New Stories from an Old American Shrine
The home of our first president has come to symbolize the ideals of our nation: freedom for all, national solidarity, and universal democracy. Mount Vernon is a place where the memories of George Washington and the era of America’s birth are carefully preserved and re-created for the nearly one million tourists who visit it every year. But behind the familiar stories lies a history that visitors never hear. Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon recounts the experience of the hundreds of African Americans who are forgotten in Mount Vernon’s narrative. Historian and archival sleuth Scott E. Casper recovers the remarkable history of former slave Sarah Johnson, who spent more than fifty years at Mount Vernon, before and after emancipation. Through her life and the lives of her family and friends, Casper provides an intimate picture of Mount Vernon’s operation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, years that are rarely part of its story. Working for the Washington heirs and then the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, these African Americans played an essential part in creating the legacy of Mount Vernon as an American shrine. Their lives and contributions have long been lost to history and erased from memory. Casper restores them both, and in so doing adds a new layer of significance to America’s most popular historical estate.
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Scott E. Casper is a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of Constructing American Lives, which won the 1999 Book History Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon
ONEOliver Smith's MemoriesTo most visitors, Oliver Smith was the slave who had seen George Washington die. Again and again, pilgrims to Washington's tomb in the 1830s described this "venerable colored man" in his seventies, whose gray hair alone suggested an authentic connection to the past. One writer claimed to repeat Smith's own words: he was "as familiar with the General as with the palms of his own hands." Oliver Smith told of Washington's character and habits, so methodical and exacting that the slaves respected him better than they liked him. On the piazza of the mansion, overlooking the Potomac, Smith reminded visitors that Washington had walked the same floorboards. Most compellingly, he described George Washington's last day on earth. He was there when the general breathed his last, Smith explained. Tears in his eyes, he told of his own "deserted and desolate" present condition, and he "hobbled onwards ... talking continually of time gone by."1 There was only one problem with his story: Oliver Smith had come to Mount Vernon in 1802, three years after George Washington's death, with Washington's nephew Bushrod. He got his knowledge secondhand, from one of the slaves present at the deathbed.Oliver Smith told an utterly different story to an abolitionist traveler in 1834. He had been Bushrod Washington's pet, he explained, and now belonged to Bushrod's niece Jane Washington, the new owner of Mount Vernon. He had had nine children, one of them now Mount Vernon's gardener and two dead. Where were the other six? inquired the writer. "Sold into Georgia." Wasn't it hard to part with them? "O, itwas like cutting off my own limbs," Smith replied, almost in tears. Smith's sense of desertion and desolation had another cause entirely. His own children were gone, sold by Bushrod Washington's heirs. In the day of judgment, he opined, all of America's slaves would appear before the bar, and slaveholders would have to answer for their sins.2It is fair to take Oliver Smith at his word--his family's dispersal felt akin to dismemberment in every sense. At the same time, Smith was an expert in fulfilling visitors' fantasies of Mount Vernon. No other recorded encounter with him suggests such a protest against the institution of slavery or even discloses his family's story. Nor was he telling the abolitionist writer everything. Like thousands of other slaves across the South who learned early to assume different faces for different listeners, Oliver Smith had alternate scripts for encounters with Mount Vernon's visitors. He calibrated those versions of the past to the scripts that visitors brought with them. No matter what he said, however, Smith's very presence belied the fundamental incongruity of his standard script. If George Washington had famously freed his slaves, why were people still enslaved at Mount Vernon?The story of Oliver Smith's family begins to reveal the answer. When he was born around 1760, Oliver belonged not to George Washington but to his brother John Augustine, commonly called Jack. Jack Washington and his wife, Hannah Bushrod, lived at Bushfield plantation in Westmoreland County, ninety-five miles southeast of Mount Vernon in Virginia's tidewater. They owned more than 130 slaves by the early 1780s, when their eldest son, Bushrod, approached adulthood and Oliver and his wife, Doll, became his personal servants. As a "waiting man" Oliver Smith was Bushrod's closest attendant, seeing to his master's needs and running errands near and far. After Jack died in 1787, Bushrod Washington legally inherited Oliver and Doll and thus any children they would have, beginning with a son named Phil in 1790. Bushrod brought the Smiths to live with him when he inherited Mount Vernon from his uncle George. He also brought another family, its anchors a woman named Sinah (born in 1761) and her brother Ham (1773), also inherited from Jack and Hannah Washington's estate. Sinah and her husband, Joe, another Bushfield house servant, had eight children, two sons-in-law, and eleven grandchildren at Mount Vernon by 1815. Ham and his wife, Pat, started their family there witha son in 1807 and three more children in the next eight years. Sinah, Ham, and their family lived at Union Farm, one of the outlying Mount Vernon farms that Bushrod inherited along with the "mansion house" property. About half of his slaves, seventy-nine in all in 1815, including people he had purchased from relatives and neighbors, lived and worked there.3In the two decades between 1815 and the abolitionist's visit, three dramatic events reshaped the contours of Oliver Smith's family and community: a massive, traumatic slave sale; an apparent crime and its grueling aftermath; and finally the dismantling of Bushrod Washington's estate. By the 1830s, when he guided visitors around Mount Vernon, Oliver had become the place's foremost living, speaking link to two pasts: George Washington's world and the saga of his own broken family.
Bushrod Washington was bound to suffer by comparison with his uncle. An 1823 visitor estimated Bushrod "as unlike the General, as any man in the United States." He was short, slight, pale-faced, and blind in one eye, the result of overwork. One observer thought he looked "nervous and feeble." Another called him "a little dryed up Virginian." In two deeper ways, though, he resembled George Washington. Both men devoted enormous care to raising children not their own. Much as George had superintended and loved Martha's children Jacky and Patsy Custis and then Jacky's children Nelly and Wash, Bushrod made Mount Vernon a home for at least a half dozen orphaned nieces and nephews. George Washington and Bushrod Washington also shared a commitment to public service. After enlisting in the Revolutionary War, Bushrod studied law with James Wilson, one of the new nation's foremost legal minds and a leader at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Bushrod was elected to the Virginia General Assembly in 1787 and to the state's ratifying convention for the Constitution a year later. His legal work in the 1790s earned wide admiration, and in 1798 President John Adams offered him Wilson's seat on the Supreme Court after John Marshall declined it. Washington and Marshall, who became chief justice three years later, had been friends since their college days at William and Mary. Together they formed the bulwark of the Federalist Supreme Court that affirmed a strong national government in thenation's fledgling years. Appointed at thirty-six, Bushrod Washington was one of the youngest justices in American history, and he served one of the longest tenures, thirty-one years.4In two other ways, uncle and nephew differed significantly. First, Bushrod was a lawyer, not a farmer. When he died, his books and pamphlets were appraised at $5,553.75, more than double the value of all the work animals, livestock, crops, and farm equipment at Mount Vernon combined. He lived away from home most of the year because justices of the Supreme Court were required to sit with the federal circuit courts and Bushrod made his circuit in Philadelphia and New Jersey Judicial duties, his work as an executor of his uncle's will, and guardianship of nieces and nephews all crowded agricultural management from Bushrod's attention.5 George Washington, by contrast, had known every detail of the farms: when to accomplish any task; how to make best use of slave labor; how many bricks it would take to build a sixteen-sided barn. George Washington's care saved Mount Vernon from the fate of so many other Virginia estates (notably Thomas Jefferson's Monticello), deep indebtedness and ultimately sale.Even if Bushrod had been a farmer, his hand would have been far weaker than his uncle's. Northern Virginia had entered an agricultural decline years before George Washington died. Tobacco farming had exhausted the soil. Washington and other planters began shifting to grain production as early as the 1760s, but the land still worsened with each passing year. Moreover, planters divided their estates among multiple heirs, creating ever-smaller holdings. If a planter failed to leave a will, his land was divided anyway because Virginia in 1785 had abolished primogeniture, the ancient custom that kept estates whole by passing them to the eldest son. Bushrod Washington, who inherited about four thousand acres of his uncle's seventy-six hundred, found it nearly impossible to make ends meet at Mount Vernon. Some years he even sold land to buy corn to feed the slaves, reversing the normal economy in which slaves produced their essential foodstuffs along with cash crops. In such circumstances, slaves themselves could become a plantation's most valuable, marketable commodity. As the cotton frontier grew to the southwest, slaves became eastern Virginia's greatest export from early in the nineteenth century.6With the division of old fortunes and the new generation's economictravails, the lifestyle of the Old Dominion's gentry was changing. These transformations help account for the second major difference between Bushrod Washington and his uncle: George Washington's religious belief was largely a private matter, while Bushrod remained deeply religious in private and public. Bushrod preferred domestic life to his worldly career. He led family prayers at Mount Vernon, morning and evening, and that "family" included household slaves. Librarian of Congress George Watterston in 1818 described Judge Washington in these terms: "He appears to be one of those men to whom the pleasures of the domestic circle are more seducing than the fitful tho' captivating splendor which surround the temples of the statesman or the warrior, and he prefers what the world would term the inglorious repose of domestic felicity to the fevorish [sic] agitation and sickly turmoil of public life."7Living at Mount Vernon inevitably subjected Judge Washington to another kind of public life, the endless scrutiny of visitors. George Washington had made his own private life into "a perpetual performance for the touring public." The Father of His Country courteously entertained scores of strangers, creating a routine that included tours conducted by family members or aides and meals at which he presided. Bushrod Washington had neither political reason nor personal inclination nor money enough to follow his uncle's lead. Still, the travelers came, as a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon became part of any visit to Washington, D.C. If admitted to the mansion, they admired the few possessions of George Washington's that remained once the Custis grandchildren had taken most of the furnishings: the key to the Bastille prison in Paris, which was a gift from Lafayette, and an ornately carved marble mantelpiece in the large dining room. All visitors saw Washington's tomb, an old family vault built into the side of a hill. Shaded by cedars, it looked like an icehouse to some, an oven to others, and a dog kennel to still others. No matter: it was sacred space, Mount Vernon's Holy Grail. Americans and foreigners alike experienced reverie and reverence there, imagining Washington's spirit and paying homage to his memory. Taking relics was part of any pilgrimage. One traveler had to reach high to pluck a cedar branch because others had already stripped all the low-hanging boughs and leaves. Until Bushrod had the tomb padlocked in the 1810s, visitors commonly tore pieces from thecloth over Washington's coffin. The expense and maintenance of the entire pilgrimage site fell to Judge Washington.8Bushrod received undue blame for Mount Vernon's unkempt state. Few travelers blamed themselves for tramping over the grounds and picking relics at will. Fewer acknowledged the underlying difficulties that plagued Judge Washington and his neighbors. Thomas Cope, a Quaker merchant, blamed slavery, "that pest to improvement," and believed that smaller, single-family farms would produce richer crops despite the sterile soil. Other travelers lumped slaves into their descriptions of Mount Vernon's ruined state. "Negroes of all ages" milled about, and they seemed "miserable looking objects living in dirty houses," the "dirty, homely, and tattered children" worst of all. Over time Bushrod set boundaries that his uncle had not. Above all, he attempted to ban Sunday visitation, even turning away a party of congressmen. One Sunday traveler, an Englishman, wrote that the judge "received us coldly and reluctantly" and said, "I do not like to see people on this day, but you may walk round."9Religious belief fueled Bushrod Washington's public commitments off the bench as well, placing him in the forefront of an emerging cluster of benevolent reform movements. His name became virtually synonymous with the movement to create African colonies of free American blacks. The antislavery fervor of the 1770s and 1780s cooled quickly in the new century, in the wake of slave revolts successful (blacks' overthrow of slavery in St. Domingue) and not (Gabriel's Rebellion in Richmond in 1800). Advocates of colonization were a mixed lot. Some opposed slavery on moral or religious grounds. Others, including Bushrod's godson Charles Fenton Mercer, argued that a slave labor economy stunted the growth of a more productive capitalist system. Many of them coalesced in the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 with the support of such leading slaveowner-statesmen as Henry Clay and James Madison. Bushrod Washington became its founding president, served until he died, and afforded the society immediate national legitimacy.10Judge Washington's name became attached to republican and religious arguments for colonization. An 1817 memorial to Congress suggested that free people of color were becoming a separate caste in a nation built on the ideal of equality. Free blacks were deprived of thesocial and political rights that fostered human betterment, especially as state after state evicted newly manumitted African Americans. In Africa, however, free black people would gain ample sphere for their "pursuit of happiness and independence" and diffuse the blessings of Christianity "through the vast regions and unnumbered tribes, yet obscured in primeval darkness." When a Liverpool merchant and abolitionist visited Mount Vernon in January 1820, Judge Washington explained the movement primarily as an "instrument in the conversion of Africans to Christianity," a step toward establishing "the kingdom of the Messiah in every quarter of the globe."11The Liverpool visitor was not so sure, and neither were Bushrod's slaves. Removing free blacks, the Englishman replied to his host, would merely "rivet more strongly the chains of those who are in bondage." Many African Americans considered colonization a "decoy," at least to defer emancipation and at worst to sell them into African slavery. While the distinguished visitor enjoyed the comforts of Mount Vernon's study, his servant fielded questions from the judge's slaves. Did Bushrod, or colonizationists generally, plan "to compel them to go"? Such talk could be dangerous. Visitors asked slaves whether Bushrod Washington planned to free them, as George Washington had freed his people. Mount Vernon's black people possessed an unusual, perhaps unique proximity to white people talking politics, the travelers from around the United States and Europe who came there from Washington, D.C.12Bushrod's slaves had other access to political conversation as well. The free blacks whom so many white people feared, and whom colonizationists targeted for emigration to Liberia, were no abstraction at Mount Vernon. People manumitted by George Washington still lived there as tenants and pensioners. Some of Bushrod...
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