- Historic Sites
A Visit To Mount Vernon
The Polish poet stayed twelve days and saw it all—the great gardens, pretty Nellie Custis, the distillery, the toy Bastille, the wretched slave huts, the great man himself denouncing the irritating French
February 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 2
We entered one of the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet; the children on the ground; [there is] a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty, some cups and a teapot. A boy of 15 was lying on the ground, sick, and in terrible convulsions. The Gl. had sent to Alexandria to fetch a doctor. A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them, for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities. They allot them each one pack [peck] … of maize per week; this makes one quart a day, and half as much for the children, with 20 herrings each per month. At harvest times those who work in the fields have salt meat; in addition, a jacket and a pair of homespun breeches per year. Not counting women and children, the Gl. has 300 Negroes of whom a large number belong to Mrs. Washington. Mr. Anderson told me that there are only a hundred who work in the fields. They work all week, not having a single day for themselves except for holidays. One sees by that that the condition of our peasants is infinitely happier. The mulattoes are ordinarily chosen for servants. According to the laws of Virginia the child follows the condition of the mother; the son or daughter of a mulatto woman and a white is a slave and the issue through the daughter, although white, are still slaves. Gl. Washington treats his slaves far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia. Most of these gentlemen give to their Blacks only bread, water and blows.
Either from habit, or from a natural humor disposed to gaiety, I have never seen the Blacks sad. Last Sunday there were about thirty divided into two groups and playing at prisoner’s base. There were jumps and gambols as if they had rested all week. I noticed that all spoke very good English. Why then do the Blacks of the French colonies never speak a good French; rather make a jargon of their own? The reason for it is perhaps that the American masters speak and communicate with them more often than the French who depend entirely for the management of their farms on their overseers who are also black.
5 June. This morning the Gl. had the kindness to go with us on horseback to show us another of his farms. The soil of it was black, much better looking and more fertile than that of the others. … The Gl. showed us a plow of his own invention: in the middle on the axle itself is a hollow cylinder filled with grain; this cylinder is pierced with different holes, according to the size of the grain. As the plow moves ahead, the cylinder turns and the grain falls, the plowshare having prepared the furrow for it, and a little blade behind then covers it with earth. He then took us to see a barn for threshing the grain. It is an octagonal building; on the first story the floor is made from planed poles three inches wide which do not touch, leaving an empty space between. Grain is placed on them and horses, driven at a trot, trample it; the kernels fall through to the bottom. All around the building there are windows for a draft.
I have often heard the Gl. reproached for his reserve and his taciturnity. It is true that he is somewhat reserved in speech, but he does not avoid entering into conversation when one furnishes him with a subject. We spoke of the French Revolution, and these were his words, “The acts of the French, that which they do in Holland, in Italy, and in Switzerland, ought to warn all nations of their intentions; ought to teach them that it is not freedom nor the happiness of men, but an untrammelled ambition and a desire to spread their conquests and to rule everywhere which is the only goal of their measures!”
At the table after the departure of the ladies, or else in the evening seated under the portico, he often talked with me for hours at a time. His favorite subject is agriculture, but he answered with kindness all questions that I put to him on the Revolution, the armies, etc. He has a prodigious memory. One time in the evening he listed all the rivers, lakes, creeks and the means to procure a communication between these waters from Portsmouth [Portland] in the province of Maine as far as the Mississippi. This man may have erred during his administration; he may not be exempt from a few faults connected more with his age than with his heart, but in all he is a great man whose virtues equal the services that he has rendered his Fatherland. He has shown courage and talent in combat, perseverance and steadfastness during reverses and difficulties, disinterestedness, having at all times served without reward, and in the time of general enthusiasm of a grateful nation he never wished to accept the slightest recompense. Finally he has shown that he was not eager for glory, for being able to remain all his life at the head of the government he resigned voluntarily from the office of President. The device that he has taken for his arms is very appropriate for him, exitus acta probat . [This motto was actually that of the Northamptonshire, England, family from which Washington was descended. Its meaning is “The result proves the Tightness of the deeds,” but it has also been translated “The end justifies the means.”]