Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon
Oliver Smith's Memories
To 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.2
It 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.3
In 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.4
In 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.6
With 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."7
Living 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.8
Bushrod 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."9
Religious 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.10
Judge 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."11
The 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.12
Bushrod'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 Washington's slaves joined the Alexandria Baptist Society, a church of white people, free blacks, and urban slaves founded in 1803, within which developed the Colored Baptist Society. Prominent free black men, including a shipwright and a substantial Alexandria landowner, joined this church, as did some free black women. Between 1810 and 1824 nine Mount Vernon slaves appeared on the Alexandria Baptist Society's membership rolls, including Ham, Pat, and their niece Dinah.13 George Washington had foreseen "disagreeable consequences" from Martha's dower slavesleft in bondage when his own people became free. He might have foretold the next generation of incendiary potential. A new enslaved population at Mount Vernon mingled with nearby free blacks just as the dower slaves had.
By early 1821 rumors of freedom were roiling the slave quarters. Sally, a twenty-five-year-old "dark mulatto" with a speech impediment, ran away on February 24; Bushrod figured she was nearby or hiding in Alexandria. To stem the talk, Bushrod called his slaves together in March. He planned never to free anyone, he assured them, now or in his will. As Mount Vernon's memory and legacy of emancipation came face-to-face with its social and economic reality, insubordination ensued. Wearing a field hand's clothes, a man named Fielding escaped late that month. Three men escaped in the spring, while the judge was in Philadelphia. Two were recaptured en route to Pennsylvania, but catching them cost Bushrod $250. The third, Emanuel, had been trained as a cook in Mount Vernon's kitchen and had learned his profession well. Even though he stammered and appeared deferential, he was smart, resourceful, and probably literate. He had undoubtedly procured or forged free papers before he fled northward on June 10, Bushrod advertised: all the better to pass for a free man. Bushrod never caught him. By that summer the judge believed all his laboring men contemplated escape.14
So "compel them to go" he did, but not to Africa. In August 1821 Bushrod Washington sold fifty-four of his slaves to Horatio S. Sprigg and Archibald P. Williams, Louisiana plantation owners from Bayou Robert on the Red River. Once the bargain was struck, he gave his slaves another speech, explaining the financial struggles that occasioned the sale. Then the men, women, and children who had been sold--nearly two-thirds of the eighty-three enslaved people counted in the previous year's census--were taken to the slave jail in Alexandria. After two days there they passed through Leesburg, Virginia, in "a drove of negroes" numbering about a hundred. Though precise names cannot be determined, Bushrod appears to have sold the families that lived and worked at Union Farm, including Sinah and Joe, Ham and Pat, and all their children and grandchildren, about thirty in all. Gone, too, were several mansion house slaves, including Emanuel's parents, Ben and Suck, and the rest of their children. Oliver Smith and his familystayed, probably because Oliver had been Bushrod's most trusted servant for four decades.15
A Leesburg paper broke the news on August 21: "Judge Washington, of Mount Vernon, president of the mother colonization society," had sold fifty-four slaves southward. Baltimore's Morning Chronicle picked up the story three days later. A letter to its editor painted a portrait of grief. The writer had visited Mount Vernon and seen the remaining slaves' despondent, dejected faces. They told him that Washington had sold their compatriots for ten thousand dollars. "One would have thought that the poor creatures who were left, the aged and blind, had lost every friend on earth." Families had been sundered, the slaves reported. The visitor asked one old man whether he had been at Mount Vernon when George Washington died. No, the man replied, "not so lucky--I should not be a slave now if I had." The story became national news on September 1, when Niles' Weekly Register, a widely circulated Baltimore paper, republished this article. To abolitionist critics, the episode became exhibit A in the colonizationists' hypocrisy, for it gave the lie to any pretense that African colonization would doom American slavery. One piece of anonymous hate mail called Bushrod a "stinking cur," worse than a Spanish pirate and unfit to administer American justice.16
Bushrod Washington needed to answer the charges, for the movement's sake if not for his own. His reply, published in the Baltimore Federal Republican and circulated nationwide, mixed equal parts defiance, morality, and self-justification. How dare anyone question his or any southerner's moral and legal right to sell his property? How dare the writer visit Mount Vernon in his absence and "hold conversations with my negroes"? Not only had the writer given all credence to the slaves' version, but he had not even asked Judge Washington or his neighbors for their side of the story. Exasperated, Washington wondered why people were so sensitive about the division of slave families. Americans were accustomed to migration. Parents had immigrated to the United States leaving children behind, and children, including some of his own slaves, routinely left parents and lit out for new territories. He did not comprehend, or could not admit, that witnessing one's relations sold deeper into slavery was a far cry from watching them escape to freedom.17
Had the visitor asked, Washington claimed, he would have learnedthat the judge had tried not to separate families. The buyers had assured him that they would keep families together. To secure that promise, he had accepted twenty-five hundred dollars less than he wanted. Naturally those left behind would appear dejected, Washington wrote. However, the people sold "carried with them no feelings of despondency or regret" because they understood the exigencies that forced his hand. Of course these were the slaves no visitor could now ask to corroborate his version. Furthermore, Bushrod's definition of families may not have been the slaves' own. Kin networks of grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins, not merely husbands and wives and their children, defined African American slave communities.18
Washington offered three reasons for his action. First, for twenty years Mount Vernon had hemorrhaged money. Many years it ran at a loss of five hundred to a thousand dollars. Matters had reached a crisis the previous May, when he had to buy corn for ninety slaves the entire month. Second, insubordination made the slaves "worse than useless." They had become more intractable than those on neighboring plantations, he argued, because this was Mount Vernon. Visitors raised slaves' hopes and stoked their desires for freedom. Specifically, the slaves had come to believe that "they would be free at my death." Like Martha Washington two decades earlier, Bushrod suspected plots against his life. But unlike Martha, he was bound by nobody else's will to free anyone. Third, when he told the slaves so, escape attempts followed.
The way Bushrod Washington explained it, the problem lay where Mount Vernon's identities intersected. As private property, this unproductive farm and its restive slaves were his to dispose of. For the most part, the people he sold lived at Union Farm, not in the mansion house quarters. Situated west of the mansion area, Union Farm was a working plantation, not part of Mount Vernon's "sacred" space. Few travelers by land or water visited it, so visitors were unlikely to incite insubordination there. A conversational spark ignited near the mansion could have erupted into conflagration at Union Farm, because familial and communal ties linked the separate slave quarters. More likely, though, Judge Washington's problems stemmed from Union Farm itself, with its hundreds of unprofitable acres. After he had sold the people who worked there, he must have scaled back its agricultural production. In an instant he was no longer Fairfax County's third-largestslaveowner.19 He no longer possessed a workforce sufficient to maintain its earlier dimensions, even if he transferred some slaves from mansion house families to keep it going. All the rumors and unrest may have clinched an economic decision Bushrod would have made anyway.
But Mount Vernon could never be Bushrod's alone. Often called the American Mecca, it bore the weight of visitors' expectations. Having addressed the problem of insubordinate slaves, he turned the following year to thoughtless visitors. In the summer of 1822 he advertised that "the feelings of Mrs. Washington and myself ... so much wounded by some late occurrences at this place," parties arriving by steamboat would no longer be welcome, nor would "eating, drinking and dancing parties."20 This edict stood for nearly three decades, forcing most visitors to take the boat to Alexandria and make a difficult overland journey the nine miles from there to Mount Vernon. Once more, Bushrod Washington could not measure up to his uncle.
Spared from the traders' shackles, consigned to watch their compatriots taken away forever, Oliver Smith and his family had more troubled times ahead. Oliver and Doll's daughter Hannah, twenty-four years old, worked as a house slave at Union Farm, serving Bushrod Washington's resident manager, Leland Seal, and his family there. On August 27, 1821, less than a week after the newspapers had broken the story of the slave sale, Seal's wife, Mary, prepared the morning coffee and left it in Hannah's care. When the young woman brought the pot from the kitchen to the breakfast table, Mary Seal served her husband, then their little child, then herself. Leland Seal felt "strangely sick," suspected the coffee had been poisoned, and called Hannah to the table. He commanded her to drink a cup, then another. After the first cup, Hannah refused to have any more unless the coffee was sweetened, so Seal added some sugar and made her drink again. He ordered her to take another cup, but she resisted. Seal never knew if she followed that command because he was seized with vomiting. He instructed his wife to pour the coffee out, so that they could observe what else was in the pot. "Something of a white colour" remained in the bottom. When Hannah claimed not to know what it was, Seal demandedthat she eat it. "I will not eat it for anybody," she replied. Hannah went out to the fields to take breakfast to the slaves who remained at work there. They brought her back to the house within fifteen minutes, too sick to return on her own feet.21
Seal summoned a doctor from Alexandria, who pronounced the whitish substance to be arsenic. Poisoning by African slaves had long numbered among white Virginians' gravest fears. Medicine generally and poison specifically belonged to the arts of African conjure, or obeah, but in Virginian slave society those same arts could become weapons in the hands of the oppressed. Like other forms of insurrection, poisoning required forethought. It attacked its victim and the slave system itself from the inside out, beginning with the central nervous system and the household. And its chances of success were far greater than those of armed insurrection. The colonial assembly had legislated against slaves practicing medicine, more than a hundred eighteenth-century Virginia slaves had been tried for "illegal use of medicine," and thirty-five had been sentenced to hang for the offense before 1800. Virginia prosecutions and convictions for poisoning declined in the early nineteenth century (only eight slaves were convicted for poisoning whites in the 1810s), but isolated examples continued to furnish whispered reminders of the potential danger within. Arsenic was a substance native to Virginia, available to the slave conjurer or cook. In late September, when Bushrod Washington defended his slave sale against the newspaper onslaught and alluded to threats against his life, he clearly had this incident in mind.22
None of those who pilloried him, it seems, ever learned of the poisoning, which made an offhanded appearance in the local paper only after the controversy had begun to subside. Hannah's brothers George and Ned ran away in early October, apparently confirming the spirit of insubordination that coursed through Oliver Smith's family. George was twenty-seven, Ned seventeen; both stood about five feet five. Dressed in field hands' clothing and possibly carrying other garments, they seized an opportunity while Judge Washington was on his circuit in Philadelphia. The newspaper advertisement described George as "very black, with small ears, and a scar on the upper joint of the last finger, on his right hand," and Ned as "black with broad teeth far apart." Both men, it said, had been "refractory" for some time, "defying all disciplineand control, particularly since their sister attempted to poison the manager." George and Ned were recaptured and returned to Mount Vernon, where Bushrod chose not to sell them, perhaps owing to Oliver Smith's pleading.23
On December 3, Lawrence Lewis, a Fairfax County justice of the peace, ordered Bushrod Washington's property Hannah brought into custody to stand trial. George Washington's nephew and the master of adjacent Woodlawn plantation, Lewis knew Bushrod better than most fellow planters did because both served as executors of their uncle's will. Lewis surely knew many of Bushrod's slaves as well, for as Nelly Custis's husband he was also master of the dower slaves she had inherited on Martha Washington's death, slaves who mixed with Bushrod's people in the neighborhood. Why did it take more than three months for him to order Hannah imprisoned for the alleged crime? Apparently someone else had been accused first: Hannah's husband, a man named Hezekiah Scott, who was released when Leland and Mary Seal failed to appear as witnesses against him. Now it was Hannah's turn. In county court on December 17, the prosecutor requested a postponement until the next court date. So Oliver Smith's daughter remained in jail, making a joyless, apprehensive Christmas for her family at Mount Vernon.24
Not guilty, Hannah pleaded when five "gentlemen justices" convened on January 21, 1822, to hear her case. A lawyer was appointed to represent her, and the prosecution called its witnesses. First Leland Seal recounted the events of August 27, from his first taste of the coffee to Hannah's own sickness from the poison. Next his wife took the stand. No other servants, male or female, had been around the house that morning, Mary Seal testified. As soon as her husband drank his coffee and said something was wrong with it, she tried a bit, enough to be "partly afflicted in the same manner" but not enough to produce the vomiting Leland had suffered. As the final witness, the doctor attested that he had found the farm manager ill, examined the coffee grounds in the pot, and identified arsenic in the residue. The physician concluded that he had also treated Hannah, whom the poison had left "dangerously ill."25
Guilty, pronounced the justices. Their language bespoke the larger fears associated with poisoning: Hannah was convicted of plotting thedeaths of Leland and Mary Seal and administering the arsenic to them and their child. She was ordered to be taken back to jail until Friday, March 1. On that day, between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, she was to be taken to the place of execution, "to be hung by the neck ... until she is dead." Because she would be executed under the laws of the commonwealth of Virginia, the Old Dominion was to pay Bushrod Washington fifty dollars, the appraised value of the enslaved property he would lose that day.26
Eleven days before Hannah's scheduled execution, Governor Thomas Mann Randolph received a petition signed by twenty white men of Fairfax County. Hannah had powerful supporters: Fairfax County's clerk and his deputy, two deputy sheriffs, the commissioner of revenue, and the jailer who held her prisoner. Most of them were slaveholders. Only five lived in Truro Parish, which contained Mount Vernon; Bushrod Washington's neighbors apparently did not rally to Hannah's defense. Another five signers lived in Providence District, site of the county courthouse and jail. There people were most likely to encounter Hannah during her trial and incarceration, and there her words and demeanor may have persuaded them of her innocence. Hannah was "a wretched and miserable victim," the petitioners argued. She had been wrongly accused and convicted only after the prosecutors' case against her husband had collapsed. She was also still suffering the aftereffects of arsenic poisoning. The petitioners asked Governor Randolph and his council of state to review the trial records, overturn her conviction, and spare her life.27
Rather than void the conviction, the governor and council reprieved Hannah for a year, after which she was to be moved to the state penitentiary "for sale & transportation." Sale to a slave trader, who promised to transport the convict away from Virginia forever, was a typical sentence for women convicted of violent crimes like poisoning or arson. After 1801, when the legislature authorized the governor and council to sell condemned slaves for deportation from the state, it became a common choice for convicts male or female. To those officials, transportation was a reprieve akin to commutation. It salved their consciences about the treatment of slaves in Virginia's legal system. To women and men sold to the lower South, to Cuba, or to the Dry Tortugas islands off the Florida coast--anywhere a trader could unload aconvicted felon--the sentence seemed little more appealing than the gallows.28
As Hannah's reprieve neared its end in January 1823, the clerk of Fairfax County wrote to the governor again: Hannah was pregnant. No evidence survives to identify the child's father, but Hannah and her advocates imagined that a baby would cause the governor and council to reconsider exiling her from Virginia. Those hopes, and any stratagem that suggested the notion of a pregnancy in the first place, were dashed when the council upheld its judgment. For now, Hannah could be moved out of the county jail, provided with more comfortable safekeeping, and given all necessary medical attention. On March 11 she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and her countdown to the state penitentiary began anew. On June 8 the governor ordered Hannah brought to Richmond. The Fairfax County jailer responded that Hannah was now "in a situation to be removed to the penitentiary," but that she should be taken in a "cart or gig" (rather than on foot, presumably), because she still did not possess "good use of herself," owing to "the poison she drank"--possibly what Leland Seal had forced her to swallow two years earlier. The jailer's letter was presented to the governor's council the following week, and at last on June 16 Governor James Pleasants issued his order: "You will deliver to Mr. Jno. P. Lord the slave Hannah (and her child) sentenced by the Court of Fairfax for administering poison to the family of Leland Seal; she having been reprieved by the Executive for sale and transportation, according to law."29
Hannah went to the penitentiary, but she never made it out of Virginia. In early August the governor's council heard slave dealers' bids to buy and deport the twenty-one slaves then residing in the penitentiary. Hannah and a Brooke County slave named Letty, convicted of murdering her own child, were the only women. The men were imprisoned for arson, burglary, assault, or murder. The trader William C. McAlister proposed a purchase price for each slave, ranging from $200 to $350. Hannah's was $255, a substantial profit over the state's expenses on her ($50 to Bushrod Washington, medical bills of $20.50, and jailer's fees). Then the governor changed his mind. He and the council believed they had no right to sell Hannah's infant for transportation and thought it "improper" to separate a mother from such a young child. So the council accepted the trader's bid for "all the slaves aforesaid exceptHannah and her child." Nineteen men and Letty were to be taken away, while Hannah remained behind. The next week a fire destroyed the state penitentiary. Alarm spread through the interior of the prison building, the jailers raced to open the convicts' cells, and the prisoners rushed into the central yard amid suffocating smoke. "Where are the convicts? Are they safe?" wondered everyone at the scene. As rumors spread that some had been trapped in the burning building, "shrieks, and groans, and cries for assistance" rang out.30
Back at Mount Vernon, Hannah's family could have followed every step of her ordeal. The courthouse was twenty miles distant, Richmond seventy-five miles farther south. But news could spread in many ways. During the early stages of the case, Lawrence Lewis's slaves at Woodlawn would surely have learned about it and taken word to Oliver and Doll Smith and their other children. Bushrod Washington knew about Virginia's judicial and legislative proceedings, and he could share information of Hannah's condition with her worried parents, his longtime household servants. As long as the young woman remained in Fairfax County, there might be occasions for family members to visit her, while conducting the master's business in the county seat or on quiet Saturday night and Sunday journeys, the way slaves across the South visited spouses and loved ones who lived "abroad" on other plantations. Oliver and Doll could take pride that wealthy, well-connected citizens of Fairfax County came to their daughter's defense, even as they lamented Bushrod Washington's failure to join their cause. Once Hannah's advocates exhausted their appeals and she was taken to the penitentiary, her parents and brothers must have felt her slipping away. Hope punctuated the gloom when the governor decided to sell all the convicts but Hannah to the slave trader--and then the Alexandria Gazette reported the penitentiary fire on August 9. Within days, good news reached Alexandria. All 244 convicts had survived the fire (although one sick prisoner died afterward), and the 11 women prisoners had been moved under guard to a Richmond barracks. There was once again reason for optimism, however slim.31
Hannah's chances and her family's hopes finally ran out when she died on December 10, 1823, still the property of the commonwealth of Virginia. Lingering effects of arsenic poisoning, recovery from childbirth, smoke inhalation, despair: any of these, or all of them, or someillness that went unrecorded ended her twenty-six years. What would become of her baby son? his grandparents and uncles at Mount Vernon surely wondered.32
So did Governor James Pleasants. Guided by no precedent, Pleasants asked the legislature if the little boy, like his mother, belonged to Virginia. The question was referred to a committee, which recommended on January 24, 1824, that the child be sold and the proceeds deposited in the state treasury. Robert T. Thompson, a delegate from Fairfax County, objected, and on his motion the committee's report was tabled. When discussion resumed six weeks later, Thompson offered a surprising alternative motion: "that the said child is free" and that he be apprenticed to a "humane tradesman" until he turned twenty-one. The House of Delegates rejected that proposal in favor of a third alternative: that the child belonged to Bushrod Washington, who had owned his mother at the time of her conviction and sentencing. The fate of Oliver Smith's grandson had commanded the attention of Virginia's governor and legislature, and all three potential outcomes had been considered. Robert Thompson may have come to the child's defense out of humanitarian sympathy. More likely, he knew Hannah's case better than his fellow delegates because the men who signed the petition for her innocence were his Fairfax County colleagues and neighbors. In the end, the bedrock principle of the slaveowner's property carried the day, and there the written record ends. Whether the baby was returned to Mount Vernon, whether he survived childhood there, even his given name are all lost to history. But Hannah's story, and the uncertain fate of her child, remained inscribed on the memories of the family at Mount Vernon they left behind.33
West Ford and Hannah's brother Phil lived parallel lives. Each was born to parents from Jack Washington's Bushfield. Venus, a teenage house slave, gave birth to West in 1784 or 1785; Oliver and Doll Smith welcomed their first son into the world six years later. West and Phil both came to Mount Vernon with Bushrod Washington, and both became master craftsmen through the process of apprenticeship. West Ford, a carpenter, remained at or near Mount Vernon through the 1850s, plying his trade for a series of Washington heirs. Phil Smithtrained under Johann Ehlers, Mount Vernon's highly skilled German gardener, who had worked for two decades in the Hanoverian gardens of King George II and immigrated to America as a bound servant to George Washington. For much of their adult lives, West and Phil enjoyed positions of trust in the eyes of Mount Vernon's proprietors and visitors alike. West sometimes managed accounts and farm operations when Bushrod and his successors were away, and he occasionally guided visitors around the grounds and to Washington's tomb. Phil succeeded Ehlers as the visitors' guide to George Washington's gardens, retelling stories of the general's orange tree or rattling off the Latin names of various flowers and shrubs. Sometimes he presented visitors with a flower or a piece of fruit, a souvenir to embody the connection between past and present.34
For all their common experiences, West Ford and Phil Smith had profoundly different fates, thanks to Washington family wills.
Jack Washington had bequeathed West's mother and her parents to his wife, Hannah, to "devise to such of my children as she please." Alone among Jack's slaves, their disposition was not left to simple division based on monetary value. When Hannah Bushrod Washington wrote her own will in the 1790s, Venus had two children, West and Betty. She left Venus and Betty to her grandson Richard Henry Lee Washington (Corbin Washington's son and Bushrod's nephew), but by the time Hannah died in 1801 both Corbin and his wife were dead. Richard and his siblings became wards of Bushrod and his wife and moved to Mount Vernon. Venus and Betty followed. The teenage West went too, but his situation was unusual. Hannah's will explained part of the story. He had been born before Jack wrote his will, but Jack had failed to mention West when he listed Venus and her parents. Thus West became part of the unnamed enslaved property, divided between Bushrod and Corbin, who in turn gave the boy to Hannah when she offered to buy him. Her ownership having been thus established, Hannah Washington's will continued, she wanted West inoculated for smallpox as soon as possible and bound to a "good tradesman" until he turned twenty-one, "after which he is to be free for the rest of his life.'35
Twenty years earlier Hannah Bushrod Washington could not have done this legally. From 1723 to 1782 Virginia law mandated that an owner who wanted to free a slave had to petition the legislature, specifyingthe slave's "meritorious services." As the Revolutionary War was ending, several northern states took the first steps toward emancipation, but typically northern abolition was gradual. Instead of outlawing slavery entirely, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York set ages at which yet unborn slaves would become free. In Virginia, Quakers and others petitioned the legislature to permit private manumission, and in 1782 the General Assembly changed the law. Owners could now free their slaves through a will, deed, or other written document. Other states followed suit with similar acts, and manumissions increased. Virginia's free black population multiplied from about 1,800 in 1782 to 12,766 in 1790 and to 30,750 twenty years later. However, few planters released entire enslaved populations; George Washington was unusual in the sweep of his manumission. His provisions for educating those he freed went beyond the letter of the law, as did his sister-in-law Hannah's. But Hannah was more typical in another way. Most commonly, masters who manumitted anyone freed selected people while leaving the majority in slavery.36
Hannah's will did not explain why she made such explicit provision for this young man: West's father was almost certainly a Washington. Some of his descendants argue that George Washington was that man, a claim that made national headlines in the 1990s. Their argument relies on family oral history. Likelier suspects lived right at Bushfield: Jack Washington and his unmarried teenage sons Corbin and William (who died in 1785). Even Bushrod himself, who returned from Philadelphia to Bushfield to establish his legal practice in 1784, was more likely to encounter Venus than was his famous uncle.37
In any event, Bushrod Washington raised not just his brother's five children and several of his wife's nieces but also an African American man who was a Washington too. West did not call himself one. He took the name Ford, perhaps a family name. He learned to read and write, completed his apprenticeship, became free sometime around 1806, and married Priscilla Bell, a free woman of color, six years later. Their four children grew up at Mount Vernon, where West continued to work. Sources originally intended for surveillance reveal something of the Fords' physical appearance. Concerned about African Americans "going at large"--especially slaves pretending to be free in a society with a fast-growing free black population--the General Assemblyrequired "every free negro or mulatto" to register in his or her home city or county and to reregister every year in cities or every three years in counties. In practice many free blacks apparently never registered. Reregistration was seldom enforced except at extraordinary moments, such as the aftermath of Nat Turner's 1831 revolt in Southampton County. Reregistering on October 17 of that year, West Ford was described as "a yellow man ... five feet eight and a half inches high" with a "pleasant countenance, a wrinkle resembling a scar on the left cheek, [and] a scar on the left corner of the upper lip." Such language, familiar in advertisements for runaways, enabled free African Americans to prove their identity if mistaken for slaves. Ford took his two younger children to court with him; his older children, William (nineteen) and Jane (sixteen), also reregistered that day.38
By then West Ford had succeeded. He had lobbied Bushrod Washington for the care of his mother, Venus, whose fate was uncertain after Richard Henry Lee Washington died in 1817. When Richard's property was divided between his brothers, Venus stayed at Mount Vernon. There she remained, in her early sixties, when Bushrod Washington died in November 1829. The men who took inventory of Bushrod's estate appraised her at just five dollars. When Bushrod's heirs divided his slaves, his nephew John Augustine Washington, who inherited the 1,225 Mount Vernon acres containing George Washington's mansion and tomb, also got Venus. She was to remain with her son, at only token cost to John Augustine's share of the estate settlement. Bushrod Washington's will also acknowledged West Ford's service long after his manumission and perhaps implicitly the "yellow" man's descent from a white Washington. Along with any money still owed for Ford's work at Mount Vernon, the judge bequeathed "West Ford and his heirs" a 160-acre tract of land on Hunting Creek. West Ford parlayed his inheritance into a legacy for his children. He sold the land Bushrod had willed him and purchased 214 acres, at the gum trees and spring adjacent to the Mount Vernon property. For most of the 1830s Fairfax County appraised Ford's land and the buildings on it at $4,280. And from 1837 to 1850, in all but two years, he was taxed for one, two, or three slaves ages sixteen or older. He may at last have purchased his mother or other family members still in bondage.39
"Gardner Phil" Smith figured in Bushrod Washington's will too, butas inheritable property. Bushrod, like his father and true to his word, set nobody free. As the keeper of Mount Vernon's horticulture and its lore Phil seemed to belong to the place, not merely to its owner. So John Augustine Washington got first claim to him. Bushrod's wife and her heirs would receive at least eleven other slaves, most of them originally her property. Almost everybody else went unnamed, consigned to the "rest and residue" of Judge Washington's real and personal estate. All that residue was split five ways among Bushrod's nephews and niece after the judge and his wife died two days apart.40
The fortunes of Mount Vernon's slave families now depended on negotiations among new owners. The executors held an estate sale to dispose of farm equipment and livestock, then divided the enslaved people on the basis of dollar values, not kin ties. One family, specifically bequeathed to Bushrod's wife and her heirs, exemplified how the system of valuation worked. Louisa, about forty years old, was listed at $150. Her fifteen-year-old daughter, Criss, was worth nearly twice that ($275), but not a younger daughter, Louisa ($75), whose childbearing years lay too far in the future to bank much on her reaching them. Mother Louisa's three sons, ages nineteen to twenty-five, were field hands or skilled tradesmen, "likely" men in owners' parlance. They were assigned values of $400 each, the highest appraisals of any slaves in the estate. Old people like West Ford's mother, Venus, were worth the least. After the specific bequests were honored, the remaining people were sorted into five groups of roughly $1,100 each, a formula certain to split families. Oliver and Doll Smith, both about seventy years old and valued at $50 and $5, respectively, went to John Augustine Washington along with Phil ($400). Their other sons, Jack, George, Davy, and Ned, at least two of whom had attempted escape back in 1821, did not. All four were likely men, and they went to Bushrod's other nephews. Neither emotional nor financial considerations impelled these heirs to respect African American family ties. Jack, George, Davy, and Ned were taken away.41
Phil Smith stayed. Perhaps he did not share his brothers' rebelliousness because he believed that his calling for gardening at Mount Vernon transcended his bondage there. He was married, to a woman named Jenny who lived nearby but did not belong to Bushrod Washington or his heirs. Because someone else owned her or, perhaps, becauseshe was a free woman, we know nothing about her other than that John Augustine's son later bought a few chickens from her. Nor is there evidence of any children she and Phil had. Any papers, like the children themselves, would have belonged to her owner.42
Mount Vernon's new owners, John Augustine and his wife, Jane Charlotte, both had lived there as young adults. Jane Charlotte was Bushrod's wife's niece, orphaned young, as John Augustine had been. Each of them inherited slaves from their aunt and uncle. Besides Phil, Oliver, Doll, and Venus, John Augustine got a young dairymaid named Sarah and two children ages ten and one (but not their parents). Jane Charlotte received three people Bushrod had left to his wife and her heirs: Jesse Clark (forty-five years old), George Frazier (twenty-one), and a woman called "old Jenny" (approximately fifty-five). In addition, an advocate of the colonization movement, Jane Charlotte received a five-year-old child named Lewis (also without his parents), whom she intended to raise for freedom and possibly emigration to Africa.43 John Augustine and Jane Charlotte Washington spent much of every year at Blakeley, their Jefferson County plantation seventy-five miles northwest, a welcome retreat from the press of visitors. Situated on nearly nine hundred acres inherited from John Augustine's father, Corbin, Blakeley had been their home for fifteen years before they inherited Mount Vernon.
In the owners' absence, slaves became Mount Vernon's most visible inhabitants. John Augustine and Jane Charlotte hired farm managers but essentially left the place, and the visitors, in the care of the slaves. They quickly learned what Bushrod had known: financially, Mount Vernon was a losing proposition. It was home to a half dozen slaves like Oliver Smith and "old Jenny," people of little economic value who nonetheless had to be clothed, housed, and fed. So in 1831 John Augustine advertised in the Alexandria Gazette that Phil was authorized to sell plants from the greenhouse. Jane Charlotte, who inherited Mount Vernon at her husband's untimely death the following year, refined the system. An old woman at the porter's lodges opened the gate to the estate, usually receiving visitors' tokens of appreciation. Other slaves performed small services for visitors around the grounds. Tappan Wentworth, a lawyer from Lowell, Massachusetts, visited in 1833, when Jane Charlotte was away in Alexandria. Wentworth noted thatthe "art of sponging is so well understood ... and the division of labor is so well regulated" that he had little choice but to spend $1.25 in gratuities to various slaves. The mansion remained off-limits to those without letters of introduction, but strangers clamored so tirelessly to get in that Jane Charlotte grew weary of being considered "one of the curiosities of the place." Still, she appreciated and fostered the significance of Mount Vernon as a national shrine.44
The new Washington owners may have established the routine, but slaves like Oliver and Phil Smith wrote the script. Only nine years old when Washington died, Phil was less likely than his father to have had any familiarity with the general. Nevertheless, visitors found in Phil tangible links to the fabled past. The gardener retold old Johann Ehlers's stories, and he conveyed souvenirs while guarding the most precious trees. He would not allow a leaf to be taken from "the Ginnerl's" exotic lemon tree but generously arranged bouquets of roses and other flowers for ladies. For visitors not permitted inside the mansion, the grounds evoked the most stirring images of the great man himself: the statesman striding the piazza; the visionary gazing at the Potomac; the farmer dirtying his hands in the garden; the agricultural general commanding his enslaved army. Phil's stories blended many sets of memories: his father's, Ehlers's, his own, and those of free blacks in the neighborhood whom George Washington had manumitted. By all accounts loquacious, Phil took pride in his association with greatness.45
He also took pride in his work preserving the site of that greatness. In 1835 a fire destroyed the old greenhouse containing Washington's remaining exotic plants. Phil saved many of these botanical relics, personally "nursing them through the winter" in another building. For the writer Ann S. Stephens, such associations bestowed nobility on Phil as on Washington or his home. The southern novelist William Gilmore Simms wrote similarly about an "old negro" he met at Mount Vernon, perhaps Oliver Smith: "I regarded him with infinitely more veneration than I am accustomed to pay most white men."46 But what did their historic associations make African Americans? Did visitors imagine them the equivalent (or even the superior) of white Washington descendants who possessed no such store of memories? Or were these slaves merely speaking equivalents of Mount Vernon's walls and shrubbery?
The fascination with Oliver, Phil, and other Mount Vernon slaveswas part of a larger phenomenon. In the fall and winter of 1835 an old black woman named Joice Heth became a national celebrity, a "marvelous relic of antiquity" billed as George Washington's 161-year-old childhood nurse. According to handbills and advertisements, she was the first person ever to diaper and clothe the future Father of His Country. A certificate of authenticity, a bill of sale dated 1727 and signed by George's father, attested that Joice was fifty-three at that time. A hundred and eight years later she was quite a sight. She weighed just forty-six pounds, and the newspapers wrote that she resembled a "mummy just escaped from the sarcophagus." One New York paper said she had "not enough flesh left to make a grease spot, or entice a Jersey mosquitoe." Her left arm was paralyzed. The fingernails of her left hand had grown to about four inches, and her toenails were a quarter inch thick. She was toothless and completely blind. But she was perfectly sociable, enjoyed a good pipe, and talked as long as people wanted. She conversed about "dear little George," sang ancient hymns, and reminisced about life at home with the Washingtons. Audiences all over the Northeast paid 25 cents (12½ cents for children) to see and hear her, a lucrative initial investment for the man who organized her tour, P. T. Barnum. Joice Heth did not live to see her own second act, a celebrated autopsy in 1836 that revealed her to have been about eighty. Real or fake, Joice Heth was a relic in both senses of the word: an object, a withered specimen that people could connect to George Washington, and a human being, sharing memories of days and scenes that nobody in the audience could ever experience.47
Why did Mount Vernon, and especially its aged slaves, command so much fascination in the 1830s and 1840s? Interest in the place was not new, but black people's presence and actions there assumed new meanings in the years after George Washington died. The system John Augustine and Jane Charlotte Washington devised--new uses for old people--meant that visitors were more likely to interact with African Americans, but there were other reasons as well. Newspapers carried obituaries for century-old veterans and leaders of the revolutionary generation, notably the former presidents James Monroe, in 1831, and James Madison, five years later. They also ran death notices for old black people who had once belonged to George Washington.48 An earlier, more heroic time was fast disappearing from firsthand memory. Itsreplacement seemed less heroic and far more divisive. Jacksonian party politics energized but also split an enormously expanded electorate; Democrats and Whigs alike claimed to inherit the founders' mantle. The ideal of economic independence, embodied in the twin images of the yeoman farmer and the skilled artisan, became harder to achieve. More and more Americans worked for other people, not as a temporary step toward self-employment or landownership but as permanent wage labor.
Most of all, beginning in the early 1830s, slavery roiled America's political and social waters. Debates over slavery had diminished after the emancipationist movements of the 1770s and 1780s. Nat Turner's revolt and the rise of the abolitionist movement reignited the subject. In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator by thundering, "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation ... I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD." The American Anti-Slavery Society, founded two years later, echoed Garrison's argument for immediate emancipation without compensation to slave-owners. Southern politicians successfully pushed back; the Jackson administration suppressed abolitionist publications from the mails. In the North, abolitionist printers became targets of mob action. In the South, politicians and writers defended slavery as a positive good, a system that treated the lowliest far more humanely than northern capitalism ever would. Legislators rewrote statutes to make enslavement both more humane (for instance, increasing punishments for owners who mistreated slaves) and more restrictive (for instance, making it illegal to teach groups of slaves to read and write). They also imposed tighter controls on free African Americans, in many cases mandating their emigration from a state's borders. In Virginia some legislators advocated gradual emancipation and deportation of African Americans in the aftermath of Turner's revolt. Slavery's defenders won that debate, the last time before the Civil War that Old Dominion politicians seriously questioned the institution. Instead, the legislature in 1832 consolidated its scattered restrictions on slaves and free Negroes into one chapter of the state's code.49
In this desert of fractiousness, Mount Vernon seemed like an oasis of patriotism, a world apart. Getting there was a pilgrimage in theancient sense, especially after Bushrod Washington banned steamboats from landing. The difficult journey through forests and over stumpy, muddy paths gave visitors the sense of entering a landscape utterly separate from their everyday existence. Worshipping at Washington's tomb, Americans of all parties and stripes imagined a land free of turmoil. Politicians seized the occasion of a visit to bemoan the lack of a present-day Washington and to experience the aura of purer motives. Writers who were not politicians lamented contemporary pettiness as they paid homage to the Father of His Country. All contrasted Washington's selfless devotion to country with contemporary politicians' rhetoric and actions. Anything associated with Washington, including the gray-haired African Americans who conducted travelers around his estate, became the object of veneration.50
In another sense, Mount Vernon was not so far removed. Visitors who celebrated Washington's patriotism often contrasted it with the actions of politicians they disagreed with. Politicians themselves employed Washington's home as a backdrop for their own ends. In the election year of 1832 John Augustine Washington welcomed the Young Men's National Republican organization at Mount Vernon. Speakers praised the glory of Washington, draped themselves in his mantle, and cataloged the deficiencies of the Jackson administration. When The New-England Magazine wrote in 1834 that Oliver Smith was "a sound Whig, and sticks to the principles of his world-revered master," it may have referred to Whigs and Tories of the revolutionary era, but Andrew Jackson's opponents, many in New England, were coalescing under the same name. Eleven years later the Whig writer Theodore Dwight used a visit to Mount Vernon as the occasion for bitter denunciation of the Mexican War.51
As a southern plantation Mount Vernon could not escape the clamor of the slavery issue. Some northern travelers frowned on the presence of slaves there. One visitor asked an old man if George Washington had whipped his people. "The answer ... was stamped on every feature of his withered and wrinkled time-worn face, as he exclaimed, 'Whip me! the General order me to be punished! No, sir!'" Freedom's Journal, the nation's first newspaper published by African Americans, revived the old story of Bushrod Washington's slave sale. In March 1834 that entire saga appeared on the front page of the Liberator,under the title "Judge Washington, or a Specimen of the Conduct of the First President of the American Colonization Society." Early abolitionists sought to discredit colonization as a sham "antislavery" movement. William Lloyd Garrison furthered that objective by reprinting the thirteen-year-old announcement of Bushrod's sale, his reply, and his advertisement for runaways George and Ned, with its mention of their sister, the poisoner. Eight months later the Liberator published "A Tour at the South," featuring an abolitionist's visit to Mount Vernon--and his conversation with Oliver Smith.52
Entering one of the slave cabins near George Washington's mansion, the Liberator's reporter asked an old black woman for some water. As she brought him a cup, he asked if Bushrod Washington had treated his slaves well. "So well, that he sold them all in Georgia," she told him. She had borne eleven children, she said. Only two remained. Seeing her children sold could not have been pleasant, the writer remarked. It was pleasant neither to her nor to God, she replied. She never expected to see her children again "this side of the grave."53
Left unnamed in the Liberator's pages, this woman was named Hannah, about seventy years old when her words appeared in print. "Old Hannah," as she was known in a community with other Hannahs (including Oliver Smith's doomed daughter), had arrived at Mount Vernon early in the century, after Bushrod Washington purchased her and her husband, James. Six of their children had grown up near the Mount Vernon mansion, but only two daughters remained in 1830, when Bushrod's executors listed his human property. Betty was allotted to a nephew who inherited some Mount Vernon land west of the mansion house farm. Only Sarah, a twenty-one-year-old dairymaid pregnant with her first child, became John Augustine Washington's property. James and Hannah, appraised at five dollars apiece, were assigned to John Augustine's brother Bushrod Corbin, who lived in Jefferson County. This time, however, division was not destiny. Because no economic reason existed for moving the old couple, their new owner allowed them to remain at Mount Vernon and paid his brother annually for their upkeep. Bushrod Corbin Washington, like John Augustine, had grown up at Mount Vernon as his uncle's ward. He knewthe relationship between Sarah and her parents. He surely remembered also that Judge Washington had sold James and Hannah's other children.54
To the abolitionist reporter, Oliver Smith presented as forlorn an appearance as did Old Hannah. Oliver did not mention that his wife, Doll, had died in the winter of 1832-33. He shared only the barest information about his children: one gardener, six sold away, two dead. He never intimated that one of the dead had perished while a prisoner of the state of Virginia. Implicitly and explicitly, though, Oliver Smith talked politics. "Sold into Georgia," the fate of four sons, described a metaphorical destination rather than a literal one, echoing the wrenching lines of a slave song:
See these poor souls from Africa, Transported to America: We are stolen, and sold to Georgia, will you go along with me? We are stolen and sold to Georgia, go sound the jubilee.
See wives and husbands sold apart, The children's screams!--it breaks my heart; There's a better day a coming, will you go along with me? There's a better day a coming, go sound the jubilee.55
Oliver's words revealed the political acuity, and the extraordinary platform, that Mount Vernon's black people possessed. He could not read, but having lived with the president of the American Colonization Society and among free and enslaved African Americans, some of them literate, he knew the arguments for and against abolition and colonization. When members of Congress visited, he had told them they must abolish slavery, following Great Britain's "noble example." He and most fellow slaves had no desire to emigrate to Africa, as many white Americans wished. The "great horror of slavery," he said, lay in the danger of being sold away, taken by an unknown master into a strange, faraway land. Oliver Smith believed that slavery would someday be abolished. Most slaves, he said, shared his belief that they or their children would someday be free. Lacking that hope, "they would run almost any hazard to obtain their freedom." He remembered: confronted withBushrod Washington's determination never to free anyone, his sons had risked their lives for freedom.56
In his last years--he died before the 1830s were out--Oliver Smith became a national character. He may not have known the ways his words were disseminated across the United States, but he understood how his utterances and his person embodied America's deepest mythologies and contradictions. Recalling the stories that others had told ever since he came to Mount Vernon, he could conjure up the memory of George Washington the exacting Virginia paternalist or of George Washington the revolutionary liberator. Perhaps too, embracing George Washington's legacy compensated in some small measure for the loss of his own family. Remembering his own three decades there, always listening for the visitor's proclivities and tone, Oliver Smith could present Mount Vernon as the static, idealized pilgrim shrine that most Americans imagined or as the living, changing plantation where human bondage persisted.
Copyright © 2008 by Scott E. Casper