In John Trumbull’s painting of George Washington the artist blends history and portrait. George Washington was the commander in chief during the Revolutionary War. This painting epitomizes heroism and nobility.
In the same Yale University Gallery, upstairs from the American paintings, stands Titus Kaphar’s Shadows of Liberty in the Modern Art Gallery with similar characters and colors. Yet, his painting tells a very different story and tone. The golden yellow cape wrapped around Washington is a shredded list of enslaved people held up with rusty nails like a collar and covering his mouth.
You will not find Kaphar or Trumbull’s painting at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, what you will find is an “authentically interpreted 18th century home,” lush gardens and grounds, museum galleries, and immersive programs.
Mount Vernon was George Washington’s home. It was also home to hundreds of enslaved people who lived and worked under Washington’s control. In 1799, there were 317 men, women, and children enslaved at Mount Vernon’s five farms, which covered 8,000 acres. They made up more than 90% of the population of the estate. The exhibit states, “Washington’s views on slavery changed over time. Economic and moral concerns led him to question slavery after the Revolutionary War, though he never lobbied publicly for abolition. Unable to extricate himself from slavery during his lifetime, Washington chose to free the 123 enslaved people he owned outright in his will. He was the only founding father to do so.”
Both the Enslaved People’s tour and the museum gallery “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” offer a watered down view of slavery and set the tone that the first president of the United States had conflicting views about slavery.
George Washington, ca. 1787–1788 wrote, “The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.”
History is not one-sided. When teaching about this time period it is important to look at history from multiple perspectives and voices. If you are teaching this time period, here are a few additional resources to add to your repertoire about George Washington.
Born into a life of slavery, Ona Judge eventually grew up to be George and Martha Washington’s “favored” dower slave. When she was told that she was going to be given as a wedding gift to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Ona made the bold and brave decision to flee to the north, where she would be a fugitive.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar reveals a fascinating and heartbreaking behind-the-scenes look at the Washingtons’ when they were the First Family—and an in-depth look at their slave, Ona Judge, who dared to escape from one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
For older students, Dunbar’s original book was a Finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction offering a startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family. When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he brought along nine slaves, including Ona Judge. As the President grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t abide: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.
Hmmmmm, that is very sneaky, Mr. Washington! So, when teaching this time period. Let’s just be sure to paint the whole picture. We can bring in artifacts and texts from multiple perspectives and people.
In your are in the Washington, DC area, George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate is worth visiting. Also, online there are multiple resources for teachers with lesson plans, virtual tours, a digital encyclopedia, and artifacts. For those who are fans of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton the Musical, there is a webpage on the Mount Vernon website that looks at how each song from the original cast recording relates to Washington.