Book tells story of Mt. Vernon’s slaves
In the preface of her new book, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, Virginia historian Mary Thompson describes herself as an “often obsessed, exhausted and frazzled historian.”
In the book, Thompson details the lives of the people enslaved by George Washington on his 18th-century plantation, Mount Vernon.
As Mount Vernon’s research historian for nearly four decades, Thompson has spent years combing through Washington’s diaries, letters, journals, financial ledgers, weekly work reports from the farm manager and visitors’ accounts. “[Washington] was a very fine record keeper,” Thompson said.
She calls the book “a difficult and painful story.” But it also describes the founding father’s revelation that led him to free his slaves in his will. Washington told one of his early biographers, David Humphries, that being a slaveholder was “his only unavoidable subject of regret,” inspiring Thompson’s book title.
A close look at slavery
The 500-page tome is “the first comprehensive account of those who served in bondage at Mount Vernon,” according to its publisher, the University of Virginia Press.
One of Thompson’s goals was to illuminate the daily lives — and the emotions — of the Washingtons’ slaves, who made up 90 percent of the plantation’s population. They worked six days a week, from sunup to sunset, and most lived in crowded log cabins with dirt floors.
Although enslaved people had minimal control over their lives, they were able to assert power in several ways, Thompson stressed in a June interview with the Beacon. Many had garden plots to supplement their rations and sold vegetables “under the table” in Alexandria.
And they resisted in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such as slowing down work, pretending to be sick, breaking tools, sabotaging crops and attacking overseers.
Some practiced Christianity or Islam, while others retained some African languages and practices. Several successfully ran away.
Washington’s change of heart
Slaves kept Mount Vernon running while Gen. Washington fought the British.
During the Revolutionary War, while in the northern states, he saw hired workers farming and realized they had more incentive to work that did his unpaid “workforce.”
He encountered capable African and African-American soldiers, and was impressed by articulate abolitionists on his on staff. Washington came to realize his own hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while enslaving people.
Thompson maintains an arms-length objectivity about our revered founding father. Washington was “one of the greatest — but still not perfect,” she wrote. She ends the book with the hope the book will help heal the wounds of America’s “racially difficult past.”
“We still have not gotten over slavery in this country,” she said in June. “Slavery is not over. There are still millions around the globe enslaved or otherwise doing unfree labor, being coerced.”
A Mt. Vernon expert
A self-described “Army brat,” Thompson lives in the Mount Vernon area with her husband. She attributes her passion for history to her Army chaplain father who “dragged me to museums and cemeteries growing up.”
She received a Bachelor of Arts in history from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and a Master of Arts in history from the University of Virginia.
“I never intended to become an expert on George Washington,” she said. But Thompson started working at Mount Vernon in 1980 as a historic interpreter, and the rest is, shall we say, history.
In her critical behind-the-scenes role as historian, Thompson prepares materials for interpreters and programs. For example, when Mount Vernon’s curators decided to re-enact Washington’s 1799 funeral on the 200th anniversary of his death, they turned to Thompson for accurate details.
Every December, when visitors see Martha Washington’s Christmas cake on the dining room table, it’s because Thompson provided the details from her research.
The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret is Thompson’s second book. In 2008, the University of Virginia Press published her first book, In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington.
Thompson is considering writing more books, perhaps on the animals at Mount Vernon, or about Martha Washington and the Revolutionary War.
After nearly 40 years, her work at Mount Vernon is never dull, Thompson said. “I’m still learning every day.”
The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret is available from the University of Virginia Press, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and the Mount Vernon Gift Shop.