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.permission.