Episode 3: “Revolutions”
William Lee was George Washington’s trusted enslaved valet. For over two decades, he attended Washington from early morning until nightfall. In times of peace and war, Lee rode with Washington through Mount Vernon’s fields, out to his western lands, and into battle against the British. In this episode, we follow Lee’s journey to investigate revolutions in Mount Vernon’s agricultural life, American politics, and Washington’s views on slavery.
Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies available at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Episode 3: “Revolutions”
Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and James P. Ambuske
Episode Published November 22, 2021
BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon
PARKER:His knees ached by the late 1790s. They had born the weight of a long war for freedom.
Countless hours spent on horseback, either riding into battle with his fellow Americans against the British, hunting foxes in Virginia, and surveying western lands had put stress on his muscular legs.
He was a renowned horseman, but it had become harder to ride.
A decade earlier, the artist John Trumbull depicted a much younger figure, as he might have appeared, during the War for Independence.
Trumbull knew the man he now idealized for his audience. The man is on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River. He holds the reigns of a horse as he gazes off into the distance.
The image of an American flag is just visible in the background.
He wears a blue coat with red trim, not unlike the uniform of a Continental soldier.
But, his red-plumed turban is unlike anything else worn by soldiers in the Continental Army. He certainly wouldn’t have worn it in battle.
He probably didn’t wear it at all.
In the years after the war, a series of accidents damaged his knees. Despite the pain, he insisted on traveling to New York to take part in the new federal administration, erected under a new Constitution, that strove to create a more perfect union.
On the journey north from Mount Vernon, the pain forced him to stop in Philadelphia. Doctors fitted one of his legs with a steel brace.
But William Lee, who was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and once George Washington’s trusted enslaved valet, could no longer perform the duties expected of him. His damaged knees could no longer bear his weight as they once had.
And so, President Washington, whose own feelings on slavery were no longer as clear as they once were, reluctantly sent Lee home to Mount Vernon, to cobble shoes.
I’m Brenda Parker, Mount Vernon’s Coordinator of African American Interpretation and Special Projects.
And this is Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Episode 3: “Revolutions”
Before the American Revolution, George Washington had no objections to slavery.
BRUCE RAGSDALE:There's absolutely no misgivings on his part about exploiting the labor of enslaved people; of making his agricultural based in slavery and increasing the number of enslaved laborers under his control.
Bruce Ragsdale, I was for many years the Director of the Federal Judicial history office, and I've been working as a scholar on George Washington for many, many years.
He's acquiring more enslaved laborers as soon as he takes control of Mount Vernon after the death of his brother, and before he's there as a full-time manager. Once he's there full-time and he has access to the resources of the Custis estate, he purchases more enslaved laborers in that first year after marriage to Martha Custis than he had in all years previous. And between that year and 1775, he acquires at least 16 enslaved laborers which he adds to the labor force at Mount Vernon.
PARKER: William Lee was one of the many enslaved people that Washington purchased before the Revolutionary War.
In October 1767, Washington bought William Lee from Mary Smith Ball Lee, a wealthy Virginia widow, for £61, 15 shillings. He may have been 15 years old then, perhaps a little older.
He also bought Lee’s brother, Frank, for £50, and two boys, Adam and Jack, for £19 each.
At the beginning of their journey together, Washington called his new manservant “Billy Lee.”
Contemporary records describe the Lee brothers as “mulatto,” or mixed race. They were likely the sons of an enslaved woman and a white man.
Here’s Jessie Macleod, Associate Curator at Mount Vernon
JESSIE MACLEOD: It's possible that the last name "Lee" was used that name because their father was a member of the Lee family. But we don't know the exact circumstances of their paternity.
PARKER:Frank Lee became a butler at Mount Vernon. William Lee became George Washington’s body servant.
Unlike the coarse linen worn by enslaved field hands, William Lee wore a uniform befitting his position as Washington’s valet. Visitors to the estate would have seen Lee dressed in a custom-fitted, red-and-white suit, stockings, and shoes with buckles.
Having an enslaved valet, and dressing him in fine clothing, was one of the ways that Washington displayed his mastery and wealth to others. For Washington, Lee was a status symbol.
MACLEOD: William Lee had a very close relationship to George Washington as a personal attendant or a valet he would help Washington bathe and dress, he was charged with looking after Washington's belongings, polishing his boots, helping him get ready each morning, pulling his hair back into a queue or a pony tail.
PARKER: A level of trust and intimacy would develop between Washington and Lee, forged in small places and vulnerable moments, over nearly two decades by each other’s side.
Lee was with Washington in Williamsburg, Virginia, where Washington sat in the House of Burgesses.
He was with Washington in Philadelphia when Washington became a member of the First Continental Congress.
He was with Washington on expeditions to survey western lands.
And he would ride with Washington into battle.
That the two men could form such a close bond complicates our understanding of slavery. We know Washington considered it a close relationship. Did Lee? Their connection was always colored by Lee’s enslavement, and the ever-present threat of punishment for failing to heed his master’s call.
In the late 1760s, when the Lee brothers were brought to Mount Vernon, Washington was already a prominent figure in Virginia society.
His marriage to Martha Custis, aggressive investments in land and enslaved people, and agricultural improvements laid the groundwork for the financial and personal independence he craved.
As we heard in Episode 1, Washington’s marriage to the widowed Martha Custis in 1759 changed his life and his fortunes.
CASSANDRA GOOD:Martha Custis was one of the wealthiest widows in Colonial Virginia at the point that George Washington met her.
My name is Cassandra Good, and I’m an Assistant Professor of History at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.
This is certainly part of why, if not the main reason why he marries her and she had inherited the estate of her husband, Daniel Parke Custis. She had rights to use a third of it, and then her children each were going to inherit a third of it. He died without a will. So that makes the whole think more complicated. But there’s over 17,000 acres of land, over 300 enslaved people, a huge amount of cash. So this is a pretty big estate.
PARKER:By the law of coverture, George Washington gained access to his new wife’s wealth and property, including land and enslaved people.
GOOD: The term “coverture” is in some ways a legal fiction, but what it means is that a man covers his wife, she loses her legal identity and her control of property, and he takes control of it.
So he’s actually advancing his position quite a bit, and they’re using her money to renovate and expand Mount Vernon, and then a lot of the enslaved people that come with Martha to Mount Vernon end up working in the house.
PARKER: Although George Washington gained control over his wife’s money and property, Martha Washington herself was experienced managing households and overseeing enslaved people.
GOOD: I think in George and Martha's case, George does seem to have deferred to Martha on some things, especially raising the children, but she was running the Custis estate for a little while before she remarried and knew what she was doing, so I'm sure that there were conversations between them on management.
I think we have this image of Martha Washington as this sort of quaint, gentle, older lady, grey hair, a bonnet, but she's an enslaver, and I think we have also imagined in the past, and certainly some of the scholarship on women in the plantation South was women are in some ways victims of the same patriarchal system as enslaved people are, but more recent scholarship, especially from people like Thavolia Glymph and Stephanie Jones-Rogers has shown that actually white women could be extremely violent themselves and act violence on enslaved people, that they could also be just as cruel, we used to think of them as, Oh enslaved people would have seen them as the kinder, the master could be the mean one. And the mistress was the one they went to for protection, and that's not necessarily the case, and the women could also buy and sell enslaved people, especially women who are widowed or unmarried, so women are a lot more implicated in this then we understood before.
A wife on a plantation at this point would have supervised the seamstresses and spinners, and certainly Martha was herself a very good needle woman and probably very closely supervised the seamstresses in the household, and we know a bit about even who those people are, we know their names
PARKER: Here’s Dr. Lynn Price Robbins, a historian of the Washingtons and early America, to tell us more.
LYNN PRICE ROBBINS:When she moved to Mount Vernon, when she married George Washington, she had a personal maid who was named Sally. She had a cook named Doll, a scullion named Beck, an ironer named Mima, a washer named Jenny, a spinner named Phillis, and a seamstress named Betty.
PARKER: Martha Washington usually rose at dawn to supervise the day’s domestic activities on Mansion House Farm. She made her way to the kitchen to make sure that Doll, one of the enslaved cooks, had breakfast underway.
She would visit the Wash House, dairy, and smokehouse, and then return to the kitchen to consult with the cooks on the day’s main meal.
Later in the day, Martha might be found in her bedroom teaching young, enslaved girls to sew or overseeing knitting or cloth work by older enslaved women like Charlotte. Martha’s day ended in the kitchen, ensuring that the cooks made bread to her exact specifications.
ROBBINS: So you think about what all of these individuals are doing, they're creating the clothes that will be worn on the estate, they're working in the kitchen, they're making the meals. And Martha was essentially their manager. So it was important for women to establish authority because yes, you owned these individuals, but it was to your advantage for them to do the best and most work that you could get out of them.
PARKER:While Martha managed the domestic spaces around Mansion House Farm, changes were underway on Mount Vernon’s outlying farms, changes that would later help unsettle George Washington’s ideas about slavery.
As we heard the last time, in the early 1760s, Washington began a project that he would continue for the rest of his life: the transformation of Mount Vernon into a model of British husbandry through agricultural improvement.
RAGSDALE:It's an agricultural movement that it's often called the new husbandry, both in Great Britain and in America, but it's a movement of agriculture improvement begins 1730s and develops over the next several decades, and it's responsible for a dramatic increase in productivity of English land and later Scottish land. It involves preparation of the soil, but it also relied very heavily on crop rotations, the coordination of livestock management, so that there would be more draft animals for plowing. One of the great goals of the new husbandry was to be able to produce more crops on the same amount of land and to be able to sustain that land. So the preparation of the soil and the maintenance of the fertility was essential. And this is basically the technical side of what Washington is drawn to, but I also think he's drawn to the new husbandry because it's not just an agricultural movement; it's not just about technical expertise; it's very much a cultural movement. It is a kind of agricultural improvement that is based among the country Gentry, not the aristocrats, not small farmers, but gentleman farmers, and it prized the active management of those gentlemen farmers
PARKER:Overtime, Washington’s enslaved farmers transformed Mount Vernon’s landscape to match his ambitions. This also complicated their labors.
RAGSDALE: The commitment to agriculture improvement on a British model, and particularly when he adopts what he calls the complete course of English farming in 1785, completely changes the lives and the labor of the enslaved at Mount Vernon. It puts entirely new and more arduous demands on them. It requires far more variety of skills. It means that work even more than before changes from year to year. The same level of work expected throughout the year. The work of the insights become much more regimented after the adoption of these English and British methods of farming. But the fact that he calls it now a system, it's not just cultivation techniques. It's to be a whole system that's integrated; creates a whole new level of work.
PARKER: At Mount Vernon, there was always more work to be done.
William Lee witnessed the early stages of Washington’s agricultural revolution firsthand. He rode with Washington to inspect progress in the fields.
He carried whatever Washington might have needed on his daily rounds – paper, pencils, maybe a volume on agriculture, probably a spy glass – to oversee the work and make any necessary adjustments.
In the fields, Washington asked his overseers probing questions. Sometimes, he became so frustrated that he would dismount and demonstrate precisely how he wanted the ground worked by those he enslaved.
Surely, Lee spoke with his fellow enslaved laborers working there.
What might have passed, spoken or unspoken, between Lee and the men and women in those moments?
Only they know.
The Washingtons were as strict and exacting away from Mount Vernon as they were at home.
During the Revolutionary War and later his presidency, George Washington monitored progress at Mount Vernon through the meticulous reports that his farm managers sent to him.
Very little that passed his eye went unnoticed. A 1793 letter to his nephew and temporary estate manager Howell Lewis shows us how:
“I see by the Report respecting the Ditchers that one of them is working at Union farm in the room of Cupid; but no mention is made of the later, whether Sick, absent, or dead.”
Through these reports, the Washingtons accounted for the economic productivity and the profitability of slavery at Mount Vernon.
And if Martha wasn’t home to directly supervise enslaved laborers like Betty, a seamstress, or Hercules Posey, Mount Vernon’s head chef, she also had the means to keep tabs on them.
Martha could and did manage her enslaved people from afar. Through George, she asked questions, and issued instructions.
GOOD:She's quite demanding in terms of their labor, every time the Washington's are traveling back during the presidency to Mount Vernon, she instructs that her house be cleaned from the Garrett to the cellars, from the attic to the basement, and that's a ton of labor, for enslaved people.
ROBBINS: During the Revolutionary War, she visited all of the winter encampments. She visited George Washington and all the winter encampments, and so she was with him about half of the war. She's asking little questions like did Charlotte finish all the work that I assigned to her? And has all this linen been dyed? And how is the spinning going? So she's asking these small questions about things that today we would think it's very small matters. You're in a revolutionary, you’re in a war, you're with your husband and do you have enough pins? Even when she wasn't there, she was trying to assert this control over the household at Mount Vernon.
PARKER:Sometime around 1771, George Washington demonstrated a different kind of control over his household. He began calling his personal valet “William Lee.”
We don’t know why “Billy” became “William,” or sometimes, “Will.”
Maybe Lee, now a little older, asked Washington to call him by this more formal name. Perhaps Washington chose to do so on his own, a sign of the growing respect he had for his enslaved valet.
Whatever the reasons may have been, it was not the only change in the air.
A rift was growing between Great Britain and the American colonies. Soon, the two men from Mount Vernon, one enslaved and one free, would ride off together, to wage a war for liberty.
We’ll have more when Intertwined returns after the break.
JEANETTE PATRICK: Hi I’m Jeanette Patrick one of the co-creators of Intertwined. If you would like to explore the topics discussed in this episode, learn more about our guests, or get a list of related readings, please visit George Washington podcast dot com.
Thank you for listening. Now, back to Intertwined.
PARKER: William Lee came to Mount Vernon at a time of growing strain between Great Britain and the American colonies.
In the 1760s and early 1770s, disputes over taxation, western expansion, trade regulation, and political representation, strained the relationship between British peoples on both sides of the Atlantic.
George Washington shared a feeling, common among many white colonists, that they were second-class citizens in the British Empire. Not equal participants in it.
Other causes for complaint were more personal.
Washington purchased goods from London merchants who seemed to treat him with less respect than they might a customer in Britain.
And new policies by the British government threatened his ability to profit from the thousands of acres of land he claimed title to in the Ohio Country.
Like many white colonists at this time, Washington began to believe that this British American world, was not made for him.
Although he held out hope for reconciliation, Washington believed that the British had violated the colonists’ rights.
And many colonists argued, without irony, that the British meant to enslave them and deprive them of those liberties.
In 1774, Washington claimed that the time was fast approaching for Americans to assert their rights or become “as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”
It was the only recorded instance in the period before the war, that Washington seemed to acknowledge the tension between American claims of oppression; and the absolute authority that he, and others, had over enslaved people.
In Britain, the famous author Samuel Johnson put it more plainly: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
In our own time, historians argue vigorously over slavery and the coming of the American Revolution.
Some historians claim that enslavers rebelled in part to protect their ability to own human property.
Others contend that Americans were motived by higher principles like rights and liberty.
More, still, suggest that race was a unifying factor in making a common cause against Britain.
While other historians argue that British attempts to turn enslaved people against their masters convinced neutral colonists to join the rebellion.
To say that this history is complicated is an understatement.
What we do know is that the American Revolution had unintended consequences.
William Lee rode off to war in a nation that would soon declare that “all men are created equal,” but not all people were equally free.
Here’s Jessie MacLeod.
MACLEOD: Lee accompanied Washington throughout the entire Revolutionary War. He was with Washington throughout all of the campaigns, the cold winters, the sweltering summers, he was there for all of it, and during the war, he would have been doing a lot of those same things, he would have waited on Washington and his officers when they dined in camp. He was charged with looking after Washington's papers, which as you can imagine during the war, those are very sensitive, so that required a very high level of trust in Lee on the part of Washington.
PARKER:Washington’s contemporaries frequently noted Lee’s presence by his side. In camp at Valley Forge in the bitter winter of 1777; at the disastrous Battle of Monmouth in the summer of 1778; and at the decisive siege of Yorktown in 1781.
His experiences during the war challenged what he and others thought they knew about Black people, and the morality of slavery.
But it’s difficult to know just how.
Washington had no sudden revelation that slavery conflicted with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Personal revolutions occur over time, often out of public view. Washington didn’t leave any direct writings on the subject.
But, historians have some ideas.
Here’s Dr. Bruce Ragsdale
RAGSDALE: One of the effects of the revolutionary war and his experience in the Revolution War is that it exposed Washington to a new anti-slavery movement. And it was an anti-slavery movement in some cases, advocated by people who were very close to him, and he respected enormously – most notably, Lafayette, and John Laurens.
PARKER: For some Americans like South Carolina’s John Laurens, or foreign citizens like the famous French officer, the Marquis de Lafayette, the contradictions between a war for liberty and the continued existence of slavery were clearer.
Lafayette especially implored his mentor to act on the Revolution’s promise.
RAGSDALE: Beginning with Lafayette, and continuing for the rest of Washington's life, he is the unique recipient of anti-slavery appeals from a new generation of abolitionists. And he's appeal to by abolitionists from Great Britain, from France and from the United States who like Lafayette all say that this is the final burnishing of your reputation, that the champion of American liberty, the defender of American freedom should extend that freedom to the enslaved.
PARKER: As the commanding general, Washington was reluctant to permit free and enslaved Black men to enlist in the Continental Army. Eventually, he did so out of military necessity.
It would have been difficult to not see men like, those who served in the First Rhode Island Regiment, as menfighting for their own freedom, and their place in the new nation.
Yet, at the end of the war, Washington demanded that the British return enslaved people who had self-emancipated by fleeing to British lines. That the British encouraged the enslaved to rebel against their masters infuriated Washington and others who claimed people as property.
In Boston, Philadelphia, and other northern cities and towns, Washington encountered enslaved people, to be sure, but he also encountered communities of free people of color laboring for wages, laboring for themselves.
Margaret Thomas was one such free Black woman. From 1776 to 1779, Washington employed her to wash and mend clothes in his headquarters household. We know her name from the receipts Washington kept.
She moved with the general and the army just as William Lee did.
And what little evidence we have suggests that Thomas and Lee fell in love and were married.
Beyond Washington’s camp, some of the new American states passed laws or issued court decisions to slowly abolish slavery.
RAMIN GANESHRAM:Gradual emancipation or gradual abolition was a method that was taken up largely in the 18th century, in the former American colonies now States, some of them, as a way to ease the transition into freedom for enslaved people.
GANESHRAM:My name is Ramin Ganeshram, the Executive Director of the Westport Museum for History and Culture, the author of The General’s Cook.
And the reason it was gradual was generally so that owners of enslaved people-- "enslavers" could both realize their quote, unquote "investment", get whatever work they could out of the people they were enslaving and also made preparations for the lack of labor, the labor that they would lose. And so it took different forms in different places. For example, in Connecticut, gradual abolition was extremely long. It lasted from 1784 to 1848.
Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 was interesting because it was very short. It essentially said that an enslaved person brought into the state, so they did not even have to fully reside in the state all of the time, brought into the state, remaining in the state for six months could petition for their freedom, they became free.
PARKER:Even in Washington’s Virginia, the new state government enacted a manumission law in 1782 that made it easier to emancipate an enslaved person. Enslavers no longer needed government approval to manumit their slaves. The law also mandated that former owners provide support for newly freed people under or above a certain age.
Considering all this revolutionary fervor, it’s hard not to interpret Washington’s often-quoted 1778 desire, “to get quit of Negroes,” as a sign of his changing beliefs.
But when Washington wrote this line, his mind was on Mount Vernon’s financial health. The war had disrupted Virginia’s economy. To reduce his expenses, he proposed swapping his enslaved people for land.
While his scheme came to nothing, his proposal does tell us something very important.
As Washington began wrestling with slavery’s moral implications during the war, he also began questioning its economic worth and its effect on his public reputation.
Over time, it became increasingly clear to him, that slavery did not square with the British agricultural system he so admired. Gentleman farmers in Britain received income by renting out lands to tenant farmers.
By contrast, maintaining an enslaved labor force was enormously costly, no matter how self-sufficient he hoped Mount Vernon would become. And an enslaved labor force had no incentive to work.
Family matters complicated things further. Washington’s enslaved people intermarried with enslaved people owned by the Custis estate. “To get quit of Negroes” would mean separating families.
In 1783, Washington and William Lee returned home to Mount Vernon with no clear solutions to the dilemma quietly growing in Washington’s his mind. One wonders if the victorious general and his enslaved valet discussed the meanings of the American Revolution.
Once again, Jessie MacLeod
MACLEOD: It's possible that the relationship between William Lee and George Washington during those years, had a significant impact on Washington's views on slavery.
PARKER: Unfortunately, we do not know how Lee felt as he rode back to the banks of the Potomac River, still enslaved, after eight long years of war.
While he said nothing publicly in favor of emancipation, Washington’s private actions after the war do give us some insight into what he would later call “the only unavoidable subject of regret.”
Here’s Dr. Bruce Ragsdale
RAGSDALE: Washington makes several resolutions after he returned to Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War; and particularly when he institutes this new system of farming after 1785. The term that's often used is amelioration and that was a subconscious term among some enslavers in the British Caribbean; but there is a simultaneous effort of some enslavers to try to make slavery somehow more humane. Jefferson, when he does it, in response to many of Washington's suggestions uses that term that he wants to make slavery more rational and humane; and the specific provisions that Washington makes and resolves to make is, one, he decides he will no longer be involved in the slave trade that he will not purchase or sell enslaved people; he makes it a policy and insists that his overseers provide adequate food and provisions and adequate medical care as he defines that. He also resolves to keep families together. Many, many families were separated across the estate, but he resolves that he will not separate them beyond the boundaries of Mount Vernon. And finallyhe tries to minimize the use of violent punishment as it relates to labor to coerce. He doesn't want to use violent punishment for the coercion of labor or punishment of enslaved people who had not produced the labor that he had demanded.
And when he puts all of those together, he says quite explicitly that in return, I expect all the work that they can possibly produce without damaging their constitution and health within the 24-hours. So, it was part of a transactional agreement in Washington's mind, of course, that somehow he was modifying or at least limiting the most abusive and brutal parts at slavery. And he's trying to improve slavery in the way that he improved agriculture.
PARKER:But as Jessie MacLeod reminds us, resolutions are hard to keep.
MACLEOD:Washington also didn't always abide by those principles, so there still was a risk for enslaved people of being sold. In 1791, Washington sold a wagon driver named Jack to the West Indies as punishment, and there's other instances of him threatening enslaved people with sell if they were doing something that he didn't like. So even though he states his opposition to selling people, to separating families in practice, he didn't always abide by those. So the fear that enslaved people would have felt, the fear that's endemic to the institution of slavery of not having control over one's own life, of the threat of being separated from family members, you know that still would have been there, even if it may have been slightly lessened.
PARKER:As the new nation took shape in the 1780s and 1790s, Washington felt the weight of anti-slavery appeals from the likes of Lafayette and others, appeals that laid bare the conflict between liberty and slavery. They asked Washington, who cared deeply about his public image, how he wanted history to remember his revolutionary life, as a liberator, or as an enslaver.
And the collective reports from his farm managers seemed to suggest something that he had not intended, when he imagined himself as a British gentleman farmer growing wheat and other grain: slavery was not as economically sound or as profitable as he once thought, especially because he had resolved not to sell enslaved people, which would have improved his bottom line.
He began to express private support for gradual emancipation, hoping that the Virginia legislature would pass such a law to address the question of slavery in the commonwealth, but it never did.
As we’ll see in Episode 6, Washington would not draft his own imperfect solution, until what would turn out to be the last six months of his life.
What about Martha Washington’s views? Did they change over time? Drs. Lynn Price Robbins and Cassandra Good explain what we know based on surviving evidence.
ROBBINS: Unfortunately with Martha Washington, it seems that her views did not change or did not evolve regarding slavery. It seems she's very entrenched in the view that she is of a different class than enslaved people, and she doesn't just say, enslaved people, she's talking about any individual of a darker skin color.
GOOD: In fact, she says in a 1795 letter to her niece, “The blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least gratitude for the kindness that may be showed to them.” So you know, she looks at them as ungrateful and that she's nice to them, and why aren't they more grateful, right? She doesn't see the reality here.
PARKER:As George Washington contemplated the future of slavery, presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and became the nation’s first president two years later, William Lee’s life took a series of unexpected turns.
Lee tried to bring his wife Margaret to Mount Vernon after the war. Although Washington was not found of her, he agreed to pay her passage from Philadelphia because Lee “has lived with me so long and followed my fortunes with fidelity.”
We have no record, however, that she ever joined Lee at Mount Vernon.
MACLEOD: William Lee's story ultimately is somewhat tragic. After the war, he actually experiences two debilitating injuries in the 1780's. He falls while he is out with Washington on a surveying expedition, and he breaks his knee cap essentially, and actually he has to be carried back on a sled basically. And this sounds horrible, horribly painful. And then a few years later, he falls again and he actually breaks the other knee cap, so he's essentially disabled.
PARKER:Despite his injuries, in 1790 Lee insisted on traveling to New York to resume his role as the now PresidentWashington’s valet. But his knees were too badly injured.
MACLEOD:He's sent back to Mount Vernon and at Mount Vernon, he becomes the shoemaker, which was a job that he could do sitting down and he makes shoes for the enslaved community. So his life transformed pretty dramatically from being at Washington side at all these important moments to doing this very repetitive manual labor.
PARKER: Even after years of service, Washington still expected Lee to work, despite his disability.
It’s hard to say why Lee, as far as we know, never tried to self-emancipate during the Revolution as other enslaved people at Mount Vernon did, or why he insisted on going to New York during Washington’s presidency.
MACLEOD: George Washington saw that the British were offering freedom to the enslaved people of Patriots who defected and fought for the crown, and he knew that William Lee would have had that option, but chose to stay with Washington. And so Washington clearly valued what he perceived as loyalty. Now, I think it's important to think about it from Lee's perspective, it's not necessarily that he was faithful and personally attached to Washington, but there were many reasons why he might have chosen to stay. He had family at Mount Vernon, he knew that his service could potentially be rewarded ultimately, which it was, so there are a lot of reasons beyond faithfulness why he might have chosen to stay at Washington's side.
PARKER:William Lee was the only enslaved person that Washington freed immediately in his will. He left Lee a $30.00 annual pension in recognition of “his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
Lee became a free man in December 1799. He remained living at Mount Vernon to be near his family. His brother Frank received his freedom in 1801. But because Frank’s wife and their three children belonged to the Custis estate, many of William Lee’s family members remained enslaved.
Tragically, Lee’s years as a free man were difficult.
MACLEOD: It seems that he developed a drinking problem and suffered a lot of health issues; the last years of his life were somewhat marred by his physical issues and his alcohol addiction.
PARKER: When Lee passed on remains an open question. One source says that he died in 1810, at around the age of 58. Another gives the year of his death as 1828, when he may have been 76 years old. Like so many things with people who don’t leave their own written record, we have more questions than answers.
We think William Lee rests now in the cemetery just across the way from Washington’s Tomb. In 1846, a visitor to Mount Vernon reported seeing Lee’s grave there, but we have no additional evidence, so we can’t be sure.
Only he knows.
Family, kinship, and community were vital sources of strength for William Lee and other enslaved people at Mount Vernon. What do we know about how the enslaved lived their lives, and how do we know what we know? That’s next time on Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m your host, Brenda Parker.
Intertwined was co-created and co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske.
Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Additional producers were me, Brenda Parker and Jessie MacLeod. MacLeod was the lead curator of the Lives Bound Together exhibit, which inspired this podcast.
Mary Thompson provided invaluable research support. Thompson is Mount Vernon’s research historian and the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2019.
We received fact checking and additional editorial support from Samantha Snyder.
Rebekah Hanover Pettit designed our show’s beautiful artwork.
Thank you to Mount Vernon’s Media and Communications Department for their support.
Our summer interns were Izzy Black and Maggie-Mae Ellison from Midwestern State University in Texas. They helped put together our show notes and episode bibliographies.
Thank you to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
And a very special thanks to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon without whose financial support this project would not have been possible.
Learn more about Mount Vernon’s enslaved community and topics covered in this program by checking out our reading lists on our show’s website at George Washington Podcast dot com.
Thank you for listening.
Author / Executive Director, Westport Museum for History
Ramin Ganeshram, is both an award-winning journalist and public historian who is currently the Executive Director of the Westport Museum for History & Culture (formerly Westport Historical Society) in Westport, Connecticut. Her area of study has been colonial-era African American history, particularly focused on enslaved African-Americans and mixed-race people. She spent ten years researching and writing The General’s Cook, a process that continues after the novel was published, including her discovery of the real-life fate of her protagonist Hercules, the cook enslaved by George Washington, and solving a 218 year old mystery.
Ganeshram has been widely recognized for evolving the 131 year old Westport Museum toward an inclusive interpretation of local history as part of the larger American story by focusing on race, ethnicity and gender. In recognition for her work as curator of Westport Museum’s 2018-19 exhibit, Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport, Ganeshram received the prestigious award for Leadership in the Museum Field from the New England Museum Association (NEMA). Remembered won awards of merit from the Connecticut League of History Associations (CLHO) and the coveted Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). In 2019, Ganeshram was also awarded the Paul Cuffee Memorial Fellowship for the For the Study of Minorities in American Maritime History.
An alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of journalism and a professionally trained chef, Ganeshram specializes in writing about multicultural communities and about food from the perspective of history and culture. In addition to writing for organizations such as the BBC, Washington Post, epicurious, and many others, she has contributed articles on historical America, immigrant foodways and colonial New York cuisine and commerce to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink In America (2014) and Savoring Gotham (Oxford University Press 2015). Ganeshram has also been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Food, Culture, & Society.
She has been a featured speaker at City University of New York, the Fancy Food Show, the American Library Association, Morris Jumel Mansion, Connecticut League of History Organizations, and others.
Dr. Lynn Price Robbins holds a PhD in U.S. History from George Mason University. She co-edited "George Washington’s Barbados Diary, 1751-52" and "The Papers of Martha Washington" and is the author of an essay on Martha Washington in "The Women of George Washington's World" (2022). In addition to her research on the Washingtons and women in early America, Robbins focuses on the creation of Washington, D.C., manumission, and the American Colonization Society. She is also a co-host of the 2 Complicated 4 History podcast.
Historian / Griot / Narrator
Brenda Parker is the Coordinator of African American Interpretation and Special Projects at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Foremost she serves as a liaison between the institution’s mission to “preserve, maintain and restore” and the descendants of the enslaved at Mount Vernon. She researches and develops programs including the Lives, Loves, and Losses: Remembering the Families. She also works closely with the League of the Descendants of the Mount Vernon Enslaved, a newly formed organization. They freely allow and encourage her to portray their ancestors in the second part of her job as a Historical Character Interpreter. In this position, she narrates the stories of multiple persons individually or collectively in story format such as her play titled Freedom Skies.
Brenda Parker has worked for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for 17 years. She started working at the Mount Vernon Inn in 2004. She has thirty-plus years of acting, music, and theatre experience, as well as early childhood education. Additionally, she is the mother of four adult children, two beautiful and smart daughters-in-law, and is Griot to one exceptional tiny human being. Brenda believes in the Ghanaian ancestral saying of “Sankofa” To go back and get. In other words, we must learn from our past to get to our future.
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.
Cassandra Good is an award-winning historian, writer, and teacher. She serves as Assistant Professor of History at Marymount University and consults for historic sites and museums. Good's first book, Founding Friendships: Friendships Between Men and Women in the Early American Republic, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. She has been researching and writing about George Washington's step-grandchildren, the Custises, and the people they enslaved for nearly a decade. Her book First Family: George Washington's Heirs and the Making of America, is forthcoming in 2023.
Jessie MacLeod joined Mount Vernon’s curatorial team in 2012, after receiving an M.A. in history, with a certificate in public history, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She previously received a B.A. in history from Yale University and has worked at numerous historic sites interpreting eighteenth and nineteenth-century American history. In her time at Mount Vernon, Jessie served as lead curator for the award-winning exhibition Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (2016-2021).