In the 1760s, tobacco was one of Virginia’s chief exports. But George Washington turned away from the noxious plant and began dreaming of wheat and a more profitable future.
Washington became enamored with new ideas powering the agricultural revolution in Great Britain and set out to implement this new form of husbandry back home at Mount Vernon. His quest to become a gentleman farmer reshaped Mount Vernon’s landscape and altered the lives of the plantation’s enslaved community, and his own ideas about slavery, forever.
On today’s show, Dr. Bruce Ragsdale joins Jim Ambuske to chat about his new book, Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery, published by Harvard University Press in 2021.
Ragsdale is the retired Director of the Federal Judicial History Office and he’s one of the leading experts on agriculture in the early republic. And as you’ll hear, Washington the revolutionary farmer had more in common with Farmer George in England, that is King George III, than you might think.
Interview published: January 20, 2022
Transcript created: July 6, 2022
Host: Jim Ambuske, Center for Digital History, Washington Library at Mount Vernon
Guest: Dr. Bruce Ragsdale
Jim Ambuske: Hey folks, before we get to today's great conversation. I wanted to tell you about one of my favorite history podcasts. It's called Consolation Prize, and it's hosted by Abby Mullen of our two studios. Consolation Prize is a show about seeing the world through the eyes of the American consoles who represented the United States abroad since the early days of the Early Republic.
I love the show because it takes you back in time and around the world from Zanzibar to Mexico, covering history as US Consoles saw it and sometimes made it. So if you like stories of revenge, humiliation, triumph, joy, and I'm not even kidding about this part, exploding volcanoes, then this show is for you. Look for Consolation Prize, wherever you get your favorite podcasts.
Hi veryone I'm Jim Ambuske and this is Conversations at the Washington Library. In the 1760s, tobacco was one of Virginia's chief exports, but George Washington turned away from the noxious plant and began dreaming of wheat and a more profitable future. Washington became enamored with new ideas then powering the agricultural revolution in Great Britain and set out to implement this new form of husbandry back home at Mount Vernon.
His quest to become a gentleman farmer reshaped Mount Vernon’s landscape, alter the lives of the plantation’s enslave community, and his own ideas about slavery forever. On today's show, Dr. Bruce Ragsdale joins me from his home in England to chat about his new book, Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery, published by Harvard university press in 2021.
Ragsdale is the retired Director of the Federal Judicial History Office and he's one of the leading experts on the agriculture of the Early Republic. And as you'll hear Washington, the revolutionary farmer, had more in common with farmer George in England, that is King George the Third than you might think.
Now, before we get started, please take a moment to rate and review the show on your favorite podcast app. It helps other people find us and the new insights our guests bring to the table each episode. And with that, let's find Washington at the plow with Dr. Bruce Ragsdale.
Bruce, I am delighted to have another opportunity to talk with you about your new book, Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery. You know, by the time people hear this our new scripted series on the enslaved community at Mount Vernon will be out, which you were a very important part of and thank you very much again for participating in that project.
And that podcast is of course called Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. So I'm delighted to have another crack at you. And I wanted to begin by asking you a very big picture question, there are many books published about Washington each year.
Some of them are very fine books, some of them are very well written. But it's really, really hard to say anything, uh, new about the guy. And as you embarked on this project, and just spoiler alert, I think you've actually achieved something new. But as you set out on this journey, what were the major questions that excited you?
What was it about Washington, agriculture, and the relationship to slavery that motivated you to take this project on.
Bruce Ragsdale: Yeah, I, for a very long time, thought that it was the most important missing component of biographies of Washington. Washington's interest in farming is always acknowledged, it's always mentioned.
We know that he loved being at Mount Vernon to farm. We knew he communicated with Frederick Young. But I don't think there's, well, there's never been a full scholarly biography of Washington as a farmer, which also means there's never been a full scholarly biography of Washington as an enslaver because you cannot separate his life as a farmer from his life as an enslaver.
And that was one of the things that interested me, but I also thought that it was never just a side amusement the way it's sometimes presented. I think it's central both in terms of his personality, but also in terms of the public role he was trying to play and kind of contributions he's trying to make, first to late colonial Virginia and then to the new nation.
And there's a visitor, went to Mount Vernon in 1785, a British visitor, and he reported that Washington's greatest pride, following the Revolutionary War, was to be considered the first farmer of America. Washington’s celebrated for a lot of firsts, but first farmer is something that's been lost in the memory of Washington.
And so one of the things I want to know is why, why would this have been so important to Washington? What was, what did it mean to be the first farmer of America? What was he trying to accomplish and contribute as farmer. And at the same time, I, I wanted to recover one of the great symbols of Washington that also I think is lost to the nation's memory.
And that's Washington as the American Cincinnatus, is his return to farming after his resignation, his commission of the Continental Army is seen as having tremendous symbolic importance and he's compared to Cincinnatus the Roman leader. Who left the plow to defend the Republic in battle and then rejects an offer of arbitrary power and goes back to the plow.
And this image of Washington at the plow like Cincinnatus at the plow, was seen as, as a symbol of his virtue, but it also was this notion of the farmer doing the public good. And I think it, it set a standard of expectations, um, and it attracted attention from, really all around the Atlantic world, but that attention in those standard of expectations, I found eventually have a significant role in his reckoning with slavery in the years after the Revolutionary War.
And I think contributed ultimately to his decision to emancipate the enslaved.
Jim Ambuske: So the revolution, as you say, is a big pivot point in his life. What did Washington's agricultural world look like before the American Revolution? And how did Mount Vernon fit into this world and how did it relate to other plantations in the Chesapeake?
Bruce Ragsdale: From the time he comes back to full-time management at Mount Vernon, which is in the spring 1759. And that's when he really starts thinking about his life as a full-time farmer. And from that very moment, he’s going to do the things that gentry planters in Virginia focus on, which is [00:06:00] expand his ownership of land ownership, of enslaved laborers.
And also produce tobacco for export to Great Britain. But from the very beginning, Washington is interested in setting up a different kind of farming operation. And in his very first letter to the tobacco merchants who had served the Custis family, a much more prestigious firm than he had dealt with in the past, the Robert Carion Company, in that first introduction of himself to Carion, he asks them to select the best recent treatises on improved agriculture.
He also asks them to send him, uh, specific titles that he already knew about. None of these have anything to do with tobacco or corn or any of the kind of agriculture that had supported large landowners in Virginia until then.
And so Washington knows about this new world of British husbandry and he is determined to adopt it. In the years before the Revolutionary War, it's more of a focus on cultivation methods and experiment, rather than a massive comprehensive system that he’ll later introduce, but it's still central to what he's trying to accomplish. And it is what really, I think, encourages him and then emboldens him to reject tobacco in 1765 and become a wheat farmer.
Jim Ambuske: You used a couple of key terms there, one improvement, and the other British agriculture. Can you define those for us and give us a sense of the kind of movements that Washington is tapping into as he's embarking on this quest?
Bruce Ragsdale: Washington, largely through the books that he imports and adds to his library, a library that probably had as good a collection of British practical, agricultural treatises, as any in Virginia, it introduced him to what really a revolution in agriculture, but people don't use that term as much anymore, but a transformation of British agriculture over the middle decades of the 18th century. It's sometimes, its advocates would refer to that as the new husbandry in technical terms, it's focused on preparation of the soil, much more frequent use of plowing, crop rotations, and, uh, integrating livestock management.
The goal was to be able to produce more on a smaller amount of space, which required restoring the fertility, either through crops or through manuring. But in addition to those practical methods, which Washington was very interested in, those books introduced him to a whole new culture of, um, agricultural improvement, this improvement in the sense that applying reason and science to farming would be able to improve farming just the way people in the 18th century thought they could improve government or any other institution.
And in England and those middle decades and then to some degree in Scotland, increasingly so in Scotland afterward, there's an emergence of a new group of self-professed gentlemen farmers, who decide that they must run their own farms, that they must be involved in the daily work of farming, the daily supervision of farming. These are also people who are in communication with one another. They are involved in, um, agricultural improvement societies, they're both the audience and often writers of the agricultural treatises.
And it's this sense that these gentlemen farmers have almost a civic responsibility, it's sometimes referred to as a patriotic responsibility. And there's a deep belief that they who have the means are the ones who will bring about real change with agricultural improvement, they can risk experiment. The aristocrats who don't really ever go to the fields, can't do it based on their reading and common farmers can because they can't risk losing a crop from year to year, they can't risk the experiment and they don't have the ability to exchange their knowledge in a way that more educated, wealthier landlords in England do.
And for a planter in Virginia, this really opens up a new role, a new kind of civic role for Washington, that he could be a leader of agricultural change, that he could exert greater influence over the direction of agriculture. And also like the country farmers in England, this is a project that will enhance his investment in land, maintain the investment in a very large estate.
Jim Ambuske: So this is clearly then part of the Enlightenment.
Bruce Ragsdale: Yes, yes, very much so. And I think it's as a farmer that you see Washington, as a figure of the Enlightenment, somebody, he has enormous intellectual curiosity, he's committed to an exchange and experiment, and he's also committed to the idea of through close observation and supervision of the land he can increase agricultural productivity and maintain stewardship, it's a sense of stewardship of the land.
Jim Ambuske: You mentioned the fact that Washington moves away from tobacco and towards wheat. What are the practical implications of this for Mount Vernon, for the enslaved community before the war, and as I understand it, there is an even greater transition after the war, but Washington sets things in motion before the conflict?
Bruce Ragsdale: There’s an enormous impact. This change from tobacco to wheat has an enormous impact on the daily working lives of the enslaved.
There has often been an assumption in any number of biographies of, uh, of Washington that somehow when he leaves tobacco and moves to wheat, his demands for labor are lessened. It's just absolutely not true. It's true that taking care of one tobacco field requires more tending of the plant than taking care of a wheat field.
But it's an entirely different enterprise. For one thing, it requires far, far more land under cultivation. So the first thing that Washington demands of the enslaved is that they clear enormous amount of land for planting wheat. You can make money off of tobacco on fairly small plot of land. And he also is determined to grow on what he calls new land.
Rather, his old practice had been just planting it where there had been corn, but by 1774, he has a staggering 1000 acres planted in wheat. He never has that much planted again in his life, but at that point, the work creating these fields let alone the work of, of, um, tending, sowing and harvesting the wheat, but also his transition to wheat came with a lot of other diverse enterprises.
It requires a different infrastructure. He needs different kinds of barns, which the enslaved or the carpenters, enslaved carpenters become much more valuable to Washington. He has buildings that will cover the wheat before it's threshed, wooden floors for threshing it out. So the carpenters are involved in all kinds of new activities.
And he also then of course, initiates a merchant mill rather than just a mill that would grind wheat corn for his own consumption. He becomes a trader in flour with all the demands for work that that entails, including that he needs more coopers. And the enslave take up this. But also Washington make some personal choices about his management of slave labor is when he moves to wheat.
He wants to rely, um, more exclusively on the enslaved rather than the hired white laborers he used for specialized craft, most notably cradling wheat. Cradling wheat is something that's a very highly skilled activity. Washington said he would hire nine, 10 white men to come work as cradlers during harvest, he thought their wages were exorbitant.
And so he moves toward having the enslaved assume the responsibility for cradling and is pretty successful for that. It's mostly enslaved cradlers by 1770.
Jim Ambuske: And as Mount Vernon is beginning to produce these new products, other cereals, different types of grains, where are the markets for these products?
Bruce Ragsdale: One of the great appeals of wheat for Washington is that it is not restricted by the Navigation Acts that require tobacco to be shipped through Great Britain. Even though 85% of it was then reexported to other countries. He can ship wheat where he wants to send it. And at that point, there's a booming market for American wheat, both in the Caribbean and also in Southern Europe and Washington takes advantage of both of those markets.
And one of the great incentives for creating the merchant mill is that the flour is usually an even more valuable way of marketing his wheat crop. Most of what he's shipping is in the form of flour and he finds a very ready market for that in those two areas. And then he also sells quite a bit of the wheat to Virginia merchants.
Who many of whom then reship it to the West Indies. On the eve of the Revolution, he's sending most of his wheat to one merchant Norfolk, but it took a while to reach that point as he tested out markets. But it's a market he can control and so that, that has enormous influence on his whole view toward the imperial crisis and the changes in relationship with Great Britain.
And it allows him to exercise, and other Virginians to exercise, a greater degree of commercial independence.
Jim Ambuske: Can we follow up on that thread a little bit? How does it shape his view of the imperial crisis? How does this new management practice and this turn to this type of agriculture feed into how he sees the empire and the relationship between the colonies and the mother country in this critical moment?
Bruce Ragsdale: It's crucial from the very beginning of, of his full-time management at Mount Vernon, Washington never looks at his choices about farming without thinking about the larger questions of the political economy of empire. And his turn away from tobacco was not because the soil was depleted as you hear again and again.
Virginians had ways of accommodating the way it depleted soil and everything depletes the soil if you don't take some measures. But his turn away from tobacco is driven by the trade to Great Britain, which he thinks is putting Virginians at a perpetual disadvantage. Um, there was a time when, uh, tobacco trade and the enormous credit that flowed through that trade from British merchants allowed wealthy Virginians to expand their land holding, to buy more enslaved laborers.
That's not true by the 1760s, particularly in the part of Virginia where Washington lives where the tobacco was never the highest quality than it is on the York River. So he comes back to Mount Vernon with, I think, a very deep skepticism about the supposed benefits of empire. His experience during the French and Indian War had completely changed his notion of, um, assumptions about the advantages of the protections of the British Empire.
And that is initially military and related to dealing with British officials, both military and administrative ones. Um, but it quickly translates into his view of the commercial relationship. And simple fact is he doesn't think empire is serving, um, Virginia planters the way it used to.
Jim Ambuske: One of the fascinating things about Washington is the meticulous archive he creates through ledger books, farm reports, financial ledgers.
This enormous wealth of data that allows us to see this big picture but it's very hard to wrangle in one sitting because the archive is so enormous and sometimes working with tabular data can be maddening at first. Would you tell us a little bit about these farm reports and the ways in which Washington is accounting for the business of slavery and the economic productivity at Mount Vernon.
Bruce Ragsdale: I should first say I could have never written this book if Washington had not kept such meticulous record of financial records of records of accounts, of the business, of the plantations and records related to the enslaved laborers. He is fairly early on is keeping some track of time and, um, the labors, but it's in 1785 that he devises a truly original system of accounting for enslaved laborers’ output every week or what their tasks are every week. And he institutes these weekly reports, which basically require the overseers on the individual plantation, the working units of Mount Vernon, requires those overseers to account for what every single enslaved laborer at the estate had done over the past week.
And these are just a gold mine in terms of understanding the allocation of labor of how the work of the enslaved changed so dramatically after 1785 in particular. But there are also peculiar records. In some ways he's anticipating a much more rational economic calculation of labor that becomes common on plantations into the deeper south in the 19th century. But in other ways Washington's not keeping track of productivity or any monetary value, created or spent, but he's basically keeping track of what he thinks is the responsibility of the enslaved to work.
And he puts his reports in the form of double entry bookkeeping so that each plantation or farm at Mount Vernon was looked at on the debit side, it was the number of people working, the number of days they worked each week. And then on the credit side, it's what each person did that week but it's measured in terms of days, work and tasks carried out.
It's not measured in terms of monetary value of the crops to these credit and debit [00:19:00] ledgers are almost a way of Washington keeping track of what he thinks are the mutual responsibilities of the enslaved and the enslaver. It's a system that's rooted in a very close personal supervision and personal interaction between Washington and the enslaved.
But it also means that there's just a level of supervision and demand for accountability. That was never there before.
Jim Ambuske: What was it like to work with these materials? How do they help you tell your story?
Bruce Ragsdale: It's really hard to work with these materials. I mean, they are, they are a gold mine and I think one of the great projects in the future both in terms of presenting materials and then especially recovering the lives of the enslaved at Mount Vernon is that all of the other accounts, of which there are quite a few, need to be put into some sort of digital searchable form.
But it required going through them very carefully and trying to match up from one to the next. It's often hard to follow through any individuals. Washington and the overseers seldom talk about what individuals are doing, except when they are listed as, as sick with the women, when their child bed, the names will appear, but more often than not, it'll just have numbers and that needs to be matched up against Washington's correspondence.
Other great advantages that I had working on these materials was when Washington goes off to be President, he thinks he can still manage farming, manage, enslaved labor at Mount Vernon, almost as closely as when he was there. And that the weekly reports become even more important in that sense.
But he also then, as opposed to when he's in residence at Mount Vernon, he starts writing just incredibly lengthy directives to the farm manager. He spends most of every Sunday, and he said that was the day when he could be at least interrupted by government business, and he would spend every Sunday in Philadelphia going over these weekly reports and then responding to the farm managers about his comments on it, what he wanted done next, and he read them so carefully.
Um, it's just, um, amazing his memory at Mount Vernon, both people and landscape. And then also is, um, scrutiny of these records, just the slightest variation from one part of the report to another brings his immediate attention and often scorn, but having those together was an enormous help in putting this book together.
It's still, I would say one of the more interesting challenges was trying to pull a readable narrative out of these kinds of sources, because I didn't want it to be just a recounting. And as I said, I don't think they were as strictly a means of rational accounting, financial values, as they might appear at first, they really are more about managing relationships and obligations and also this larger goal of what Washington’s trying to accomplish with this new program of farming.
Jim Ambuske: Yeah. As we know, working on the other podcast series, we, we mentioned at the top of this show, one of the fascinating things that we've found is just how closely Washington watched and scrutinized everything. I mean, nothing passes his eye. He would catch the smallest things and he would call his farm managers out on it or ask them about it.
And I think in one instance it was one of the ditchers who has out sick, I think it was Neptune at one point, and one of the other enslaved workers was supposed to be somewhere else and he's like, well, this person has been out sick for three days, but you didn't say anything else about this other person. So what's going on there?
Bruce Ragsdale: And he watches, he watches the sick list very, very carefully from Philadelphia. That's sort of another story. I think being in Philadelphia, not seeing, things for his own eyes and firsthand, he becomes so much more suspicious and angry. There's a real change during the presidency and particularly into the second term of his presidency, there's an impatience and an anger and a frustration that is not evident when he's in residence during the 1780s.
He thought he could have tremendous personal influence over the efficiency of everything that was done and that also changes his, the ways in which he works with the enslaved individuals. And what's striking is that when he is in residence at Mount Vernon and when he undertakes by far the most ambitious changes in farming, he ever undertakes between 1785, when he leaves for presidency in spring of 1789. During that time he replaces most of the white overseers with enslaved overseers.
He then has five farms focused on commercial agriculture. At four of those, he has enslaved overseers. He puts an enslaved carpenter in charge of the team of other enslaved carpenters, Isaac is in charge of them. And then when he leaves for the presidency, fairly quickly eliminates all of the enslaved overseers responsibilities except for one Davy Gray, who remains the only enslaved overseer after 1793.
Jim Ambuske: Tell us a little bit more about Davy Gray, because in some ways it's very surprising to hear that an enslaved person would be an overseer. What's Davy Gray's story and what's Washington's logic for putting him in charge and in that position?
Bruce Ragsdale: Davy Gray is the second enslaved overseer, the first was [Maurice] who became an overseer in 1766. That year is significant because that's the first year that Washington has abandoned tobacco and is fully focused on wheat farming. Most of the enslaved overseers had had some responsibilities in other jobs than just being field laborers.
Maurice had been a carpenter who had worked in a number of capacities. And Davy Gray, the first record of him the I’m convinced is the same Davy Gray, is in 1765. He's a field laborer at Mill Plantation as it's called then, he then becomes a cradler of of wheat there, as I said that's a very highly valued skill by Washington.
And in 1778, Washington makes him the enslaved overseer of that plantation. Uh, three years later, when Washington organizes a new plantation, he puts an enslaved man, Michael, in charge of that of supervising labor. And he works very closely with these individuals and there's more continuity over time, which I think is an incentive for Washington to rely on enslaved overseers.
He saves money, the hired white overseers at that point are paid in share of the crops. Later they were put on a set salary, the enslaved overseers receive very sort of token amounts of money. One of the several ways in which they are distinguished from enslaved field laborers, it's not anything remotely like what be would have been paying white, but I think it's more the continuity and the knowledge of field work that they had, whether or not they also had influence over the people that they supervised is one of those things we can only guess about because there's no record, very, very little suggestion of their relationship with the other enslaved laborers.
But Davy Gray, he becomes a slave overseer in 1770. He remains one until after Washington's death. Um, he is the only one of the enslaved overseers who is responsible for supervising labor on multiple plantations. He moves four times. And so I, I think he may have known more and had more experience farming than anyone else at Mount Vernon.
And the fact that he also was there in charge of, um, labor at a farm, both during the Revolutionary War when Washington's absent and then again during the presidency. Washington relies on him for information. He goes to him to verify reports, he's heard of complaints within the enslaved community about food or the violent treatment of, of white overseers.
And so there seems to be an ongoing kind of relationship and communication with Gray that at least can't document with the other enslaved overseers.
Jim Ambuske: If I recall correctly, Davy Gray couldn't read or write, but he would have been communicating reports from the field. Especially when Washington is a way, how would he have made those reports to Washington?
Bruce Ragsdale: After all the time I spent on this, this remains a great mystery to me.
The evidence that Gray could not read or write is a receipt, the only such document that survives, and it's from after Washington dies. Uh, but while, Martha is still alive and, and Davy Gray’s sold or is paid for his role in raising some poultry that were sold to the household and he signs it. It has his name written for the next month, which would usually indicate that he wasn't capable of writing. The reason I'm not so much skeptical, but just has remained a mystery to me is that we know from, um, a visitor's account that the enslaved overseers presented these weekly reports to the farm manager every Saturday.
Um, a visitor from Great Britain talks about it. And also I have looked very carefully, I cannot, I cannot detect any difference in the level of detail between the reports that came from white overseers and those came from enslaved overseers.
So either the manager who is the highest level of management and the person who communicates directly with Washington, either the manager is very carefully going through things with the enslaved overseer every week. But there's a level of detail in there that defies a conclusion that, that they weren't keeping some kind of written record.
I don't know, but I certainly think there's a possibility that they were able to keep some kind of notations of work accomplished at each week.
Jim Ambuske: Let's go across the Atlantic for a second, because part of your research took you to Great Britain and you got to look in the papers of another George who was pretty critical to the American Revolution, George the Third, who also had an intense interest in agriculture and farming.
What were you looking for in Britain?
Bruce Ragsdale: I mean, I was looking for the parallels between Washington and George the Third, which are enormous. George the Third was in the press parodied and criticized as former George sort of, as a joke was actually incredibly knowledgeable about agricultural improvement. He read the same kind of books that Washington read, uh, they communicated with the same people, such as Arthur Young and beginning in 1791, George the Third undertakes at Windsor, a series of experimental farms to try to carry out almost the exact kind of crop rotations and integrated livestock management that Washington undertakes.
They're basing it on the same books and same treatises. And like Washington, George the Third presents this as part of his public responsibility, he sees this as a service to the nation. He sees this as something that other large landowners won't be able to emulate. He has no need to make money off of these farms, but he wants to prove a model that it can be done.
One of the parallel to one is that by the late 18th century, it was seen as a fitting responsibility of a national leader to promote agricultural improvement. Frederick the Great in Prussia had had done it. Jefferson certainly believes that as well when he undertakes improvements, but Washington and George the Third are the premier examples of that.
And they are just the cap of a group of people who, who make clear to the degree to which this really is a project of very wealthy landowners on either side of the Atlantic who think that they can demonstrate the direction and purpose of agriculture in their respective countries and Washington's connections in the United States are much less with the planters in Virginia, who he is increasingly critical of and quite distanced from. His real ties are with the enlightened agricultural improvers in Philadelphia.
Jim Ambuske: I'm not sure if I've asked you this before, but I will now cause I'm very curious. You mentioned the name Arthur Young a couple of times.
He's a very famous English agriculturist who corresponded with both Washington and George the third. Were either men ever aware of their mutual relationship? And if so, do we have any sense of what they made of that?
Bruce Ragsdale: We know they were each aware of the other's interests. In Washington's case it's because of Arthur Young, Arthur Young sends him seeds of a new strain of wheat.
Uh, and this is a wonderful sense of these connections among elite monarchical circles in Europe at the time. George the Third had received wheat from Catherine the Great of Russia and he then gives it to a small farmer who he sort of took under his wing and who he consults, who lived near the Royal residence in Richmond.
And that farmer gives it to Arthur Young, and Arthur Young then sends it to Washington. Young also tells Washington about one of the most successful experiments in the enterprises of George the Third agriculturally, and the very first one, which is to breed a new kind of sheep. He's taking the Merino sheep of Spain and trying to interbreed them with British sheep so that then they are able to have the prized wool of the Merino but in animals that can withstand the climate of Great Britain.
This is a project he's very closely working with Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist, who Washington also knew about. And Young does tell Washington about the King's interest in this project and he complains that under British navigation, mercantilist restrictions, he's unable to send, uh, the kind of sheep he wants to send to Washington.
So Washington certainly knew the King was doing this, and I am reasonably sure the King knew about Washington's interests. Uh, for one thing his correspondence with the Board of Agriculture, a sort of an agency of the government established in 1790s, that correspondence from Washington is published and, um, the King reads those.
And one Sir John Sinclair, the head of the Board of Agriculture, publishes his agricultural correspondence with Washington. He publishes it within a few months of Washington's death. He sends copies all over the place, but he sends a copy to George the Third, um, it's in the library. It has a great stamp on it.
There's no indication whether or not George the Third read it, but we know he was particularly, almost obsessed with Washington. And it's hard for me to believe he didn't at least know about Washington as well.
Jim Ambuske: Bruce, you mentioned that before the war Washington was interested in a sort of practicality, he then shifts to this integrated system in the 1780s and he continues this throughout the rest of his life.
And as you said, with these reports and account books, it's less about the profitability and financial terms, but it's more about the transactional relationship between Washington and the enslaved community. As he makes his final shift in the 1780s and he's reviewing these account books and these reports on a weekly basis, how does it begin to reshape what he thinks about slavery, about slavery's for lack of a better term economic viability and how it fits into Washington's conception of himself as a gentleman?
Bruce Ragsdale: Well, that's sort of the biggest question and I found that the answer is far more complicated than anyone has set out before. And I think the first complication is that Washington famously writes during the Revolutionary War that he wants to get quit of negroes is the phrase he uses, but then he wants to be disengaged from the management of enslaved labor.
At that point, he's thinking of it in terms of selling enslaved laborers and he does sell nine at that time. That talk ends or the time he returns to Mount Vernon. And when he comes back to Mount Vernon, he sets out this phenomenally ambitious agenda, completely transforming both the routines of farming and the agricultural landscape at Mount Vernon.
He completely redraws, or he has orders the slaves to redraw the landscape and build these incredibly ambitious buildings, which he thought were the largest in the United States and probably were. At the same time, he takes a number of decisive steps to be even more reliant on enslaved labor to reduce his employment of hired labor.
Um, he does that through placing, as I said, four of the farms and under enslaved overseers, he then also makes a concerted effort to train more and more of the enslaved people to take over the artisan and craft work that he had often hired white laborers to do. And when he does hire white artisans, it becomes a standard part of their contract that they train the enslaved in this work.
And it's clearly the goal is to eliminate those hires and he's never able to completely eliminate them, but he certainly moves toward a more exclusive reliance on enslaved labor. And while he is in residence at Mount Vernon, he continues to do that. And, um, I think it's only when he leaves, um, for the presidency that there are a number of factors come into play, where he increasingly thinks that the kind of agricultural improvement that he's pursuing, which is defined as much by the culture and aesthetics of farming as it is the bottom line of profit from sale, that that kind of agriculture improvement is just antithetical to slavery, or slavery is antithetical to it, but there there's an irreconcilablity there.
And there are a number of factors in that, one, is he again and again, hires English or Scottish farmers or craftsmen than he is so enamored of their experience in Great Britain. And he wants to bring that to bear on his work at Mount Vernon and again, and again, and again, almost uniformly he finds that these individuals are absolutely incapable of managing enslaved labor.
And he talks about them and he decides he's not going to hire anymore, but he does when he meets someone who has phenomenal background or skills. At one point, he even hires, he hires a Scottish carpenter who is so excited that this man will be able to teach everyone how to make better carts, wheels.
And, uh, he hires a Virginia carpenter to work alongside this man and to basically be the one who communicates with the enslaved, because he finds that this man from Scotland is absolutely incapable of meeting his standards of what he thinks the management of the enslaved laborers should be. So there's the sense of, he learns again and again that British experience is no indication of an ability to bring those skills and that kind of farming to Mount Vernon as long as it's relying on enslaved labor.
And then one of the other of several factors, but I think maybe the most determinative is, as President he develops a different perspective on Virginia agriculture and enslaved, um, agricultural labor.
And it comes in part because he both tours the nation and he puts together really quite sophisticated survey of American agriculture, at least agriculture in the areas dedicated to grain cultivation. And without expecting this to be the result, he finds, and Jefferson helped him with this and Jefferson finds the same thing, is that unexpectedly they find that differences between the wheat growing regions that rely on hired labor, or your own labor, and the wheat growing regions that rely on enslaved river are enormous and that it almost all comes down to that reliance on slavery.
And the real clinchpin for him is Pennsylvania and, and a letter tellingly to a British correspondent, he never writes things like this to Americans in the letter to a British correspondent he said, it gives us, well a recap his survey of American agriculture. He considers Virginia and Maryland to be the garden of America for a whole variety of reasons, best climate, best soil, best transportation.
But he said, they're not the premiere agricultural societies or the most valuable agricultural land, that is in Pennsylvania. And he says, the most important and reason distinguishing Pennsylvania from the Chesapeake states is the Pennsylvania has enacted the gradual abolition of slavery. And then he says to Virginia and Maryland will have to do the same soon if, if you're going to compete.
He comes to this conclusion really through his experience as a farmer. And as I said, with the standard of [00:39:00] British agriculture and also that he's supposed to be setting an example as a great enlightened farmer and that he finally realizes, what we would assume he would have found, which is that slavery is on our front to all of those aspirations and that there's no, no way of eliminating violence from slavery.
There's no way of restructuring the most kind of efficient and cooperative labor that he wants to earn. He comes to that conclusion, but it's as an agricultural improver above all else.
Jim Ambuske: So now that you've completed this book, what's next on the horizon for you? What excites you these days?
Bruce Ragsdale: I didn't include a lot of my George the Third material in this book. I started to, and it just, they become very different stories.
And my editor said, this is a great story, but it belongs in a different book. So that's what I'm working on right now. And the fact that I moved to the UK makes that a lot easier for me to, to undertake. So that's my next project. I have a lot of projects that I'd like to see other people undertake on George Washington.
And, uh, we definitely, this would be a thankless task in many ways. We need to find a [central] biography of Washington. And secondly, I think the full story of lives of the enslaved at Mount Vernon. We have this fabulous foundation with Mary Thompson's book. I hope I've added to that, but I think that the account books that have yet to be digitized, um, is, is going to tell an even more complete story.
Jim Ambuske: And as you know, and some of our listeners do, I'm very fascinated by George the Third. So I'm looking forward to that book and come back and see us when that's done.
More Conversations after the break.
Jim Ambuske: Bruce, what book are you reading right now?
Bruce Ragsdale: I am, had just started a book called The Radical Potter: Life of Josiah Wentwood by Tristram Hunt, which would, was of course the famous ceramicist and ceramics manufacturer, was also, was a very important figure within that early abolition movement in Great Britain.
And it's sort of a different take on that world of improvement that I first started learning about by looking at George the Third and George Washinton
Jim Ambuske: Who is the author you most admire?
Bruce Ragsdale: It's hard to pick out one author, but I think a single book that's probably affected me more than any book I've read in many, many years is Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello.
And then she was able to, to, um, recapture the experience and lives of the enslaved and the interaction between the enslavers and enslaved in a way that I don't think anyone had ever done before. And she did it with, um, both a mix of, of scholarship and really, uh, uh, an incredibly inhumane, um, empathy that I think sets a standard that few people have matched since it. Certainly, I found one of the most emotionally effective books I've ever read.
Jim Ambuske: We've been talking today about some of your research and some of the stuff that you work with. So what's the most exciting document you've ever found?
Bruce Ragsdale: In the Washington research, uh, the document that I think is the most revealing, and that I just love going back and looking at is his account, his description of the 40 enslaved laborers that he had hired from Penelope French, um, someone with whom he had a very complicated land deal.
She sold him land he'd been trying to buy for years and years on the condition that he would also hire the enslaved laborers who had been working that land. He then in 1799, wants to return to her as part of his trying to remove himself from the management of his enslave labor, but in a description of 40 individuals that are on that list, you get such a strong sense of how closely observed labor and also a sense of greater which he defined the lives of the enslaved solely in terms of their work and their value to him. And only incidentally, do you learn about their connections with one another.
Um, it's a great teaching document. Um, it also is one that hasn't been around known to people very long. It was acquired by Mount Vernon eight or nine years ago. People knew the document existed, but it had been in private hands.
And, um, I'd say that if there's a single document that I found most helpful and sort of revelatory in doing this research, it's that document which is available on the Mount Vernon website.
Jim Ambuske: Finally, Bruce, how do you hope people remember your work?
Bruce Ragsdale: I hope readers realize they cannot understand the life of George Washington without understanding his lifetime of farming in his lifetime with managing enslaved labor.
I think the highest accolade I could receive was for people to say, why didn't we know this?
Jim Ambuske: Well judging by a lot of the Twitter traffic by people who got their hands on advanced copies of your book. I think you've awakened people to that point. So, Bruce, thank you very much for joining us. This has been a real pleasure.
Bruce Ragsdale: Thank you, Jim.
Jim Ambuske: Thanks for joining us today on Conversations, a production of the Center for Digital History at the Washington Library. I'm Jim Ambuske, your host and producer. Jeanette Patrick offered editorial assistance with additional support provided by Mount Vernon’s Media and Communications Department. Our music is “Witch's Brew” by C K Martin.
Be sure to subscribe to conversations on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you get your favorite programs. If you like the show, please rate and review it on your favorite podcast app. Find this and other episodes by heading over to our website at georgewashingtonpodcast.com. Thanks. And we'll see you next time.
Author and Independent Scholar
Bruce Ragsdale is the author of Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery (2021). He was a fellow at the Washington Library and the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and he was Mount Vernon’s inaugural fellow with the Georgian Papers Programme. Ragsdale formerly served as the director of the Federal Judicial History Office at the Federal Judicial Center. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.