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OMEKA Part 7: Discipline

Keeping slaves from disobeying or resisting actively or passively was a main concern of Virginian landowners. The tactics used to combat resistance varied, and depended mainly on the planter’s economic status, social status, and personal philosophy. Techniques could include brutal violence, a rescinding of privileges, or demotion to field work. Multiple examples of this occurred at Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon.

One incident of disciplining a slave occurred during Elijah Fletcher’s visit to Gunston Hall. The slave was whipped after borrowing Fletcher’s mare and describes his whipping and his fear that the man would die. This was in 1810 and after George Mason IV had died, and the owner is referred to as General Mason, so it is reasonable to hypothesize that this is the late Mason’s son, General John Mason. This account doesn’t guarantee that the people enslaved by Mason IV were disciplined in this way, but it is a possibility that John Mason learned this disciplining technique from his father.1 In addition to this connection, George Mason IV placed fugitive slave ads for runaway slaves.2

George Washington had varied tactics for disciplining the enslaved under his control. His usual approach to slaves trying to run away was to sell them particularly to the West Indies or to demote them from a previously higher position.3 Physical restraints could be used as well to keep slaves from running away. When Washington sold a man he considered a habitual problem he recommended to the ship captain that they keep him handcuffed until they got to sea. Washington allowed the whipping of his slaves and allowed overseers to whip them and did disciplined slaves this way as well.

While anyone who killed a slave during a punishment wouldn’t be convicted under most circumstances, socially this person may be ostracized. Washington was careful to inform an uncle of an enslaved woman who died that he hadn’t died because he punished her severely and that the woman had been found innocent of the offense. Washington also was aware of certain cruel overseers that he employed and stated that the punishment of slaves not be entrusted to them.4

After destroying the previous slave quarters, a new quarter adjoining the Greenhouse was built. This building was smaller than the previous one and the layout of four large rooms suggests it was communal housing in contrast to the previous quarter that was divided into smaller units. This may be interpreted as an attempt by Washington to have more control over the enslaved by making it so they could be more easily supervised. This type of communal housing was more common on smaller plantations or plantations that were starting our rather than established which also points to increased security as a reason for the change in layout. Another example of increased security was Washington’s request that slave quarters at River and Union Farm be moved to form a line opposite of the Overseers House when reorganizing the estate in the 1790s. In addition to this several letters have Washington urging his manager to move the cabins sooner rather than later.5


1 Martha von Briesen, Letter of Elijah Fletcher (University of Virginia 1965). 14.

2 George Mason, “10 Pounds Reward” (The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser 1786).

3 Jessie MacLeod, “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon: Biographies,” in Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon (Nimick Forbesway Foundation 2016), 19-44.

4 Mary V. Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret (University of Virginia Press, 2019), 248-251.

5 Dennis J. Pogue, “The Domestic Architecture of Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon” Winterthur Portfolio 37, no. 1 (2002): 14.

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