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I remember hearing a PBS documentary make a claim that the babies of slaves on George Washington's Mount Vernon went naked in winter. I have been trying to verify, or even get a good citation, for this fact. (Any web reference to conditions of slaves owned by the Founding Fathers is also of interest.)

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it can probably be said quite safely that they were on average no better or worse off than any other slave in the same area. – jwenting Jul 4 '13 at 5:28
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" claimed there were a wide variety of levels of brutality in slave holding, not only Kentucky to Mississippi delta, but family to family. It's one thing to steal a person's labor, quite another to choose how you'll put him up. Do they live like Indians or like concentration camp inmates? – pterandon Jul 4 '13 at 11:41
quite likely so, but you can't use a work of fiction as a historical reference. Remember that slaves are expensive commercial resources, so overall it makes sense to keep them reasonably healthy so they can earn a good return on investment. – jwenting Jul 4 '13 at 11:46
... Same with your car. Some car owners polish the engine block; others allow structural rust. But since there "economic incentive" to keep it running well, rust never happens. – pterandon Jul 4 '13 at 11:49
The other benchmark in relative slave treatment on a national level is if the population increases. Slaves in really poor conditions died faster than they could be bred, and continual importation was required. The American South in general treated slaves well enough that the population grew along with the white population. – Oldcat Sep 9 at 0:15

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The material aspects of life for slaves at Mount Vernon--things like their quarters, clothing, food--were very similar to the way things were done on other large plantations in 18th century Virginia (places like Monticello or Sabine Hall). In the case of infants, mothers at Mount Vernon were given a new blanket at the time of the birth and baby clothes of some type were provided, as well. For sources on slave life at Mount Vernon, we suggest the following:

Delano, Marfe Ferguson. Master George's People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2013.

The George Washington Digital Encyclopedia:

Schwarz, Philip J., editor. Slavery at the Home of George Washington. Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, 2001.

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Welcome Mary! And thanks for providing useful sources too. – kmlawson Jul 5 '13 at 21:12

George Washington had in total about 300 slaves at the height of his slave-owning career, but only about 150 were directly his, the others being indirectly his since they were acquired through family connections and so on. I think Martha Washington brought many or maybe most of them to the marriage--a lot of George's wealth (land, etc.) came from marrying Martha.

In his will, Washington freed the approximately 150 slaves that were his to free. The others were not legally his, so he couldn't. That he, as a Virginia landowner and wealthy individual, did this was rather unusual and is noteworthy.

My source for this is Ron Chernow's "Washington: A Life." Here's an interview about the book where he mentions the above numbers of slaves:

In other words, George Washington was far from the worst master a slave could have had. He was very much invested in the slave-owning soclal order that put him at the top of the food chain, but he did recognize slaves in a more humane way, as being more than live property like horses or hunting dogs. The interview above talks about Washington's feelings toward his slaves--demanding, but not wholly inhumane.

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This is interesting information, but it doesn't directly answer the question. – Joe Sep 9 at 0:24
That's a useful comment, and I think it would make your answer worthwhile. I recommend editing it in to the answer. – Joe Sep 9 at 4:48

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