tv The Presidency Bruce Ragsdale Washington at the Plow CSPAN August 8, 2022 9:56am-10:52am EDT
relationship that he had already started, and he really went on to forge, with various leaders, including pope john paul the second, two wage would ended up being a winning winning act in the cold war, and of course reagan couldn't have known that going in. but he said he had faith in god, and then had good policy, but he was dramatic. he talked about the divine plan, he talked about the dp with various advisers and he got that from one of them originally, and then he liked it so much he used it. so he definitely comes to mind. >> the presidency is saturday at 2 pm eastern. it's available to watch anytime at c-span dot org slash history. next, on the presidency. author bruce bragged out talks about his book, washington and the plow. the founding farmer and the
question of slavery. yuck >> in the summer of 1787 in the midst of the meeting of the caution to the convention, george washington recorded an outing in his diary. observing some farmers at work, and entering into conversation with them, i received the following information with respect to the mode of cultivating buckwheat, and the application of the grain. in his letters and diary entities throughout his life, washington frequently makes observations on crops and farming practices. for his own mount vernon estate he kept careful accounts, always seeking improvements and agricultural practices. one can read washington's own words online, the founding -- hosted by the national archives to the national historical publication commission. overtime, washington's ideas on agriculture and agricultural labor changed, based on his own experiences in applications of modern farming techniques. in today's program we will hear
from author, bruce ragsdale, whose new book, washington at the plow, discusses these changes. explains how washington's passion for farming led him to question the reliance on slave labor. bruce rag dale served for 20 years as director of the federal judiciary at the federal judicial center. the author of a planters republic with urge for independents in revolutionary virginia, he has been a fellow at the washington library, mount vernon, and the international center for jefferson studies. now let's hear from bruce ragsdale, thank you for joining us today. >> thank you, i am delighted to have this opportunity to speak to the audience that the national archives. i rely so heavily on founders online, it is a wonderful resource that has all of the public correspondence of washington and other founders. making it so accessible to make this research. the book is an attempt to write a full history of washington's life as a farmer.
a farming biography as it were. his life as a former really still stands as the most important untold story about the most familiar of the founders. i started this project with a conviction that no one can fully understand washington without some sense of why he preferred his life as a farmer so much. also what he had hoped to achieve for the new nation as a former. the way he saw as an additional kind of leadership, in establishment within the united states. a british visitor to mount vernon in 1785 reported that washington's greatest ambition following the american revolution was to be considered the first farmer of america. washington has been celebrated for many firsts, but the idea of first farmer of america is one that has been lost to our nations memory. i wanted to find out why that would have been so important to washington, so soon after he
had just lead the continental army to victory and secured american independence. why was it so important for him to then term to farming in his service to the nation? i also wanted to uncover a side of washington that it's seldom evident in his military in political life. he considered farming the activity that was best suited to his disposition. he certainly enjoyed it more than any other activity. he said it was more rewarding than any string of military victories could ever be. it reveals a private washington that is, often hard to discern elsewhere in his life. we find a man deeply connected to the natural world around him. you find intellectual curiosity, you find an engagement with the world with the self described enlightened landowners on both sides of the atlantic. it became a very important part
of the personal life that washington wanted to bring to his farming amount washed -- farming for washington was never just a private enterprise. culturally, he thought it would be one of the most important foundations and america's place in the world. the respectability amongst the community of nations. he always, in all of his agricultural innovations over 40 years, he always looking towards the larger direction of economic growth. the political economy that would be supported by different kinds of agriculture. first in the 17 60s when he moves away from tobacco -- in 1775 he makes wheat his cash crop. he does this in no small part because he sees the opportunities outside of the restrictions of empire. it was a crowd that could be traded --
of the acts like encumber the tobacco trade. he thought it was a way of making virginia more independent, more self directed. again, after the revolutionary war when he adopts a program of diversified farming that he thinks will be the foundation of the new nations commercial prosperity. that it will provide the common commercial interests that will tie the nation together. farming was another demonstration of the kind of leadership to be exercised, as well as political and military. i also want to then reconstruct a side of the historic aroaz washington that is often forgot about. especially represented in this famous sculpture, the french sculptor, who don, created for the state capitol in richmond. that is the celebration of washington as the american --
his return from the army to farming recalled the example of the roman general who had left his farm to defend the republican battle. refused an offer of arbitrary power and refused to his -- life as a farmer. in the 18th century the image of washington at the plow held an idea of civic virtue. it became a similar representation made all the more powerful by his actual preference for farming and his deep engagement informing at mount vernon after 1783. the presentation that who don has here is showing washington not just as he takes off his military cloak and hangs up his sword but also with the plow at
his feet with the plow at his side awaiting his life as a farmer this representation it was especially notable because now, houdon decided to present washington in modern dress instead of the classical dress associated with the ancients. a. is associated with cincinnati's, houdon present washington with a general plow. he had one made like this. it was manufactured by the enslaved manufacturers in mount vernon. this becomes another representation of washington service through his embrace of the plow how washington is also
associated with the plow when he resigns as the president in 1797 washington's surrendering the symbols of power -- with his left hand he gestures in waiting for him at mount vernon's the plow with the yoke of oxen. as these themes and images suggest washington, after 1783 is effectively farming on the public stage. he is closely being watched by both europeans and americans. celebrating is washington with a plow. a farmer doing the public good. the notion of the public that frames many of the expectations of washington as a farmer he places greater emphasis on the specific benefits of the
agricultural improvements he introduces. those expectations also frame his new reckoning with slavery throughout the years following the revolutionary war. it is here in his life as a farmer more than in any other dimension of his life that we can discern how washington ultimately confronted the paradox of slavery and freedom that runs throughout the founding period. in this form we can find the most detailed record of his changing attitudes towards slavery. and enslavedthe story of washinf farmer is the story of washington in the flavor. and slaved labor and farming were inseparable throughout his entire life. he once wrote that he did not like to even think about slavery, let alone write about it or talk about it. in fact he thought about
slavery all the time. he thought about it and wrote about it in terms of his management of the enslaved agricultural labor at his own estate. it is there in that record that you can see both a change in attitude but also the record of his daily interactions with the enslaved labor that he supervised and controlled. finally, when washington does ultimately decide to quote, search for some way to emancipate the enslaved people he controls the on the record we have of that process, the process, is through his record of farming and his reorganization of mount vernon. it is here, this example, this document washington may it 7 to 99, towards the end of his life, he gave a detailed description of enslaved labor in mount vernon. this document has only come to
light in the last ten years. it was acquired by mount vernon, it is in the library there. it is also on their website. what is really interesting about this document is that he gives such a detailed description of what individual laborers and what he sees as their strength. he also makes clear that he defines these individuals largely through their labor, and logic through their value to him. it shows a kind of close personal connection, and a personal engagement that is not available in any place other than in these farming records. when i started the research for this book, i thought i had a pretty good sense of the trajectory of washington's life as a farmer. but i now think are two of the most important contributions of the book came largely as surprises as i undertook the research. the first of the surprises is
the depth of washington's commitment to british agriculture, two british models of agricultural improvement. in the middle decades of the 18th century transformation of farming had brought about remarkable increases in productivity. as soon as washington becomes a full-time farmer in 1759, after he leaves the virginia regiment, he is determined to adopt many of those practices from british agriculture, bringing it to virginia to develop a new kind of agricultural at mount vernon that could open up new types of opportunities and open up a new world for him. he learns about these new techniques almost entirely through books. beginning in 1759, he starts to order new books through tobacco
merchants in london. this is one of the most important. this is thomas hail's complete body of husbandry. he not only brings these books into his library and takes extensive notes, but we can very specifically trace experiments that he undertakes. experiments in cultivation that he undertake soon after he received this and other books. he developed one of the largest libraries, practical treatise is in virginia at the time. he learns about practical agriculture through this but he also learns about a whole culture of farming that was promoted by a new type of gentlemen, self professed gentlemen, farmer in great britain. the frontispiece on our right side illustrates, these gentlemen farmers often connected their efforts with a great agricultural us of antiquity. people like virtual --
they viewed their agriculture as a type of civic and patriotic service when they were undertaking experiments that could lead common farmers to improve their land. washington found in this cultural form or a new role for the virginia planter. that the virginia planter could take on this role of demonstrating new kinds of farming that would diversify farming and open up new kinds of commercial opportunities. what is even more surprising is this commitment to british husbandry increases overtime. it becomes stronger and stronger after the revolutionary war. after independence from the empire. washington is still deeply committed to these british models. husbandry asin 1785 he announcee wants to undertake a complete course of husbandry and best farming counties in england.
it is not just cultivation methods or new crops, this is a very elaborate and complicated system of cooperations integrated with livestock management and especially restoration of the soil. stewardship of the soil. it leads him to redesign the entire agricultural landscape over thousands of acres on mount vernon. it also leads him to demand that the enslaved cannot construct a formal infrastructure of farming, including what washington thought were the largest farms in the united states. they probably were, all constructed on the basis of very sophisticated british models. at the same time, washington begins a correspondence with some of our most important agricultural list in great britain. they really become his confidants and guides as he implements new types of farming
throughout 1785. the second and closely related surprise was the enormous effort that washington expanded in trying to adapt enslaved labor to this complicated course of british husbandry. this is a merger of british notions of enlightened farming with and slave labor which really is unique to washington. no one else is trying to do it on the scale that he has. it is a challenge that he understands is also unique to him. during the revolutionary war, washington on a couple of occasions in private correspondence says he wants to be done with managing enslaved labor. he wants to be done relying on enslaved labor for agriculture. those comments, combined with a few remarks in the 1780 said he supported the principle of
gradual abolition, persuaded many historians that from the revelation on washington is trying to extricate himself from the institution of slavery. he sees the future of american agriculture going in a different direction. from the time that he drops this new type of farming in 1785, he takes a number of very decisive actions to increase his reliance on enslaved labor. to adapt that labor to new kinds of farming. to find new value in enslaved labor that he has acquired for mount vernon. he relies on enslaved overseers at four of the five plantations at mount vernon that are involved in commercial agriculture. he tries to replace the hired white artisans who he had paid
to do various types of skilled trades with enslaved labor at mount vernon, especially carpenters who were making the agricultural implements, with brick layers who would help build these tremendous agricultural structures and work with the carpenters. to do complicated join airing. most of the enslaved labor in the fields. washington in the process and poses a new type of specialization of labor and it is a specialization of labor by gender he puts more and more of the agricultural work and the fieldwork and the responsibility of enslaved women and more and more of the enslavement working as artisans and craftsmen it is a very carefully constructed program
to take the labor that he had the enslaved labor and to apply it to new types of farming. washington understood what he was trying to do was unprecedented. certainly, he was not going to get any advice or suggestions from the british agricultural that he read. he devises a new type of supervision -- it is original to him. it allows him to supervise much more closely than he ever had before. he devices these weekly worker reports. they eventually are kept in the format of booking format. even though there is no money. not knowing the monetary values recorded but rather each plantation in indebted for the number of labour is they had and then credited for the work that those labor did over the
course that they did. he received these every week. they would be prepared on a saturday and from 1785 until the end of its life -- and they allow him to exercise enormous control over the enslaved labor, even when he is not at mount vernon. as president, he devoted most sundays to reviewing these reports, and writing a very detailed instruction for a response to that. these reports are just one example of the many kinds of records that washington kept about his state. he had a penchant for all kinds of record keeping. those records collectively make mount vernon probably the best
state on the chesapeake in the 18th century. it also made possible writing a book like this. here is an example of the kinds of exactitude and detail that he offered as far manager. this is his architectural design for treading wheat. a 16 sided barn, a very complicated construction. at the bottom, he provides exact details for how the lumber is to be cut. he explains which lumber was to be gathered on the estate, which was to be bought from alexandria. but he put this together at one of the busiest times of his presidency. this document was sent to his manager a week before he was elected to a second term. and as he came back from the fields one day in the 1780's, he creates this remarkable
account of scenes, of how many seeds are in a pound. how many various acres. he is looking for an exactitude and a new kind of efficiency through this really quite remarkable attention to detail. he brought that same attention to detail in many of the records related to enslaved, particularly in the work reports i've just shown. and also in the record of provisions of the enslaved clothing, food. those kinds of detailed records, aside from correspondence, are really what make possible information about the lives of the enslaved. those records are important because they are kept almost entirely by washington and his white managers, rather than any input from the enslaved
themselves. these kind of plantation records and accounts a law for much more reconstruction work on the enslaved. many historians once thought this was possible. and it gives a tantalizing view of what people would like to know far more about. we would love to have better records for this. davy gray was and enslaved overseer. later, he learned how to cradle which especially valued. washington was trying to train the enslaved to do it, rather than hire people to do it at enormous expense. in 1783, he is made an overseer, the second enslaved overseer of the farm where he worked. he continues as overseer for 30
years, and he works on several different farms over that time. he probably knew the land and the farming better than anyone, maybe better than washington. where he was there as supervisor of labor, washington was away in the revolution and then as president. but in all the records, this document is the only one that has any indication of his mark that he apparently was not able to write. but we do have this one receipt where he marks his receipt for having paid for poultry being raised for marsha -- martha washington after the death of george washington. that mark is the one indication of gray himself.
great was able to -- gray received some small cash payments from washington, and he apparently use those to buy poultry. he also, after the death of washington and the sale of the livestock, gray was able to purchase a cow, quite a remarkable purchased for an enslaved person. but he was not able to purchase his own freedom. he was one of the so-called dour slaves. they were controlled by washington, he was able to use their labor during his marriage. but after martha's death, the slaves were divided among the grandchildren and davey great remained enslaved. for all this attention to detail, washington never loses
sight of a grander aspirational vision. he was trying to implement this at mount vernon. this is the seal of the agricultural society of philadelphia. washington was inducted as an honorary member and had a great deal of correspondence. it presents this aspirational notion of what farming will contribute to that new nation. the goddess of agriculture is here with a crown of 13 stars. this improvement in society, like washington, they had a vision for agriculture. he was focused primarily on trying to bring the best to the united states. washington, in the later years
of his service and the revolutionary war, as we were just talking about, he makes references to the vine and fig tree. life under the vine and fig tree and the anticipation of his life after the revolutionary war. he sees those biblical references, including the many about turning stones and swords into plow shares, a representation of a new type of peaceful inheritance that he thinks will be based on agricultural improvement, a shared culture of agricultural improvement with other nations, particularly great britain. he bonds with a lot of british agricultural us and the rejection of mercantilism which he thinks led to the war. they believe they are in this joint effort, they engage in
almost global exchange of an agricultural knowledge and planting material and agricultural implements. this image here of it was called general washington's, hardly seems like a new era of enlightened exchange. in fact, this is a documentation of washington's first agricultural project after the revolutionary war. he decided that he wanted to breed mules. that mules were supposed to be superior to all other draft animals. their endurance, longevity, and also in the cost of their upkeep. [inaudible] he decides that he wants to procure a spanish donkey, which was considered the best animal
from which to breed mules. they were prohibited from export from spain. he sends out letters trying to figure out a way how to get one. it sets and play a whole network through the highest levels of diplomatic circles in europe. it's so attracts the intention of the people of spain, king charles the third recognizes that this is a new way of supporting their ally in the revolutionary war. he orders that one of these prized animals will be sent to washington in the united states. the one that survived was named royal gab. when it comes in he is almost a kind of celebrity in his own right. he is pictured here in the farmers almanac. also from his journey from massachusetts where he is
brought to mount vernon in the newspapers. he attracts the interests of other agricultural improver throughout the united states. reaching from john j in new york to the political elite in charleston, south carolina. they all want to bring their mares to breed with royal gift at mount vernon. the next 15 years, washington proceeds through this global network of scientific agricultural exchange that extends mostly through the paddocks of the british empire but also through diplomatic channels of the united states. he received seeds and plants from all over the world. he is planting we from the cape colony in southern africa. to the coast of africa, he even receives we sent to him from an agricultural list in great britain that supposedly was
seed supposedly given by catherine the great of russia to george the third. washington is connected to this whole world of improvement and all the exploration of the natural world. we exchange, a plant exchange that also includes agricultural implements. he gets plows from great britain, and most importantly it includes even more books to add to his library. he again returns to his practice of taking detailed notes from agricultural treatise is that he can apply those lessons to farming at mount vernon. in return, washington welcomed many, many, visitors who pilgrimage to mount vernon. he offered them a view of an
agricultural landscape unlike anything else in the united states. this is the five farms map that he draws in 1794. it shows the extent to which he had completely reworked the landscape at mount vernon to incorporate british farming. a visitor, one of the visitors who came to mount vernon recognize that it just look different than any other farms in the united states, particularly those in virginia. a visitor from europe couldn't believe washington had not been to europe because he had so completely absorb the ideas of their agriculture. they also recognized the specific purpose of what washington is trying to do.
those who came to mount vernon yuck [inaudible] hero back later and said, the farms that he was building where a monument to patriotism. they were showing the way for other american farmers. this is a detail of the map that shows that he also was creating vistas and views that connected across different farms. and is agriculture on display to visitors. here is the farm that went to the grandest barn that he built on all of the farms. and then in this image of mount vernon it was painted in the late 1780, for early 17 90s was one of the very few that showed the house that he provided for
enslaved families mount to the right of mount ven is what was known as the space for families. when these visitors came to mount vernon, they saw the agricultural improvements, but they also saw the large numbers of enslaved laborers who were carrying at washington's innovations and were responsible for the changes in innovations that he had brought to mount vernon. and just as we recognize the power of the general term, farmer. so a new generation of anti slavery advocates were convinced that washington was there for their cause. and washington was for the emancipation of slave laborers.
to discourage the use of violent punishment, especially in a violent. and used in coercion for he also tries to encourage the use of violent punishment, for the coercion of labor. and the way that it mirrored similar efforts in the caribbean and among other people, including thomas jefferson, makes slavery more rational and humane. washington thought he could include slavery, like he was improving agriculture. but by making these resolutions some minimal protection of slavery, washington increases his demand for labor. he thinks that the enslaved people owe him what he calls their duty to work.
and to do all the labor they're physically capable of carrying out. it's difficult to write about it because -- the fact that they are not able to leave their own mark in the record. but as i've done this project, i've come to the recognition that washington created his own silences. he documented his life as an enslaver and his changing attitudes towards slavery. when lafayette first approached him with the experiment to prepare the enslaved for freedom, washington replies that he gives some vague support and affirmation that he'd like to help him. but he also says that any
discussion of this should wait till mount vernon. that becomes a pattern where washington reserves for conversations that are undocumented any kind of details talk about slips for slavery. or freedom for the enslaved. and it's that record that makes the study of washington so important for understanding his eventual path to emancipation. and it's in this famous map have already shown of the five farms, it was created as washington's first step towards what he thought could be a program that could allow him to
emancipate the enslaved, or at least find some other kinds of dependency for them. and he created this map in 1793 as part of a very elaborate plan that he has to lease his farms. they would come and take over and continue his improvements. but they would not rely on enslaved labor. the money they provided washington would allow him to free the enslaved. he suggested at one point that they might hire them as laborers. other people advised him and said they might be able to work as tenants. but it's all part of this plan that he puts forth in 1793, and draws this map as a way of showing the british farmers what could be available for
them to lease. and how washington got to this point is somewhat harder to document. but there is definitely a change that takes place during his presidency. he comes to the recognition that the kind of agricultural system that he wants, and the kind of enlightened agriculture that he hopes to implement is incompatible with slavery. he begins to understand the ways that slavery separated virginia and maryland from other parts of the country to the north, who were engaged in the same kinds of farming but without a reliance on slavery. and it's particularly his residency in pennsylvania,
where he comes to the conclusion that pennsylvania has improved agriculture much more than a virginia. not because they have greater advantages, though the soil is better. rather he concludes it is because pennsylvania has provided for the ending of slavery and virginia has not. if they were going to keep up and compete with the farming of pennsylvania. of course washington understood that virginians were not going to -- virginians were not going to endorse retro abolition. at that point, he decides he is going to have to try to find a way to do it himself. it was first through this plan
of leasing the full arms to farmers. it was a wildly inventive idea. he said he wouldn't hand it over to the sullivan lee farmers of the united states. and despite the support of a number of british correspondents, it never happened. and so washington to executions in the summer of 1799, just five months before his unexpected death. washington drafted a will that would provide for the people at mount vernon. he ensured that the young would be trained to take care of themselves and be self supporting. beyond that, he offered no
statement of opposition to slavery and he never explained what it was he was hoping to accomplish, whether he expected other people to follow his actions. and as he rightly anticipated, very few virginians would share his ideal. just in closing, several years after he rescinded his life as a full-time farmer of the revolutionary war, washington had said that the life of a husband was the most delectable life of all. he said that to see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superior skill and bounty of the labor combined with
ideas which were more easy to conceive then express. it was a kind of poetic expression not normally associated with washington. but it's one of the fine throughout his description of farming. it was the ideal of a natural bounty and the world. the rural landscape, and the dignity of labor. it originally attracted him to the model of british husbandry in 1760's, and it had guided his further adoption of british style husbandry in the 1780's. and visitors to mount vernon coming into the most public rooms, this is the new room at mount vernon which washington decorated, both the walls and the ceiling. he had symbols of this kind of improved, enlightened agriculture that he had adopted from great britain. he also was convinced that his
engagement with the enlightened world of agricultural improvement would bring about a new kind of piece. he chose for the top crowning declaration of mount vernon, this design, the peaceful dove. he was convinced that agricultural improvement would allow the nation to engage in peaceful commerce and also to establish a kind of political stability based on the land, that would discourage haphazard -- the idea of rural life remains common throughout washington's life. it remains in conflict with a system of labor that was dependent on coercion and a
denial of individual dignity. in this book, i try to recover not just what i think is an essential dimension of washington as a farmer, but also i have tried to show how his pursuit of a particular model of agriculture and improvement ultimately convinced him that slavery had no place in an enlightened, commercial, prosperous new nation. thank you. we have a few questions here. i have time to answer them. a very good question that many people have asked is, can you discuss in the cultivation of various crops such as wheat, as opposed to other crops, affected the number of enslaved
workers washington and needed? many people have thought so, and have written in the past that once he transitions to wheat, that he no longer has the need for as many enslaved laborers. but that's not true. he finds production for enslaved laborers. he continues to buy enslaved laborers after he transitions to wheat. and in part, because wheat, as he implemented it, depends on a much greater diversity of crafts. so he employs more of the enslaved in these crafts. he is building a whole infrastructure on the farm of barnes, and also there is just more work to maintain the kinds of fields that are necessary. wheat requires far more land than tobacco is a crop. it requires less work on a daily basis than tobacco, but it requires far more land. washington increases his need for enslaved labor and his
demand for enslaved labor after the transition to eat. through most of his life, he is able to find work for the enslaved laborers. it's only in the mid to late 17 90s that he kind of decides he has more labour then he can productively employ. another question, did washington's agricultural activities affect his presidency? i would say yes, very much so. he sees himself as an agricultural representative of the united states. he puts together a remarkable survey of american agriculture. it's not a part of his official duties. but he receives a request from a leading agricultural list in great britain, and washington calls on a number of leading farmers who are part of the government. mostly thomas jefferson, and he
puts together this extensive report on american farming. he also tries a very hard to get congress to endorse an institution like the british parliament had established. he also recommended national legislation, so he begins to see more active role for government and the promotion of agriculture. congress does not pass that board of agriculture, to his great disappointment. let me see what else is here. a question, did enslaved labor's help establishment vernon during the war? washington has to enslaved overseers who are managing the plantations and supervising the
farming and the labor at these plantations. david gray, the man i had spoken with, was that muddy a whole plantation. and they play a very important role in trying to find some way to increase revenue during the revolutionary war. he has them grow tobacco. he thinks maybe he could make some money from them, and he instructed both of the two overseers who are involved, they have been involved in tobacco before. it's not terribly successful this experiment, because of disruption of the tobacco markets. so a question here, were black laborers different from slaves? there is a no one enslaved at mount vernon who is not black.
but what is important is to recognize that washington retired with slave labor. he throughout his life hired a number of skilled craftsman, usually. he used indentured servants throughout his time as a farmer. what's interesting is that after 1785, he requires most of those indentured servants as part of their contract with him to also train enslaved laborers in their craft. these were the people who maintain the boundaries of the plantation. that's all the questions that we have here.