Part 2 (The Planter): Washington: A Life

First portrait of George, age 40, by Peale

I’m still happily reading along in Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and just finished Part 2: The Planter.  This section covers George Washington’s life from age 26, his resignation from the army, marriage to Martha, and focus on Mount Vernon to the first days bloody days of the Revolution when he was in his early 40s.

Although the book doesn’t read like a novel it has a nice clip, juicy detail (George ordered Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac–you can now buy some online–for his honeymoon, George and Martha owned some racy books) and some subtle cliffhangers (at least in my mind): what will be the outcome for George’s aimless, filthy rich step-son Jacky?  Will George ever see his hypocrisy of agitating for liberty and owing slaves?  How does this man who “knew the value of silence, largely kept opinions to himself, and seldom committed a faux pas” become our first president?

George Washington certainly wasn’t a humble man; he simply wanted the best. During his early manhood he continued to struggle with outward displays of his fiery temper except when it came to issues of money around which he could be brutal and snappish towards others.  He was in dept up to the hilt with lenders from England, as were most colonial planters who needed tools and goods from England and gambled on good future crops to pay their loans. They were land rich and cash poor.

Although George never traveled to England, he liked the latest fashions and spent as much as he could on decor for his home, carriages, clothing, and other outwards displays of wealth.  In 1758 he doubled the size of his house (for a virtual tour of the house, click here). He apparently didn’t do this to flaunt his position as much as he did it to gain the respect and acceptance of others.  Whereas in Part 1 George’s main complaint in life was the treatment of colonial officers by the British military, during this time period he has multiple thorns in his side: debt, the high cost and shabby quality of goods he’s forced to buy from England, and England’s restrictions on and taxation of its North American colonists.

It wasn’t until after George started experimenting with crops and diversifying what he planted and produced that he gained more financial stability and came to relish his work as a plantation owner.  From 1763 to 1770 he was able to cut his debt in half.  Prior to his focus on Mount Vernon his plantation was mired in the labor intensive work of growing tobacco. “Labor intensive” for this time and place means slave labor and George owned 87 slaves in 1770.  After he quits focusing on tobacco, he doesn’t need so many field hands and had many of his slaves trained in various trades and crafts. Who trained them?  Indentured servants that George acquired from England. George’s slaves worked around his plantation (which was huge and included 5 farms) and he also loaned them out to work at other plantations.  Although George was against splitting up slave families, members of families sometimes only saw each other on Sundays if they worked on different farms.  George was also against buying slaves, yet participated in slave lottery sales and shipped problem slaves to the Caribbean which was a virtual death sentence due to working conditions.

By all accounts George treated his slaves “well”: inoculated them against smallpox, gave them good medical treatment (sometimes tending them himself), mandated that overseers get his permission before whipping a slave, and he quit buying slaves in 1772. Because he usually didn’t split up families, the slave population of Mount Vernon grew to 135.  He also entrusted slaves as overseers at 3 of his 5 farms and allowed slaves to go to Alexandria to peddle their wares at the market on Sundays. Yet, no matter how well he or Martha treated them or how much they considered them part of the family, slaves did not have liberty or rights. George didn’t stop to consider the psychology of being a slave.  He expected them to have his own work ethic and didn’t understand why some would want to run away (about 7% did). Billy Lee, a slave, was George’s personal manservant. Martha had her own set of slaves for domestic work as well as a sewing crew.

During this time England made a series of decisions that cause discontent and outrage among the wealthy colonial planters. In an age when land acquisition was a mania, one of the most grievous mistakes the crown made was forbidding colonists to settle west of the Alleghenies to protect the fur trade with the Indians even though settlers from Germany, Ireland, and other places were settling there.  Washington and other veterans of the French & Indian War were also told they wouldn’t get the land grants which were promised them for their service.  Washington had gone on surveying trips for these lands and was accused by at least one man for taking the best lands for himself. When it came to land acquisition, George broke various laws and did whatever he could to snap up as much land as he could.

There was also the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the Boston Massacre, the repeated dissolution of the House of Burgesses by the British appointed governor whenever George and his fellow elected officials agitated a little too much.  George’s perspective begins to widen as he contemplates how these decrees hurt not only the growth of his own wealth, but the country’s wealth as well.  He starts “mingling idealism with profit.”

The Boston Tea Party

George disapproved of the Boston Tea Party actions of December 16, 1773 when colonists, dressed as Mohowk Indians, dumped 342 chests of tea into the Massachusetts Bay. He also spoke out against the British military crackdown. By the summer of 1774, however, George was also sounding pretty militant and accused the Indians of the back country as being “cruel & bloodthirsty” and the Crown as endeavoring to “fix the shackles of slavery upon us.”  At this time in the book I get the clear sense that “us” refers to wealthy landowners of George’s class and not so much an abstract sense of Americans in general.  As Ron Chernow bluntly writes, at this time Washington doesn’t have political ideas of his own, but soaks up the ideas of others.  And so far I get no sense that George was around any other type of  men other than those of his own class or his slaves (he often got off his horse to help mend fences or do other physical labor with his slaves).  In his 20s he commanded men from the lower classes and not much is said about what he thought of those men, other than those who deserted.

The movers and shakers, the rich landowners of each colony, decide to take matters into their own hands.  They get together to form the first Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia on August 5, 1774.  They decree to stop all imports and exports to England was well as horse racing, gaming, cock-fights, shows, plays, and other “expensive diversions and entertainments” (its a ‘moral’ revolution, too, even if George did like to attend the theatre).  It also endorsed an end to the slave trade but there seemed to be no talk of actually ending slavery.  The continuation of the slave trade was forced upon them by the British, but considering that 40% of the population of Virginia was slaves and that slaves were continuing to have children, how much new influx did they need?  The call to end the slave trade seems to be about economics–supply and demand–rather than morals.  (Let me point out that Chernow doesn’t go into details on the issues as this is a biography about Washington and not a history of slavery or American politics. I am just thinking out loud.)  These leaders encouraged the formation and organization of colonial militias even though there was hope that grievances could be ironed out diplomatically.  They also organize local committees to ensure these decrees are followed.

George Washington talked a lofty talk of putting forth all of his wealth to support the cause, yet after giving money to the Fairfax County militia for supplies, he and other community leaders turned around and implemented a tax on all county citizens “for the common benefit, protection, and defense of the inhabitants.”  Considering that one of the big beefs the colonists had with England was being taxed for the French & Indian War and ongoing protection, it seems nothing short of blatant hypocrisy that Washington and other leaders turned around and did the same thing to their “own” neighbors.  But at least Washington was voted into his position.  And the most glaring hypocrisy is, of course, the issue of liberty sought by men who own slaves.

Martha Washington

Chernow mentions several times how the American Revolution is an historical anomaly:  wealthy conservatives start this revolution rather than the poor and disenfranchised.  What made it possible for George’s gentlemanly participation in the Revolution (i.e., not needing payment for his services) was the death of his step-daughter Patsy from complications due to epilepsy.  He inherited her immense wealth, through his wife Martha, upon the girl’s death.  Patsy’s death also freed Martha to travel with George. In Part 1 Chernow had outlined how much, if not all, of George’s status and wealth derived from the death of loved ones and here it happens again.

I just started Part 3: The General, which is all about–you guessed it–George as General.  I’m on page 246, about 25% through the book.  The General looks to be the largest section.  Here’s how it begins:  On April 14, 1775 Samuel Adams and John Hancock were hanging out in Lexington, Massachusetts before the meeting of the second Continental Congress when Paul Revere made his glorious ride to tell them that the British were coming.  The British arrived in Lexington on April 19th and promptly fired upon and killed some colonists.  Although George didn’t openly or aggressively seek to be in charge of a continental army, he did read up on military science and wore a uniform to the 2nd Continental Congress.

More to come….

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