Primary Source of the Month
"George Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon" (click to enlarge)
Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch.
Photo: Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
In this painting from 1851, Washington oversees slaves on his plantation, Mount Vernon. This painting is part of a series by Junius B. Stearns depicting the life of George Washington. It portrays an idyllic vision of plantation life, with white children relaxing and enslaved workers taking a break from their work. More than fifty years after his death, Washington's role as a slave owner affected his public image.
Washington's relationship with slavery developed over time and was influenced by the rhetoric of the American Revolution, and the enlistment of thousands of African Americans in the army during the war. However, Washington was a slave owner throughout his life, earning his living on the backs of others. The paradox faced by Washington as a slave owner and Revolutionary figure was the same felt by many of the founders.
By the end of the war, Washington had a close relationship with the Marquis de Lafayette, a staunch abolitionist. While president, he signed an act banning slavery in the Northwest Territorybut also the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed the recapture of enslaved people in any U.S. state. Washington wrote privately to friends that he wished to see an end to slavery but never spoke out against the institution publicly. At his death Washington owned 123 slaves. In his will Washington freed his valet William Lee and provided for the manumission of the rest of his slaves at his wife's death. She freed them within a year of his death.