‘The Improvements of George Washington: Agriculture and Slavery in a Transatlantic Context’ A Lecture by Bruce Ragsdale

By Dr Angel Luke O’Donnell, Academic Liaison for the Georgian Papers Programme, and Teaching Fellow in North American History, King’s College London.

On 28th November 2016, Bruce Ragsdale, the 2016 Mount Vernon Ladies Association Fellow, delivered a paper entitled ‘The Improvements of George Washington: Agriculture and Slavery in a Transatlantic Context’. The lecture was hosted by the Georgian Papers Programme, the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, and the Centre for Enlightenment Studies at King’s.

In his paper, Bruce explored George Washington’s reorganisation of the farms at Mount Vernon. The aim was to implement what he called a “compleat course” of English husbandry. Relying on British agricultural treatises and hiring an English farm steward to advise him, Washington set his enslaved labourers to the enormous tasks of reorganizing fields and constructing farm buildings common to large British estates. Washington devised an innovative process for supervising and accounting for the weekly work of his enslaved labourers as they carried out his experiments in crop rotation and livestock management.

Over the next fourteen years, Washington was in regular correspondence with leading British agriculturalists who reinforced his determination to realise the goals of the New Husbandry. This lecture explored how Washington’s pursuit of British agricultural methods increased his dependence on slavery and later persuaded him to investigate alternative organisations of labour in the years leading up to his decision to manumit his slaves.

Over the course of the lecture and the questions that followed afterwards, Bruce teased out some intriguing parallels between George Washington and King George. The chair for the lecture, Abigail Woods, head of the history department at King’s, said it was:

“a fascinating talk, that appealed to a wide range of historians, as evidenced by the quantity and variety of questions it inspired. It revolved around the difficulties that George Washington faced when he tried to import and apply a distinctly English form of agricultural improvement to farms that were worked by a distinctly un-English form of slave labour. In looking at how Washington coped with these difficulties, Bruce shed fascinating new light on Washington’s obsession with English agricultural improvement, and how experience of its methods led him to change his attitude towards slave labour.”

I was particularly interested in the scathing criticism that Washington heaped on his overseers for their slovenly work on his farms. The lecture gave me the impression that Washington had a very fastidious character and it is always interesting as a historian to get those insights into the daily life of historical actors. I believe it creates a useful mental context for some of the big decisions that Washington made, especially as Commander-in-Chief. George III displayed a similar attention to detail, sometimes to the consternation of his subordinates and ministers. Another revelation for me was that many of the slaves at Mount Vernon were fed by fish rather than more customary diets of pork and corn.

Overall, Bruce’s lecture brought together scholars from a number of different disciplines and research interests from throughout King’s. I was grateful to both the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine as well as the Centre for Enlightenment Studies at King’s for their support and for bringing together an audience with a diverse range of interests. Everyone’s contributions enlivened the questions and informal conversation afterwards. The success of the lecture underlines the significance of academic networks to the Georgian Papers Programme.

Following the success of Bruce’s lecture, we are looking forward to Flora Fraser’s tenure as the 2017 Mount Vernon Ladies Association Georgian Papers Fellow. Flora is working on two upcoming projects (working titles): “In Search of Flora Macdonald (1722-1790): Her Life in Skye and the Western Isles and, as a Highland Emigrant, during the American Revolution” and “Lord Nelson of Burnham Thorpe, the Nile and Trafalgar: The Life on Land and at Sea of Horatio, Viscount Nelson (1758-1805).”

For more information about Flora’s appointment, please go here.

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