Pilgrims at the Plantation
“The moment you’ve been waiting for!” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Aaron Burr announces in Act I of Hamilton. “The pride of Mount Vernon: George Washington,” who stomps, stern and capable, onto the stage. (Thanks, Disney+.)
There’s little new left to observe about the startling omissions in the famous musical (e.g., the struggle for independence led by some colonists in some of the British North American colonies proved devastating for American Indians, enslaved people, and their descendants in the U.S.). Even if Hamilton was six years — a doctorate’s worth — in development, we shouldn’t expect artful historical fiction to reflect contemporary historiography. It’s still disappointing that the narrative trumpeted about the Revolution is so conventional.
That said, it’s not so surprising, especially in its treatment of Washington. Among the cast, he is the least funny, ironic, and introspective character. This depiction is in tune with how Americans have seen Washington and his plantation home, Mount Vernon, for more than 200 years: as the domestic retreat of and as a national shrine to a remote and almost superhuman man, rather than the site of mass human rights abuse superintended by a complex individual. Indeed, slavery has always haunted the estate, and making sense of Mount Vernon as both Washington’s home and as a slave labor camp is vital to its meaning as one of the nation’s most consistently popular and significant tourist sites.
Tellingly, none of this is a target in Hamilton. As Washington’s command of the war falters, it is suggested that everyone would be better off if he simply went back to planting tobacco at Mount Vernon. But the verse absents the enslaved people who did the planting. By contrast, in a rap battle about political economy, Miranda’s Hamilton doesn’t miss the chance to call out Thomas Jefferson for his hypocrisy on the question of freedom and enslavement: Jefferson envisions a republic of independent farmers who produce wealth; Hamilton retorts, “we know who’s really doing the planting.” As he has often been throughout U.S. history, Washington seems beyond such reproach.
Mount Vernon during Washington’s lifetime, however, was foremost a plantation — though, as thoughtful critics have suggested, we might abandon that euphemism. It was a huge capitalist operation. Washington added some 5000 acres of land and more than 100 slaves to the estate he inherited in the 1750s and, over the decades, he forced the latter to maximize the productivity of the former. In retirement in the late 1790s, Washington did not relent. In his twilight years, Mount Vernon also became a tourist site at a time when American tourism scarcely existed. The Washingtons were well-known for welcoming surprise visitors into the house and showing them around the grounds. It was like the nation’s home. For some, anyway.
It's still disappointing that the narrative trumpeted about the Revolution is so conventional.
George Washington’s will stipulated that his 123 slaves be freed after Martha Washington’s death, and Martha, perhaps fearing they would hasten that expiration date, freed them soon after his own. She kept her 153, however, and with her death these enslaved people were divvied up among her side of the family. Over the next half century, farming at Mount Vernon foundered. The Washingtons’ descendants were unable to eke value from the land, which they sold off or rented out. Slaves, some of them descended from the Washingtons’ own household, continued to work the dwindling and poorly managed estate.
In the antebellum United States, Mount Vernon’s owners kept buying slaves, though mainly to sell them farther south. Ridiculing this practice in the 1820s, one anonymous writer spewed in faux French at Washington’s nephew, and heir to Mount Vernon, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington:
Vile petit villain how can vous look a manly man in le face,
votre withered hellish countenance black with le deeds of hell,
vous to come among Men of principle: your brains ought de be blown out,
vous stink in Cur.
In these decades, the tourists kept coming, and new transportation by steamship made the voyage even easier. Mount Vernon became the one site that Americans from across the expanding and fractured country could look to as a national memorial. It didn’t matter that it was privately owned, that its owners often resented the intrusion, and that the tens of thousands of visitors wore down the estate. Many happily snuck away from the grounds with some small relic, often something as banal as a stone or twig pocketed from the hallowed area around the Washingtons’ crypt, where George and Martha still lie.
As scholars have recently documented, the enslaved people there were key to this tourist experience and often reaped a profit from it. They became tour guides and regaled visitors with first-hand tales, whether true or apocryphal, of the Washingtons, stories which brought tourists back in time to the imagined domestic life of the first first family. While critics might take target at Judge Bushrod Washington’s slave-trading, his uncle’s ownership of slaves was rarely a target for opprobrium. Tourists were largely untroubled by the tension between their celebration of the nation’s liberator and the presence of Mount Vernon’s “servants,” as they were often called. In this historic recreation, the enslaved, of course, remained shackled in their present.
There may be no other site that so captures — in its architecture, grounds, and history — the fraught relationship between American liberty and American oppression.
From the 1820s and into the 20th century, as the tourists’ trail around Mount Vernon was clearly delineated, so too was the expected emotional experience of the visitor. One vivid example appears in James Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the American (1828), in which a fictional duo of traveling bachelors tour the United States. Strolling along the Potomac River one day, they bump into the French Marquis de Lafayette, likely the most famous foreigner in the early United States due to his support — as viewers of Hamilton know — of the American Revolution. They all board a steamship and from the crowded deck soon find themselves gazing up at the legendary residence.
For Cooper’s characters, visiting the home becomes more than a civic experience. As one of them moves among the quiet rooms, he looks around “with a deep and increasing emotion.” He feels himself approaching Washington, nearer and nearer. Opening a door, he records, “I felt the blood stealing up my arm, as the sudden conviction flashed on my mind that the member rested on a place where the hand of Washington had probably been laid a thousand times.” The bachelors exit the house just as Lafayette returns from the Washingtons’ modest family vault, several hundred yards away. “It was evident,” they note of Lafayette, “that his feelings had been wrought up to a high and painful point.” Later, in Washington’s former gardens, an enslaved man hands to them a bundle of flowers wrapped in a spare paper torn from Washington’s own hand-written journal. When they realize this, they are overcome by emotion, thrilled by the intimacy with Washington that Mount Vernon made possible.
To an extent, we too continue to act out the tourist script written and performed by antebellum 19th-century Americans. We understand Mount Vernon, although it is privately owned, as belonging to the nation. We approach it from similar vantage points and gaze at the distinctive architecture from across its manicured lawns, snapping photos where sketches were once drawn, meandering from the house down to the crypt and through the gardens. Access to the home where the Washingtons once lived is meant to elicit a strong emotional response. Historical interpreters of the Washingtons’ slaves mediate our experience of the site. We crowd with people from around the country: some wear MAGA hats, some BLM shirts, and we likely come away with some memento from the busy gift shop with which to recount the experience to others.
At the same time, it’s unlikely that many today approach Mount Vernon with the same outpouring of emotion as Cooper’s characters and Lafayette. The pressure to perform that sort of awe has surely declined, too. In the museum hallway leading to Mount Vernon’s grounds hangs a dreary photo of President and First Lady Melania Trump beside French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte during their 2019 visit. Reportedly, Trump was perplexed that Washington hadn’t named the estate after himself. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”
More important, Mount Vernon is unlikely to play host to the unconflicted adoration of Washington that Cooper depicts. Visitors are all directed along the same path toward the home, but each person approaches it from their own vantage point. Although it remains a shrine to the man, it is curated today as something much more complicated. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which has preserved the site since the 1850s, seeks today to tell a less distorted story of what happened there; among the links under the “Delve into History” navigation on the website, “George Washington” and “Martha Washington” precede “Slavery.” The new Washington Library is an extraordinary resource that promotes scholarship on enslaved people at Mount Vernon as an essential part of its larger history. Visiting this past winter on January 1st, Emancipation Day, I watched a historical interpreter depict the experience of a woman whose husband was freed by George while she remained in bondage to Martha. As history, it is much more complex and challenging than the Hamilton version of the Revolutionary era.
This is not to say that such shifts are “enough” or that there is such thing as “enough” of a revision to the narrative and the experience of Mount Vernon. As with other major founding figures, the presence of statues to Washington in public spaces across the U.S. is facing unprecedented scrutiny. What is especially important about Mount Vernon as a monument is that it cannot be removed or replaced from a public space. It is the public’s space. The script can change, however, and continues to do so. There may be no other site that so captures — in its architecture, grounds, and history — the fraught relationship between American liberty and American oppression. Because of this, there may be no better site for reexamining what exactly the nation is.
Enthusiastically suggested reading:
Scott Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008).
Lydia Mattice Brandt, First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016).
Matthew R. Costello, The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President (University of Kansas Press, 2019).
Indeed, slavery has always haunted the estate, and making sense of Mount Vernon as both Washington's home and as a slave labor camp is vital to its meaning as the nation's leading tourist site.
Derek O’Leary is a historian of the early U.S. who writes and teaches about archives, historical consciousness, and intellectual history. He has a Ph.D. in History from UC Berkeley and is joining the faculty at Bard High School Early College in Washington, D.C. this fall. You can read excerpts of his academic writing at the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, which he co-edited
Gloria Bejar is a twelve-year old artist living in Vancouver, Canada.
I really like drawing and I recently became interested in Hamilton, a musical about one of America’s founding fathers. My drawing is of three characters from the musical, named the Schyler Sisters. The woman on the left is Eliza Schyler. She was married to Alexander Hamilton.