Friday, August 18, 2023

The Bacon Presidential Library Vol. 9: Washington at the Plow

Washington at the Plow - Bruce A. Ragsdale
Belknap Press
368 Pages

Washington at the Plow by Bruce A Ragsdale is another new publication. This one makes the claim to focus entirely upon the farming life of our first president. Washington has long been considered an innovator with his farming techniques. Over the years, Washington’s contribution to farming has been overshadowed by one of his successors, Thomas Jefferson. Not anymore. Bruce Ragsdale, through meticulous research, has uncovered the true story that has been forgotten, even the ugly parts. 

In recent years that has been a larger focus on George Washington’s relationship with slavery, with some people attempting to re-evaluate Washington’s place in the pantheon of Founding Fathers. While this book does not excoriate Washington as some other nouveau authors have over that aspect of his life, the author makes sure that it is addressed. Ragsdale attempts to show Washington’s evolution in his thoughts about slavery.  

Washington did struggle later in his life with the institution of slavery and his part in it. He could not seem to reconcile how to make manumission work with keeping his farms running as well as maintaining viable work for those who he would free in his will. Another difficulty that Washington faced was that he did not own a majority of the slaves who were at Mount Vernon and associated farms. They were part of the Custis estate, through his wife’s first husband, and they would pass into the estates of Martha’s grandchildren. Washington legally could not free that contingent of slaves. At the same time, Washington’s slaves and the Custis slaves intermarried and formed their own families. Washington was loath to split up any families. At his death however, Washington's will called for the emancipation of his slaves upon the death of his wife. Martha did free them early, effective January 1, 1801.

Washington kept meticulous records of his farms. Even when he was away for the Revolution and during his two terms as president, he expected his farming concepts to be followed as well as be kept apprised of how each of the farms was producing. He would direct his managers to change the way they farmed his lands. When he was at home, he would spend most of his days checking in on each of his properties. It was on one of these rounds that he was caught in a light snow that turned to hail and rain which would lead to his death. Chilled in his wet clothes, he woke the next day with a sore throat and never recovered.

Washington at the Plow was the first biography that focused on a single part of his life rather than a whole life story. However, farming played a very significant role in his life and helped to define George Washington the man. This book sometimes gets bogged down in the minutiae that so enthralled Washington. As a casual reader and a non-farmer, there were moments that I really did not understand. Nor did I want to. I was looking for a deeper understanding of Washington more than I was looking for a better way to farm. 

One of the most enduring messages found in this book was about Washington’s personality. He often micromanaged his managers. Once he had something in mind, there was little chance that he was going to change his mind. This single-minded focus was a hallmark of Washington’s life, although he attempted to temper some of that within the public eye. This book does deliver a glimpse behind the carefully constructed façade of the stoic George Washington. 

In this book, Bruce Ragsdale delivers a partial biography of George Washington. After two centuries of legend building by other authors, some of the new biographies attempt to break down that legend to find the real man. Ragsdale is able to take one aspect of Washington’s life and give us a glimpse of the real man. As each new author attempts to find the man behind the myth, we will get a greater understanding of our first president. Bruce Ragsdale has given us one of those glimpses in a fairly easy read in Washington at the Plow.

Craig Bacon is still reading at a furious pace. He just needs to find the time to write his reviews. Someday…

Next up: The Life of George Washington by John Marshall