and in preparation for that journey Washington ordered his English agent to send him "2 complete livery suits for servants; with a spare cloak and all other necessary trimmings for two suits more. I would have you choose the livery by our arms, only as the field of the arms is white, I think the clothes had better not be quite so, but nearly like the inclosed. The trimmings and facings of scarlet, and a scarlet waist coat. If livery lace is not quite disused, I should be glad to have the cloaks laced. I like that fashion best, and two silver laced hats for the above servants."

For some reason Bishop left his employment, but in 1760 Washington "wrote to my old servant Bishop to return to me again if he was not otherwise engaged," and, the man being "very desirous of returning," the old relation was reassumed. Alton in the mean time had been promoted to be overseer of one of the plantations. In 1785 their master noted in his diary, "Last night Jno Alton an Overseer of mine in the Neck—an old & faithful Servant who has lived with me 30 odd years died—and this evening the wife of Thos. Bishop, another old Servant who had lived with me an equal number of years also died." Both were remembered in his will by a clause giving "To Sarah Green daughter of the deceased Thomas Bishop, and to Ann Walker, daughter of John Alton, also deceased I give each one hundred dollars, in consideration of the attachment of their father[s] to me, each of whom having lived nearly forty years in my family."

Of Washington's general treatment of the serving class a few facts can be gleaned. He told one of his overseers, in reference to the sub-overseers, that "to treat them civilly is no more than what all men are entitled to, but my advice to you is, to keep them at a proper distance; for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you will sink in authority if you do not." To a housekeeper he promised "a warm, decent and comfortable room to herself, to lodge in, and will eat of the victuals of our Table, but not set at it, or at any time with us be her appearance what it may; for if this was once admitted no line satisfactory to either party, perhaps could be drawn thereafter."

In visiting he feed liberally, good examples of which are given in the cash account of the visit to Boston in 1756, when he "Gave to Servants on ye Road 10/." "By Cash Mr. Malbones servants £4.0.0." "The Chambermaid £1.2.6." When the wife of his old steward, Fraunces, came to need, he gave her "for Charity £1.17.6." The majority will sympathize rather than disapprove of his opinion when he wrote, "Workmen in most Countries I believe are necessary plagues;—-in this where entreaties as well as money must be used to obtain their work and keep them to their duty they baffle all calculation in the accomplishment of any plan or repairs they are engaged in;—and require more attention to and looking after than can be well conceived."

The overseers of his many plantations, and his "master" carpenters, millers, and gardeners, were quite as great trials as his slaves. First "young Stephens" gave him much trouble, which his diary reports in a number of sententious entries: "visited my Plantation. Severely reprimanded young Stephens for his Indolence, and his father for suffering it;" "forbid Stephens keeping any horses upon my expence;" "visited my quarters & ye Mill, according to custom found young Stephens absent;" "visited my Plantation and found to my great surprise Stephens constantly at work;" "rid out to my Plantn. and to my Carpenters. Found Richard Stephens hard at work with an ax—Very extraordinary this!"

Again he records, "Visited my Plantations—found Foster had been absent from his charge since the 28th ulto. Left orders for him to come immediately to me upon his return, and repremanded him severely." Of another, Simpson, "I never hear ... without a degree of warmth & vexation at his extreme stupidity," and elsewhere he expresses his disgust at "that confounded fellow Simpson." A third spent all the fall and half the winter in getting in his crop, and "if there was any way of making such a rascal as Garner pay for such conduct, no punishment would be too great for him. I suppose he never turned out of mornings until the sun had warmed the earth, and if he did not, the negros would not." His chief overseer was directed to "Let Mr. Crow know that I view with a very evil eye the frequent reports made by him of sheep dying;... frequent natural deaths is a very strong evidence to my mind of the want of care or something worse."

Curious distinctions were made oftentimes. Thus, in the contract with an overseer, one clause was inserted to the effect, "And whereas there are a number of whiskey stills very contiguous to the said Plantations, and many idle, drunken and dissolute People continually resorting to the same, priding themselves in debauching sober and well-inclined Persons, the said Edd Voilett doth promise as well for his own sake as his employers to avoid them as he ought." To the contrary, in hiring a gardener, it was agreed as part of the compensation that the man should have "four dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk for four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide to be drunk for two days; a dram in the morning, and a drink of grog at dinner at noon."

With more true kindness Washington wrote to one of his underlings, "I was very glad to receive your letter of the 31st ultimo, because I was afraid, from the accounts given me of your spitting blood,... that you would hardly have been able to have written at all. And it is my request that you will not, by attempting more than you are able to undergo, with safety and convenience, injure yourself, and thereby render me a disservice.... I had rather therefore hear that you had nursed than exposed yourself. And the things which I sent from this place (I mean the wine, tea, coffee and sugar) and such other matters as you may lay in by the doctor's direction for the use of the sick, I desire you will make use of as your own personal occasions may require."

Of one Butler he had employed to overlook his gardeners, but who proved hopelessly unfit, Washington said, "sure I am, there is no obligation upon me to retain him from charitable motives; when he ought rather to be punished as an imposter: for he well knew the services he had to perform, and which he promised to fulfil with zeal, activity, and intelligence." Yet when the man was discharged his employer gave him a "character:" "If his activity, spirit, and ability in the management of Negroes, were equal to his honesty, sobriety and industry, there would not be the least occasion for a change," and Butler was paid his full wages, no deduction being made for lost time, "as I can better afford to be without the money than he can."

Another thoroughly incompetent man was one employed to take charge of the negro carpenters, of whom his employer wrote, "I am apprehensive ... that Green never will overcome his propensity to drink; that it is this which occasions his frequent sickness, absences from work and poverty. And I am convinced, moreover, that it answers no purpose to admonish him." Yet, though "I am so well satisfied of Thomas Green's unfitness to look after Carpenters," for a time "the helpless situation in which you find his family, has prevailed on me to retain him," and when he finally had to be discharged for drinking, Washington said, "Nothing but compassion for his helpless family, has hitherto induced me to keep him a moment in my service (so bad is the example he sets); but if he has no regard for them himself, it is not to be expected that I am to be a continual sufferer on this account for his misconduct." His successor needed the house the family lived in, but Washington could not "bear the thought of adding to the distress I know they must be in, by turning them adrift;... It would be better therefore on all accounts if they were removed to some other place, even if I was to pay the rent, provided it was low, or make some allowance towards it."

To many others, besides family, friends, and employees, Washington was charitable. From an early date his ledger contains frequent items covering gifts to the needy. To mention a tenth of them would take too much space, but a few typical entries are worth quoting:

"By Cash gave a Soldiers wife 5/;" "To a crippled man 5/;" "Gave a man who had his House Burnt £1.;" "By a begging woman /5;" "By Cash gave for the Sufferers at Boston by fire £12;" "By a wounded soldier 10/;" "Alexandria Academy, support of a teacher of Orphan children £50;" "By Charity to an invalid wounded Soldier who came from Redston with a petition for Charity 18/;" "Gave a poor man by the President's order $2;" "Delivd to the President to send to two distress'd french women at Newcastle $25;" "Gave Pothe a poor old man by the President's order $2;" "Gave a poor sailor by the Presdt order $1;" "Gave a poor blind man by the Presdt order $1.50;" "By Madame de Seguer a french Lady in distress gave her $50;" "By Subscription paid to Mr. Jas. Blythe towards erecting and Supporting an Academy in the State of Kentucky $100;" "By Subscription towards an Academy in the South Western Territory $100;" "By Charity sent Genl Charles Pinckney in Columbus Bank Notes, for the sufferers by the fire in Charleston So. Carolina $300;" "By Charity gave to the sufferers by fire in Geo. Town $10;" "By an annual Donation to the Academy at Alexandria pd. Dr. Cook $166.67;" "By Charity to the poor of Alexandria deld. to the revd. Dr. Muir $100."

To an overseer he said, concerning a distant relative, "Mrs. Haney should endeavor to do what she can for herself—this is a duty incumbent on every one; but you must not let her suffer, as she has thrown herself upon me; your advances on this account will be allowed always, at settlement; and I agree readily to furnish her with provisions, and for the good character you give of her daughter make the latter a present in my name of a handsome but not costly gown, and other things which she may stand most in need of. You may charge me also with the worth of your tenement in which she is placed, and where perhaps it is better she should be than at a great distance from your attentions to her."

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