Bruce A. Ragsdale. Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021. vii + 358 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-24638-6.
Reviewed by Camille Davis (Southern Methodist University)
Published on H-Early-America (January, 2023)
Commissioned by Patrick Luck (Florida Polytechnic University)
In Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery, Bruce A. Ragsdale asserts that George Washington’s adult life was defined by a commitment to the acquisition and cultivation of land and that this commitment directed his decision-making as both a private citizen and a renowned leader. Going beyond much of the historical analysis that presents farming as primarily an occupation that Washington held before the Revolution and a retirement activity that he reestablished after relinquishing command of the Continental Army, Ragsdale proves that farming was at the nexus of the first president’s personhood, an indelible component of his identity that he consistently developed. Additionally, Ragsdale uses Washington’s preoccupation with land ownership and cultivation to illuminate Washington’s decision-making processes as a slaveowner. Ragsdale believes Washington’s roles as landowner and slaveowner were inextricably linked.
Ragsdale’s work illustrates that Washington’s preoccupation with agriculture was tied directly to the Enlightenment impetus of using science to assess, understand, and control one’s physical environment. Specifically, for Washington, this meant using scientific principles to improve soil conditions and crop growth. The ability to acquire such knowledge and to implement it was crucial to Washington and those of his generation because it represented a hallmark trait for how they believed an enlightened civil society was formed. Conquest and cultivation of the land through rational order and planning produced spaces for living and for growing crops that created opportunities for commerce. Commerce, in turn, was a conduit for facilitating civil bonds within the local, national, and international realms. Ragsdale explains that Washington was so committed to this line of thinking that as president he advocated for reforms of American agriculture in order to make the United States more competitive in the international market. For Washington, Americans proved most competitive by adopting British practices of land cultivation, crop growth, and soil restoration. This component of Ragsdale’s analysis comes across as particularly thought provoking and ironic when one considers that America had only recently fought for independence from England and that one of the primary colonial tools of defiance and rebellion was the use of economic restrictions (specifically nonconsumption and the suspension of trade), which affected their mother country’s imperial purse strings. Colonial nonconsumption and restricted trade practices began as early as 1765 after the implementation of the Stamp Act, and they were codified during the First Continental Congress, with an agreement among the colonies known as the Association. Although this was the case, Ragsdale affirms that even during these periods of limited trade between the mother country and the colonies, Washington remained steadfast in using British agricultural principles for maintaining his private land and directed the plantation managers and overseers whom he employed to follow suit. Washington believed the British practices to be most effective in making American crops suitable for competition in the transatlantic economy.
Washington’s agricultural initiatives incorporated slave labor. Land cultivation for a Virginia planter nearly always meant the use of forced labor extracted from enslaved persons. The phrase “the question of slavery” in Ragdale’s subtitle speaks to the varied ways the issue of slavery continuously confronted Washington throughout his life. As a private citizen, he continuously looked for ways to maximize the efficiency of enslaved persons working on his plantation. Additionally, he insisted that enslaved persons be kept aware of and trained on the most recent English farming techniques. During the Revolution, as commander of the Continental forces, Washington had to decide whether to follow the British example of allowing enslaved men to fight with the colonial forces. The British had begun doing done so in 1775 with the implementation of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, an announcement that promised freedom to enslaved men who left their slaveowners and fought on the British side. While dealing with the precedent that Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation set, Washington faced criticism at home and abroad from those who found his fight for American liberty as a slaveowner somewhat bifurcated, if not conspicuously hypocritical. As president, Washington had critics who believed that one of his major initiatives should have been identifying and repossessing enslaved people who absconded successfully to the British for their freedom. Additionally, Washington was pushed by both abolitionists and those in his inner circle (most famously, the Frenchman Lafayette) to free his slaves. Ragsdale does a masterful job presenting the quandary that slavery created for the first president. Instead of arguing that a specific set of principles guided Washington’s evolution on the subject of slavery, Ragsdale asserts that Washington’s concern for his reputation and his growing sense of private discomfort with the brutality of slavery led him to ideas for more humane treatments of enslaved people and eventually led to plans to free them—which did not come to fruition until after his death.
In Ragsdale’s discussion of Washington’s attempts to convince himself that slavery could be made more tolerable for those whose personhood and labor he claimed, Ragsdale describes a type of paternalism that is discussed by some scholars of American slavery (most famously Eugene Genovese) who assert that slaveowners believed that they could coddle and manipulate enslaved people into compliance instead of always using physical punishments or selling them. Genovese and Ragsdale are in agreement that there were certain instances in which the opinions of some enslaved individuals held sway with their masters, but Ragsdale seems to take the argument a step further by stating that there were specific instances in which Washington gave enslaved individuals the option of being sold or remaining with him and that this action was motivated not by a disciplinary schema but instead to ascertain the enslaved persons’ preferences. Since this was a deviation from Washington’s normal mode of behavior, explaining the specific details of these circumstances would have been helpful to the reader, particularly when Ragsdale clearly states that Washington had no problem with using the threat of sale, actual sales, and physical chastisement as punishment for perceived wrongs to maintain control of enslaved populations. The severity of punishment that Washington was willing to use on enslaved persons is discussed in the work of Washington historian Mary Thompson and intimated by cultural historian Paul Staiti. Staiti asserts that Washington’s contemporaries knew that he possessed a temper and that although that temper was primarily under control, there were moments when it erupted, most notably, with those who were servants.
Ragsdale’s discussion of Washington’s paternalism practices is most effective when he discusses Washington’s order to overseers to use constant supervision of the enslaved as a mechanism for maintaining discipline. Constant supervision was part of how Washington attempted to systemize work on his lands, and it created fewer opportunities for enslaved people to divert from prescribed form, which Washington argued decreased the need for punishment. The paternalism argument also holds true when Ragsdale discusses an instance in which Washington counseled one of his plantation managers to offer advice and admonishment to an enslaved person after administering physical punishment. Such a practice does fit the proverbial “kill two birds with one stone” approach of paternalism. On the one hand, a slave owner allows those he deputizes to take allowances with the life, labor, and body of enslaved persons; on the other hand, he admonishes those who are administrating punishment to verbally teach and direct the person they have tormented toward the path of morality, as if to show care or concern for that individual’s well-being. Indeed, Ragsdale does an excellent job showing how slaveowners rationalized their cruelty with devious forms of perverse kindness.
Early American scholars will likely want more conversation from Ragsdale about the Fugitive Slave clause that was implemented during the Constitutional Convention as well as the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law that was subsequently implemented during Washington’s presidency. Although Ragdale discusses some of the politics that led to the creation of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, it would have been helpful to know more about the conversations between Washington and his inner circle regarding the legislation. For instance, Ragsdale states that Washington contravened the advice of Attorney General Edmund Randolph by advocating for the law’s creation. Scholars will ponder if Randolph’s objections were rooted in political expediency or in personal morality or possibly both. What specifically did Randolph say to Washington, and did others in Washington’s political and/or personal circle have anything to say about the matter? Additionally, scholars and lay readers may wish for more discussion on Washington’s relentless pursuit of Martha Washington’s enslaved maid Ona Judge, who left her owners during Washington’s presidency. Ragsdale did not need to go into much detail, since historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar provides a robust description in her seminal work on the subject (Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave ). However, in Ragsdale’s account, it is worth emphasizing to the reader that Washington’s pursuit of Judge directly defied his profession to his inner circle at that time that he wanted to rid himself of slaves.
Despite some opportunities for more discussion on the issues of paternalism and the politics of slavery, the book lives up to its acclaim. It adeptly uses the lenses of agricultural development and slavery to present a multidimensional representation of America’s first—and arguably most revered—president. Both scholars and lay readers will find Ragsdale’s account a strong contribution to the historiography of Washington as a landowner, a public leader, and a private citizen.
. Mary Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019); and Paul Staiti, “Gilbert Stuart’s Presidential Imaginary,” in Shaping the Body Politic: Art and Political Formation in Early America, ed. Maurie D. McInnis and Louis P. Nelson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011): 170.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-early-america.
Camille Davis. Review of Ragsdale, Bruce A., Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery.
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