Master George's People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation

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As the first President of the United States of America and the Commander in Chief who led a rebel army to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington was a legendary leader of men. He had high expectations of his soldiers, employees, and associates. At his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, his expectations of his workers were no different: “I expect such labor as they ought to render,” he wrote.

Except there was a big difference. The workers who kept Mount Vernon ...

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As the first President of the United States of America and the Commander in Chief who led a rebel army to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington was a legendary leader of men. He had high expectations of his soldiers, employees, and associates. At his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, his expectations of his workers were no different: “I expect such labor as they ought to render,” he wrote.

Except there was a big difference. The workers who kept Mount Vernon operating were enslaved. And although Washington called them “my people,” by law they were his property. The Founders birthed a document celebrating “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as unalienable rights at the same time people were being bought and sold. But the people of Mount Vernon were so much more, and they each have compelling stories to tell.

In the pages of Master George’s People, Marfé Ferguson Delano gives us fascinating portraits of cooks, overseers, valets, farm hands, and more—essential people nearly lost in the shadows of the past—interwoven with an extraordinary examination of the conscience of the Father of Our Country.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A revealing portrait of the father of our country as a slave owner. Revered and remembered as the man who led the young United States to a Revolutionary War victory over the British and served two terms as our first president, Washington was also a Virginia plantation owner and slaveholder. Delano details the day-to-day operations of Mount Vernon and the work, food, clothing and family life of Washington's slaves. Short biographical sketches are given on those few whose names survive. Washington was a hands-on manager of his land and his "people," as he referred to the enslaved. What separates him from other Founding Fathers is the turn in his thinking that led him, not long before his death, to change his will and free his slaves. (Martha Washington's slaves were her dower property from her first husband and were not affected by this.) A generous serving of period illustrations and photographs of Mount Vernon's historical interpreters adds great visual interest and clarity, although the contemporary folk are no doubt much better dressed and fed. Endpapers excerpt the Declaration of Independence and Washington's last will and testament. Delano has succeeded in writing a carefully researched, balanced and ultimately moving story. A thoughtful new insight into an iconic American life. (endnote, chronology, bibliography, sources, index) (Nonfiction. 8-12)
From the Publisher
One of Booklist's Top 10 Black History Books for Youth

Named 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People by the Children's Book Council

"A revealing portrait of the father of our country as a slave owner....A thoughtful new insight into an iconic American life."  —Kirkus Reviews

"Delano does an excellent job of presenting context for the prevailing attitudes and economic realities of the 18th century…Photographs of costumed interpreters provide visual immediacy and freshness." —School Library Journal

“Colorfully illustrated…well-researched and clearly presented information on the topic makes this a valuable addition to American history collections for young people.”—Starred review, Booklist

 “Lori Epstein’s photographs help deepen understanding of the day-to-day existence of people trapped in slavery. This important, carefully researched work of nonfiction proves both factual and fascinating.” —Washington Parent

“Master George’s People is a fascinating portrait of the evolving thinking of our first President on the subject of slavery.” —NC Teacher Stuff blog

Children's Literature - Enid J. Portnoy
When Delano visited a new exhibit of an exact model showing living quarters of slaves owned by the first President of the United States, she wanted to share her excitement with young readers. President Washington referred to his slaves as his "people." In the 1700's this meant they were his property, just as his animals, plants, and buildings were property. Most of Washington's friends owned slaves just as he did. It did not matter that he was a wealthy landowner. He had to have people to take care of what he owned and care for his family at his large estate. A slave owner could make rules for slaves which governed everything about their everyday lives and work; everything except changing their continual desire to be free. In this book readers will discover how Washington's attitude and behavior toward his people changed. Epstein's photographs are created with costumed actors around the beautiful and spacious grounds of Mount Vernon. They help to show images how difficult the task was to keep such a large residence attractive, and in good working order. In addition, the text which accompanies the photographs, historical documents, and prints, is written conversationally for young students' interest. Stories about individual slaves as well as the President and his family keep the readers' attention. The book is a special gift to students of history who are curious about what our earliest President thought about slave life. Extensive informational notes and research citations are integrated throughout the pages. Readers will learn that Washington had two wills, one describing specifically what he wished to happen to his slaves when he died(in 1799, at the age of sixty seven). His wife, Martha, also owned slaves from a previous marriage. Since she outlived her husband, she had to decide what to do with her slaves, too. Even at Mount Vernon slaves attempted to run away, though many were captured, and some punished cruelly. This information was gathered in letters and journals that Washington kept, and from other documents of the period. An extensive bibliography is included along with individual chapter references at the end of the book. Most helpful is a concise chronology with important dates highlighted between 1607 and 1802, the year when Martha Washington died. Though we learn more about our first President and his private life from the book it also broadens our knowledge of individual slaves who made life at Mount Vernon easier for Washington and his family. Although duties of his Presidency often forced him to be away from Mount Vernon his writing states his wish to be kept informed of everything about his property, including his "people." An index is also provided. The author includes an endnote about her own family which can be traced back to Mount Vernon. It is easy to see how carefully she researched her text for historical accuracy. Since 1860 Mount Vernon has been visited by more than 800 million visitors. It is the most popular historical home in America. Anyone reading and looking at book will be stimulated to plan a trip there. The National Geographic Society, Delano, and Epstein have given readers more than a beautifully illustrated picture book. It is a story history of slaves who helped create an historic American showplace. This book deserves a place in school and classrooms as one to be passed on to future generations. Reviewer: Enid J. Portnoy
School Library Journal
Gr 5–9—Students are often surprised that many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington, were slave owners. These men sought personal freedoms in writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but acted in a seemingly hypocritical way in their own lives. Delano does an excellent job of presenting context for the prevailing attitudes and economic realities of the 18th century. Using primary sources, including Washington's letters and his will, she details how his attitudes toward slavery evolved over his years as a young landowner, military leader, and president. Vignettes about enslaved individuals are interspersed with information about Washington. The combined history puts the focus on all of the people involved rather than just the famous names. The book reflects extensive research, with a detailed bibliography and directly sourced quotations. Washington is known for freeing his slaves upon his death, but Delano demonstrates the complexity of the situation and what it meant for Mrs. Washington and other slaves on the property owned by her children. The book is slim but dense, and while the subject is fascinating, it requires some maturity from readers. Photographs of costumed interpreters provide visual immediacy and freshness. Period paintings that include enslaved personal servants demonstrate their importance in the household. An endnote by an African American educator underscores the need for young people to understand the legacy of slavery and what it continues to mean for our country today.—Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, St. Christopher's School, Richmond, VA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781426307591
  • Publisher: National Geographic Society
  • Publication date: 1/8/2013
  • Pages: 64
  • Sales rank: 547,806
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 9.40 (w) x 11.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Marfé Ferguson Delano lives within biking distance of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and has long been curious about her famous historic neighbor. Her curiosity led to a four-year research project and the discovery of a whole host of less-famous historic neighbors—the enslaved people who lived with George and Martha on their plantation farm and now so richly populate the beautifully written pages of Master George’s People. Her previous books for National Geographic include Helen’s Eyes: A Photobiography of Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s Teacher and Earth in the Hot Seat: Bulletins from a Warming World. Visit her web site at

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Read an Excerpt

Like children everywhere, the enslaved girls and boys who lived on President George Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, liked to play together. While their parents cleaned Washington’s mansion house or cooked his family’s meals or groomed his horses or toiled in his fields from dawn to dusk, the slave children seem to have looked after themselves. And as children will do, they sometimes played where they had been told not to.
When Washington’s new farm manager, William Pearce, arrived at Mount Vernon in the fall of 1793, he was dismayed to see that the slave children had the run of the grounds. “I thought I saw a great many at your mansion house,” he wrote to his employer.
At the time Washington himself was in Philadelphia, leading the new nation he had helped create. He answered Pearce’s letter promptly, as he usually did with matters concerning Mount Vernon. He had loved it ever since he was a boy. No matter how far away he was from Mount Vernon, it was never far from his thoughts.
He already knew that the children played around his mansion. They had been doing it for years. “There are a great number of Negro children at the quarters belonging to the house people,” he replied to Pearce.
George Washington often called the enslaved human beings he owned his “people.” The “house people” worked as personal servants to the Washington family. They were the maids and butlers and waiters, the seamstresses and grooms. Most of them lived close to t he mansion house, either in their own tiny cabins or above the outbuildings or in a dormitory-style building known as the quarters.
“But,” continued Washington, the children “have always been forbid (except two or three young ones belonging to the cook . . .) from coming within the gates of the enclosures of the yards, gardens, etc.” The cook’s name was Lucy. Her husband, Frank Lee, was a house servant and waiter. Their children—who included Phil, Patty, and Burwell— were the only ones with permission to play near the mansion.
As Washington admitted to Pearce, however, the rest of the children “are often in there notwithstanding.” Something about the area was irresistible. Perhaps it was the long lawn in front of the mansion, compared by a French visitor to “a playground carpeted in green.” The walled gardens on either side of the lawn must have been especially tempting. It’s easy to imagine children racing around the gravel paths, leaping over shrubs and swinging from trees. During the fun a twig might snap or a branch break off and get used as a pretend sword. Careless feet might trample vegetables or flowers. And who could resist picking a juicy apple or pear when the ripe fruit dangled from the trees?
Among the young trespassers might have been Wilson, Rachel, and Jemima. Their mother, Caroline, served as a maid in the mansion house. Timothy and Elvey might have played there too. Their mother, Charlotte, was a seamstress who sometimes worked in the mansion.
Washington told Pearce why the slave children were banned from the area. It was so “they may not be breaking the shrubs, and doing other mischief.” Washington took great pride in Mount Vernon’s gardens. He had designed them himself, and he enjoyed showing them off to guests. He was especially proud of the boxwood shrubs arranged in an elegant shape known as a fleur-de-lis.
But aside from his complaints, Washington seems to have done little to stop the children from playing there. As President, he no doubt had more important things on his mind.
And perhaps he didn’t have the heart to enforce the ban. He knew that the enslaved children would soon be put to work for him, when they were between 11 and 14 years old. About this, he was quite clear: “So soon as they are able to work out I expect to reap the benefit of their labor myself.” In this time, it was not unusual for enslaved children—or free children, for that matter—to start work at such an early age. The difference was that if you were a free child, your parents decided when and where you would be put to work. If you were an enslaved child, your owner decided your fate.
George Washington became a slave owner when he was only a boy himself. When his father, Augustine Washington, died in 1743, he left 11-year-old George ten enslaved workers. George also inherited the family home, a plantation called Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Young George took slavery for granted. He had grown up watching his father’s slaves tend the farm animals, clear the fields, and plant, hoe, and harvest the crops. Other slaves cooked, cleaned, and washed clothes for the Washington family. They helped care for the Washington children. George’s neighbors and older half-brothers also owned slaves.
African people were first sold as servants in Virginia in 1619. Over the next two centuries, many thousands more African men, women, and children were captured, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, and sold to colonists to be unpaid workers for the rest of their lives. By the time George Washington was born in 1732, slavery was a fact of life in American society. Enslaved black people were considered a “species of property,” just like horses or dogs or tables or chairs. They could be bought, sold, rented, traded, or given away as gifts. They had no rights at all. Today it is difficult for us to understand this attitude, but in the 1700s many people saw things differently. Very few white colonists objected to slavery. And the slaves themselves had no say in the matter.

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  • Posted February 1, 2013

    more from this reviewer


    MASTER GEORGE'S PEOPLE: GEORGE WASHINGTON,HIS SLAVES,HIS AND REVOLUTIONARY TRANSFORMATION by Marfe Ferguson Delano with Mount Vernon photography by Lori Epstein. Another powerful book for all ages. Filled with history,facts,pictures,and excerpts from his letters. George Washington,our first President had many faces including "slave owner. He expected all "his" people,employees,soldiers,and family to work hard with no exceptions. An insightful look at our First President,and his revolutionary transformation from "slave owner" to "Father of Our Country". What an extraordinary man. I have visited Mount Vernon in Virginia,it is a beautiful place filled with rich history. I was fascinated and educated on the life,times of this man, Our Country, and its people. This book brings it all together in a thoughtful,fact based,insightful look at our First President,George Washington. I would highly recommend this title for all ages. Educators,children,grandparents alike will enjoy learning more on the George Washington,military man and father of Our Country. Received for an honest review from the publisher.

    RATING: 5


    REVIEWED BY: AprilR, My Book Addiction and More/My Book Addiction Reviews

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