McClafferty has written a monumental book about the lives of the slaves that lived and worked at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
The bulk of the book is devoted to chronicling the lives of six out of hundreds of slaves known to have been the property of our nation’s first president. William Lee, Christopher Sheels, Caroline Branham, Peter Hardiman, Ona Maria Judge, and Hercules are the enslaved people featured in this work. These six people are larger-than-life figures whose individual stories tell a deeper one about the history of America and the everyday evil and horror of American slavery. Though enslaved, they served this country during some of its most turbulent times, fighting in the Revolutionary War, taking care of Washington’s person, and guarding Washington’s papers as the Continental Army moved from place to place during the years of combat. This book includes photos of re-enactors at Mount Vernon as well as artifacts there and abundant archival reproductions. What is known about these figures comes mainly from George Washington himself, as the author relates in her introduction. With regard to what is unknown about the lives of the enslaved people, McClafferty takes liberties in making inferences about their motives and histories. In speculating why Lee, for instance, did not take the opportunity to escape to freedom in the British army, she does not discuss the penalties meted out to a captured fugitive slave but presents his choice as a binary one: stay with Washington or go. At another point, she suggests that Judge’s white father, an indentured servant, “may have loved” her enslaved mother, without adding that an enslaved woman could not resist the sexual advances of a white man. These and other elisions make this a work that objectifies its subjects.
Although the light shed on Washington as slaveholder is a welcome one, the voices of the enslaved are still not heard. (source notes, bibliography, picture credits, acknowledgments, index) (Nonfiction. 10-14)