Commerce and Community: Plantation Life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 1754 to 1799

Gwendolyn White

Advisor: Cynthia A. Kierner, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, Zachary Schrag, Dennis Pogue

Research Hall, #161
April 12, 2016, 01:00 PM to 11:00 AM


This dissertation explores Mount Vernon as an example of a large Virginia plantation during the last half of the eighteenth century by examining the part it played in the local economy both before and after the American Revolution.  It is a community study of the many people involved in the enterprise: George Washington, his family, his farm managers, both enslaved and white workers, and tenants and neighbors within the seasonal activities that dominated the operation of the plantation. Mount Vernon was a part of the northern Virginia Chesapeake region that was undergoing profound agricultural, economic, and cultural changes throughout the last half of the eighteenth century, which affected all levels of the population.  The dissertation examines the impact of these changes on the physical landscape, regional economy, and social relations on Washington’s plantation and in the larger community as Virginia transitioned from a colony to a state of a sovereign nation. 

The research for this project rests primarily on Washington’s personal papers, which include a large number of farm records and account ledgers in addition to much of his correspondence and the diaries he kept throughout his life. Together they provide an almost day-by-day account of the community at Mount Vernon.  The records reveal details about the labor of slaves and hired workers and the integral part they played in the local market as well as the national economy. They also show that for George Washington, Mount Vernon represented not only his home and livelihood, but also a passion that endured for the forty-five years he lived there. His letters and diaries reveal that the management and improvement of the farm was never far from his thoughts – not even during the years he was away during the Revolutionary War, his time at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, or his eight year tenure as the first president of the newly formed United States of America.  The plantation was not just one facet of Washington’s life but was integrated into every part of his private life and his public identity.

Although Washington was a skillful and innovative planter, the many people who lived and worked at Mount Vernon made possible the economic success that he enjoyed. Some individuals profited from being part of the community by earning wages and participating in the local economy. However, the stark contrasts between the lives of those at the upper and lower levels of the Mount Vernon community are evident in the bequests of George Washington’s will written shortly before his death at the end of 1799. Washington owned almost 60,000 acres of land in several states and territories and by almost any measure was a wealthy man. On the other hand, the housing, clothing and food of Washington’s three hundred slaves had not changed in any material way between 1754 and 1799. The will freed only the slaves owned by Washington outright. After Martha Washington’s death a few years later, much of the community that had lived and worked at Mount Vernon during Washington’s lifetime scattered.