Sunday, June 15, 2014

George Washington: Farmer and Slave Owner

Washington’s relationship to slaves was that of a straightforward businessman,   Washington insisted on turning a profit from his slaves.  The pattern of life at Mount Vernon followed a pattern familiar throughout Virginia.  The work day was from sunrise to sunset, with two hours off for meals.  Sunday was a free day.  Slaves received several days off at Christmas, and the Mondays after Easter and Pentecost.  Slaves received a weekly food allowance, which they supplemented by keeping their own gardens, fishing and hunting (in essence they subsidized their own enslavement in their free time).  Slaves were issued clothes once a year.  Most of the slaves were field hands, while about seventy were skilled craftsmen and household servants. 

Slave flight, “running away,” the most common form of slave resistance, called into question the notion of benevolent paternalism and struck particularly hard at the idea that slaves were basically happy.  Most running away was not permanent running.  It might better be termed “absenteeism” and was a statement of resistance.  Most slaves who sneaked away overnight or for a few days did so to avoid immediate punishment or to visit nearby wives, husbands, or other family members. This absenteeism was so common that most masters dealt with it by inflicting only mild punishments.   The more serious form of running away, which involved staying away from the plantation for weeks or months was labeled “lying out”.  These runaways lived by fishing, hunting, stealing and trading.  They camped near towns and cities, along rivers or in dense forests.  They often formed small groups.  Masters dealt with this type of behavior more harshly.  White farmers throughout the South complained about blacks “lurking about near the plantations” and doing “mischief”. Few runaways remained permanently at large, however, the Great Dismal Swamp between Virginia and North Carolina was home to several thousand permanent runaways.   Runaways from Washington's estate were not uncommon.

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