Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery

Bruce A. Ragsdale. Belknap, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-674-24638-6
Ragsdale (A Planters’ Republic), former director of the Federal Judicial History Office, offers a fascinating and richly informative portrait of George Washington focused on how “agricultural improvement and the work of nation building were firmly joined in [his] mind.” Drawing on Washington’s ledger and account books and the weekly work reports he created to measure the value of enslaved labor, Ragsdale meticulously traces the founding father’s agricultural pursuits from the late 1750s to his death in 1799. Washington’s experimental methods at his Mount Vernon estate included switching from tobacco and corn to wheat, digging ditches and planting hedgerows, and the introduction of crop rotation and fodder crops. He struck up correspondence with influential English and Scots agriculturalists, and closely followed the “latest models of British husbandry” in instituting reforms. Ragsdale shows how these improvement efforts increased the complexity of operations at Mount Vernon and “imposed a far more demanding work regimen” on the enslaved people there, which eventually led to Washington’s recognition that the “ideal of a balanced order rooted in nature and improved by human endeavor” was “in conflict with the system of enslaved labor.” Ragsdale’s lucid explanations of agricultural and financial matters and excellent usage of underexamined primary sources make this a must-read for fans of early American history. Illus. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 07/21/2021
Release date: 10/01/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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