review: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

81uspsSaAtL._AC_UL115_.jpgtitle: Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon
author: Carla Killough McClafferty
date: Holiday House; 2018
nonfiction; ages 10 and up

Carla Killough McClafferty is a children’s nonfiction author who has written biographies on Marie Curie, Varian Fry and George Washington. Buried Lives, her most recent books is meant to focus on the lives of William Lee, Christopher Sheels, Caroline (Branham) & Peret Hardiman, Ona Maria Judge and Hercules.

The title of the book, Buried Lives The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, asserts that the book will provide visibility to the African American people who have left little to no written testimony of their own and it refers to their literal burial at Mount Vernon. I found that the burial process continues as these lives are contextualized solely in their relationship to George and Martha Washington never becoming fully realized human beings. The chronology of the book is built around Washington’s lifespan providing a frame that centers the story on him.

“George Washington, the man who led the fight for American freedom, was a slave owner. At the age of eleven Washington inherited ten human beings, and he would own people his entire life. By the time Washington was born, African people had been enslaved in the Americas for hundreds of years.” (p.1)

This first paragraph of the book’s introduction solidly centers the text on George Washington. It tells he was a slave owner and that slavery had been in the Americas for hundreds of years. With no presentation of the moral or political challenges to human chattel slavery, young readers are led to think the existence of slavery was a part of America’s destiny.

Chapter One begins with Washington purchasing William Lee for the “same price that he would pay for four good horses” (p.9). There is no historical context that indicates why one human was able to buy another. There is no description of the obligations that Washington would legally have to Lee, or that Lee would have to Washington. On page 43, we learn that Washington owned humans so that Mt. Vernon could be self-sustaining. Essentially, he took away the freedom of those he enslaved so that could maintain an independent lifestyle. Isn’t this the great American irony?

Five of the chapters address the lives of individual African Americans at Mount Vernon into the Washington’s lives, beginning with that of William Lee.

In 1781, in preparation for another battle, Lee accompanied General Washington on a short trip to their home.

“For the first time in six long years, war-weary Lee and his master were home. Lee’s family and friends were surely just as happy to see him as Washington’s family was to see the general.” (p.14) Here, the author is willing to make an assumption about Lee’s relationships but there is so much more we could know about Lee. Who were these family and friends? Which enslaved people lived or worked in close proximity to him? The writing here stays focused on the life of George Washington by not offering evidence from the perspective of enslaved people.

After the Revolutionary War ended, William wanted his wife Margaret, a free woman, to come to Mt. Vernon to live with him. The text on p. 16 indicates that Washington did not like the woman, yet he worked to allow her to join William. (Benevolent paternalism?) The legal structure that prevented Margaret from joining her husband is not presented. This reads as if Washington is the sole arbiter of the rights and privileges of enslaved people when there were actually state and local laws in place. No information is offered about the changing legal restrictions when Washington and Lee traveled to Philadelphia and this could have been an opportunity to explore the complexity of enslavement in that time and in those places.

The book presents us with Washington’s paternalistic benevolence, information on how he manages his estate and his work to form a new United States government. Too often, readers are supplied suppositions about enslaved people how they might have felt, why they might have acted in a certain way and the suppositions fail to consider more than a willingness to serve.

The reader is given no information about the legalities that define the relationship between Lee and Washington, but there is a closeness. Here, Lee and Sheels are made human through their involvement with Washington while maintaining no agency of their own.

“William Lee was willing [emphasis mine] to travel even though his knee injuries were serious and would make traveling difficult and painful for him.” p.22

“Twenty-two-year-old Sheels had traveled alone to Pennsylvania for medical care. Once he was treated and was out of danger, he could have run away. He could have left his mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins back at Mount Vernon and escaped. He had the money. He had the opportunity.

But he didn’t. Sheels returned to his family-and to slavery. When he got back to Mount Vernon, Sheels returned $12 – his unspent travel money – to his owner, George Washington.” (p. 38)

William Lee and Christopher Sheels are presented as choosing to be enslaved, to loyally serve their owner rather than as agents who would consider various elements of their well-being or that of their mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins over their freedom.

As the book progresses, the author presents more solid information about the enslaved people themselves, about Carline (Branham) & Peter Hadiman, Ona Maria Judge and Hercules, but their profiles are still scaffolded around the Washingtons. In these chapters, we do begin to learn some of the legalities surrounding slavery in the developing country as well as shades of the sternness Washington exhibited.

“The enslaved community at Mount Vernon knew their master did not usually sell the people he owned, although he had on rare occasions in the past. They also knew he did not usually allow physical punishment. So at Mount Vernon, the most looming threat was being sent to the fields to work.” (p. 52)

The closing chapter “And Then What Happened?” presents so many details about each of the African Americans in the book that leaves it to wonder why their stories aren’t at the forefront. This is more a story of Washington’s evolution from a slave buyer to an emancipator, from a wealthy empire builder to a struggling landowner but, slaves and slavery are never brought to the forefront.

The book contains re-enactment photos along with photos of artwork and primary source documents from the era.

Buried Lives The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon continues to bury African American who were enslaved and fails to fully contextualize slavery’s legacy in the racial and political history of the United States. I think the book does better than most books for young readers to portray Washington’s personal involvement with slavery but it falls short on its presentation of those enslaved.

One thought on “review: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

  1. It’s interesting–no, infuriating as usual–that the title, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, forefronts the enslaved people themselves; and at the same time, the story itself sends them to the back of the bus. That Black people of this era are not deserving of having their own stories being told–what an awful message this sends to our children today. On another note: George Washington, one of “our” Founding Fathers, is known in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) language as “town destroyer.” Thank you, Edi, for yet another excellent review of yet another problematic young people’s book.


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