George Washington, Slavery, and Farming

Slave quarters, Mount Vernon, Virginia, (Wikimedia Commons)

In Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery, Bruce A. Ragsdale meticulously examines Washington’s activities in farming and managing enslaved laborers. A scholar of United States colonial and revolutionary history, Ragsdale creates a new portrait of Washington, based on the founder’s letters and personal library, that offers critical insight into Washington’s vision as an agriculturalist and his motivation in liberating, upon his death in 1799 and seemingly out of nowhere, the 123 people he held in bondage. In the detailing of Washington’s thoughts and actions in managing his estate from marriage to death, Ragsdale opens an avenue of interrogation into what motivated George Washington, into how he carefully guarded his moral reputation and public standing, and how his words often contradicted his actions as enslaver, agricultural businessman, and national leader.

Ragsdale portrays Washington as constantly internally conflicted over his enslavement of up to 500 individuals, while he implemented and supported the institution as part of his agricultural improvement programs. Ragsdale’s meticulous scholarship permits this critique, as each page is filled with detailed quotes from the president’s correspondences. Ragsdale’s key argument is that Washington came to understand the institution of slavery and the modernization or improvement of agriculture to be irreconcilable. Washington, Ragsdale argues, found that enslavement created inefficient laborers who were untrustworthy in the implementation of increasingly complex and demanding agricultural practices.

Ragsdale maintains that Washington considered agricultural self-reliance the most important step toward independence and national economic prosperity, and as such the president sought to create a self-reliant and economically prosperous plantation at Mount Vernon through activities to enhance the soil, optimize crop planting and harvesting, and minimize the input of labor. In leading by example on his own five plantations at Mount Vernon, Washington constantly experimented in new farming methods—especially combinations and variations in farm inputs of seeds, soil ameliorants, and equipment—to optimize the amount of value he could extract from the land while protecting the landscape. Washington discovered these new methods primarily from agriculturalists in Great Britain with whom he corresponded and who published treatises and pamphlets on new agricultural methods.

The book is organized roughly chronologically beginning with Washington’s marriage to Mary. Through this marriage, he gained access to more land, wealth, and enslaved individuals to implement his agricultural vision. Throughout the book, Ragsdale demonstrates how Washington’s service off the plantation, both military and executive, interrupted Washington’s underlying passion for agriculture, yet also enhanced his knowledge of farming methods and techniques by exposing him to farmers and agriculturalists around the Atlantic world. Along this journey from commander to president to national icon, Washington developed relationships with agriculturalists in Great Britain, farmers in the mid-Atlantic colonies, and representatives of the Scottish Enlightenment that informed and shaped his farm knowledge and perspective on the institution of slavery. Based on his values both aesthetic and scientific, Washington viewed land management and soil health to be the most important aspects of farming, and as a result he prioritized the maintenance of beautiful landscapes as well as crop rotations in year-over-year operations.

During the American Revolution and his time as first president, Washington was confronted with an increasingly loud critique of the institution of slavery and was directly challenged by colleagues to manumit the people he held in bondage. Washington, Ragsdale explains, stayed publicly silent on the question of slavery while distancing himself privately from the institution of slavery by halting the purchase of more enslaved people and returning enslaved persons that he employed to their owners.

Ragsdale’s analysis centers Washington’s activities on and in the plantations of Mount Vernon, his letters and judgments, his farming and business decisions. By orienting the analysis this way, Ragsdale necessarily introduces blind spots, particularly in the omission of the perspectives of the enslaved who make up such a large proportion of this text’s analysis. Though the text-based evidence conveying the perspectives of the enslaved pales to the depth and breadth of Washington’s letters, many scholars have shown that the interpretation of the perspectives and voices of the enslaved can come from reading texts against their grain and analyzing absences and silences (e.g. Trouillot 1995; White 2019). Ragsdale’s superb archival work would be well-complemented by additional analysis that centers the perspective of enslaved individuals to show how they considered Washington’s agricultural improvement programs, and the nature of labor on-the-ground.

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Rebecca Dudley

Rebecca Dudley is a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology and a Graduate Fellow with American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her historical anthropological research examines legacies of the plantation in contemporary industrial agriculture, including the racialization of labor, technology, financing, commodity flows, and knowledge on industrial farms. Her research is supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Washington University in St. Louis Center for the Humanities.

Comments on “George Washington, Slavery, and Farming

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    This review makes me wonder about how the blind spots Rebecca Dudley mentions may extend some of the false narratives that have long circulated regarding race, land, labor, etc. in the US. As someone who researches and writes about the experience of African Americans in urban areas of Virginia in the mid-nineteenth century, I recognize that slavery in the generations after Washington was “adapted” to urban, industrialized settings, as well as to “modernizing” agricultural settings. This contradicts the idea that I (and many other Americans) have been taught in early school years, about slavery being something that would have “died out” as the US moved past its early agrarian roots. So I wonder if Ragsdale engages this reality in making his “key argument … that Washington came to understand the institution of slavery and the modernization or improvement of agriculture to be irreconcilable.” That is, the power and profit derived from enslavement turned out to be “reconcilable” by enslavers until the military exigencies of the Civil War caused the US government to adopt abolition, as Black activists and their allies had long pushed for. I hope Ragsdale is not reinscribing the idea that slavery would otherwise have died out, in his discussion of Washington’s beliefs. As someone who lives in the West, I am also aware that the kind of “aesthetic and scientific [approaches to] land management” implemented by white settler-colonizers and retained in the practices we have inherited from them have resulted in modern catastrophes of drought, climate fires, etc. Again, I hope that in elucidating Washington’s beliefs and practices, Ragsdale is also able to critique these beliefs and practices so that we are not reifying culturally biased and ultimately dangerous ideas about “land management.” Washington’s agricultural endeavors took place on lands that were taken from the people who had wisely stewarded the local land and water since time immemorial. He may have refused to see that, but as scholars today, we should foreground it.

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