The True George Washington: Master and Employer: Treatment of Slaves

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

Treatment of Slaves

Another source of loss was sickness, which, in spite of all Washington could do, made constant inroads on the numbers. A doctor to care for them was engaged by the year, and in the contracts with his overseers clauses were always inserted that each was "to take all necessary and proper care of the Negroes committed to his management using them with proper humanity and descretion," or that "he will take all necessary and proper care of the negroes committed to his management, treating them with humanity and tenderness when sick, and preventing them when well, from running about and visiting without his consent; as also forbid strange negroes frequenting their quarters without lawful excuses for so doing."

Furthermore, in writing to his manager, while absent from Mount Vernon, Washington reiterated that "although it is last mentioned it is foremost in my thoughts, to desire you will be particularly attentive to my negros in their sickness; and to order every overseer positively to be so likewise; for I am sorry to observe that the generality of them view these poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draught horse or ox; neglecting them as much when they are unable to work; instead of comforting and nursing them when they lye on a sick bed." And in another letter he added, "When I recommended care of, and attention to my negros in sickness, it was that the first stage of, and the whole progress through the disorders with which they might be seized (if more than a slight indisposition) should be closely watched, and timely applications and remedies be administered; especially in the pleurisies, and all inflammatory disorders accompanied with pain, when a few days' neglect, or want of bleeding might render the ailment incurable. In such cases sweeten'd teas, broths and (according to the nature of the complaint, and the doctor's prescription) sometimes a little wine, may be necessary to nourish and restore the patient; and these I am perfectly willing to allow, when it is requisite. My fear is, as I expressed to you in a former letter, that the under overseers are so unfeeling, in short viewing the negros in no other light than as a better kind of cattle, the moment they cease to work, they cease their care of them."

At Mount Vernon his care for the slaves was more personal. At a time when the small-pox was rife in Virginia he instructed his overseer "what to do if the Small pox should come amongst them," and when he "received letters from Winchester, informing me that the Small pox had got among my quarters in Frederick; [I] determin'd ... to leave town as soon as possible, and proceed up to them.... After taking the Doctors directions in regard to my people ... I set out for my quarters about 12 oclock, time enough to go over them and found every thing in the utmost confusion, disorder and backwardness.... Got Blankets and every other requisite from Winchester, and settl'd things on the best footing I cou'd, ... Val Crawford agreeing if any of those at the upper quarter got it, to have them remov'd into my room and the Nurse sent for."

Other sickness was equally attended to, as the following entries in his diary show: "visited my Plantations and found two negroes sick ... ordered them to be blooded;" "found that lightening had struck my quarters and near 10 Negroes in it, some very bad but with letting blood they recover'd;" "ordered Lucy down to the House to be Physikd," and "found the new negro Cupid, ill of a pleurisy at Dogue Run Quarter and had him brot home in a cart for better care of him.... Cupid extremely Ill all this day and at night when I went to bed I thought him within a few hours of breathing his last."

This matter of sickness, however, had another phase, which caused Washington much irritation at times when he could not personally look into the cases, but heard of them through the reports of his overseers. Thus, he complained on one occasion, "I find by reports that Sam is, in a manner, always returned sick; Doll at the Ferry, and several of the spinners very frequently so, for a week at a stretch; and ditcher Charles often laid up with lameness. I never wish my people to work when they are really sick, or unfit for it; on the contrary, that all necessary care should be taken of them when they are so; but if you do not examine into their complaints, they will lay by when no more ails them, than all those who stick to their business, and are not complaining from the fatigue and drowsiness which they feel as the effect of night walking and other practices which unfit them for the duties of the day." And again he asked, "Is there anything particular in the cases of Ruth, Hannah and Pegg, that they have been returned sick for several weeks together? Ruth I know is extremely deceitful; she has been aiming for some time past to get into the house, exempt from work; but if they are not made to do what their age and strength will enable them, it will be a bad example for others—none of whom would work if by pretexts they can avoid it"

Other causes than running away and death depleted the stock. One negro was taken by the State for some crime and executed, an allowance of sixty-nine pounds being made to his master. In 1766 an unruly negro was shipped to the West Indies (as was then the custom), Washington writing the captain of the vessel,—

"With this letter comes a negro (Tom) which I beg the favor of you to sell in any of the islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch, and bring me in return for him

"One hhd of best molasses
"One ditto of best rum
"One barrel of lymes, if good and cheap
"One pot of tamarinds, containing about 10 lbs.
"Two small ditto of mixed sweetmeats, about 5 lbs. each.

Another "misbehaving fellow" was shipped off in 1791, and was sold for "one pipe and Quarter Cask of wine from the West Indies." Sometimes only the threat of such riddance was used, as when an overseer complained of one slave, and his master replied, "I am very sorry that so likely a fellow as Matilda's Ben should addict himself to such courses as he is pursuing. If he should be guilty of any atrocious crime, that would effect his life, he might be given up to the civil authority for trial; but for such offences as most of his color are guilty of, you had better try further correction, accompanied with admonition and advice. The two latter sometimes succeed where the first has failed. He, his father and mother (who I dare say are his receivers) may be told in explicit language, that if a stop is not put to his rogueries and other villainies, by fair means and shortly, that I will ship him off (as I did Wagoner Jack) for the West Indies, where he will have no opportunity of playing such pranks as he is at present engaged in."

It is interesting to note, in connection with this conclusion, that "admonition and advice" were able to do what "correction" sometimes failed to achieve, that there is not a single order to whip, and that the above case, and that which follows, are the only known cases where punishment was approved. "The correction you gave Ben, for his assault on Sambo, was just and proper. It is my earnest desire that quarrels may be stopped or punishment of both parties follow, unless it shall appear clearly, that one only is to blame, and the other forced into [a quarrel] from self-defence." In one other instance Washington wrote, "If Isaac had his deserts he would receive a severe punishment for the house, tools and seasoned stuff, which has been burned by his carelessness." But instead of ordering the "deserts" he continued, "I wish you to inform him, that I sustain injury enough by their idleness; they need not add to it by their carelessness."

This is the more remarkable, because his slaves gave him constant annoyance by their wastefulness and sloth and dishonesty. Thus, "Paris has grown to be so lazy and self-willed" that his master does not know what to with him; "Doll at the Ferry must be taught to knit, and made to do a sufficient day's work of it—otherwise (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps"; "it is observed by the weekly reports, that the sewers make only six shirts a week, and the last week Carolina (without being sick) made only five. Mrs. Washington says their usual task was to make nine with shoulder straps and good sewing. Tell them therefore from me, that what has been done, shall be done"; "none I think call louder for [attention] than the smiths, who, from a variety of instances which fell within my own observation whilst I was at home, I take to be two very idle fellows. A daily account (which ought to be regularly) taken of their work, would alone go a great way towards checking their idleness." And the overseer was told to watch closely "the people who are at work with the gardener, some of whom I know to be as lazy and deceitful as any in the world (Sam particularly)."

Furthermore, the overseers were warned to "endeavor to make the Servants and Negroes take care of their cloathes;" to give them "a weekly allowance of Meat ... because the annual one is not taken care of but either profusely used or stolen"; and to note "the delivery to and the application of nails by the carpenters,... [for] I cannot conceive how it is possible that 6000 twelve penny nails could be used in the corn house at River Plantation; but of one thing I have no great doubt, and that is, if they can be applied to other uses, or converted into cash, rum or other things there will be no scruple in doing it."

When robbed of some potatoes, Washington complained that "the deception ... is of a piece with other practices of a similar kind by which I have suffered hitherto; and may serve to evince to you, in strong colors, first how little confidence can be placed in any one round you; and secondly the necessity of an accurate inspection into these things yourself,—for to be plain, Alexandria is such a recepticle for every thing that can be filched from the right owners, by either blacks or whites; and I have such an opinion of my negros (two or three only excepted), and not much better of some of the whites, that I am perfectly sure not a single thing that can be disposed of at any price, at that place, that will not, and is not stolen, where it is possible; and carried thither to some of the underlying keepers, who support themselves by this kind of traffick." He dared not leave wine unlocked, even for the use of his guests, "because the knowledge I have of my servants is such, as to believe, that if opportunities are given them, they will take off two glasses of wine for every one that is drank by such visitors, and tell you they were used by them." And when he had some work to do requiring very ordinary qualities, he had to confess that "I know not a negro among all mine, whose capacity, integrity and attention could be relied on for such a trust as this."

Whatever his opinion of his slaves, Washington was a kind master. In one case he wrote a letter for one of them when the "fellow" was parted from his wife in the service of his master, and at another time he enclosed letters to a wife and to James's "del Toboso," for two of his servants, to save them postage. In reference to their rations he wrote, "whether this addition ... is sufficient, I will not undertake to decide;—but in most explicit language I desire they may have plenty; for I will not have my feelings hurt with complaints of this sort, nor lye under the imputation of starving my negros, and thereby driving them to the necessity of thieving to supply the deficiency. To prevent waste or embezzlement is the only inducement to allowancing of them at all—for if, instead of a peck they could eat a bushel of meal a week fairly, and required it, I would not withhold or begrudge it them." At Christmas-time there are entries in his ledger for whiskey or rum for "the negroes," and towards the end of his life he ordered the overseer, "although others are getting out of the practice of using spirits at Harvest, yet, as my people have always been accustomed to it, a hogshead of Rum must be purchased; but I request at the same time, that it may be used sparingly."

A greater kindness of his was, in 1787, when he very much desired a negro mason offered for sale, yet directed his agent that "if he has a family, with which he is to be sold; or from whom he would reluctantly part, I decline the purchase; his feelings I would not be the means of hurting in the latter case, nor at any rate be incumbered with the former."

The kindness thus indicated bore fruit in a real attachment of the slaves for their master. In Humphreys's poem on Washington the poet alluded to the negroes at Mount Vernon in the lines,—

"Where that foul stain of manhood, slavery, flow'd
Through Afric's sons transmitted in the blood;
Hereditary slaves his kindness shar'd,
For manumission by degrees prepar'd:
Return'd from war, I saw them round him press,
And all their speechless glee by artless signs express."

And in a foot-note the writer added, "The interesting scene of his return home, at which the author was present, is described exactly as it existed."

A single one of these slaves deserves further notice. His body-servant "Billy" was purchased by Washington in 1768 for sixty-eight pounds and fifteen shillings, and was his constant companion during the war, even riding after his master at reviews; and this servant was so associated with the General that it was alleged in the preface to the "forged letters" that they had been captured by the British from "Billy," "an old servant of General Washington's." When Savage painted his well-known "family group," this was the one slave included in the picture. In 1784 Washington told his Philadelphia agent that "The mulatto fellow, William, who has been with me all the war, is attached (married he says) to one of his own color, a free woman, who during the war, was also of my family. She has been in an infirm condition for some time, and I had conceived that the connexion between them had ceased; but I am mistaken it seems; they are both applying to get her here, and tho' I never wished to see her more, I cannot refuse his request (if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has served me faithfully for many years. After premising this much, I have to beg the favor of you to procure her a passage to Alexandria."

When acting as chain-bearer in 1785, while Washington was surveying a tract of land, William fell and broke his knee-pan, "which put a stop to my surveying; and with much difficulty I was able to get him to Abington, being obliged to get a sled to carry him on, as he could neither walk, stand or ride." From this injury Lee never quite recovered, yet he started to accompany his master to New York in 1789, only to give out on the road. He was left at Philadelphia, and Lear wrote to Washington's agent that "The President will thank you to propose it to Will to return to Mount Vernon when he can be removed for he cannot be of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon him constantly. If he should incline to return to Mount Vernon, you will be so kind as to have him sent in the first Vessel that sails for Alexandria after he can be moved with safety—but if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him, altho' he will be troublesome—He has been an old and faithful Servant, this is enough for the President to gratify him in every reasonable wish."

Sources +