How to be happy: don’t mention slavery?

2010 January 1

George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart@KevinLevin pointed me to “By George,” Maira Kalman’s latest and final installment in her “And the Pursuit of Happiness” project, which has been running in the New York Times for a while now. I like Kalman’s illustration style, and her meditation on George Washington’s life and his home at Mount Vernon (among many other topics) is worth reading. She debunks the cherry-tree myth, which has become almost a de rigueur gesture among writers these days. But “By George” contributes to an even more pernicious fiction, as Kalman neglects to mention the ways that Washington’s life was intertwined with the slavery system.

In Kalman’s telling, when Washington retired from national service, he was acting just as any of the NYT‘s more well-heeled readers might. He returned to his country home, Mount Vernon, where he lived a bucolic existence “under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree,” as he put it. He ate locally-produced food; he had beehives and a mill that ground the corn from his own fields. He sat on his porch and looked out on the Potomac River, a view that Kalman reproduces for us.

The beautiful landscapes Kalman shows at Mount Vernon, maintained today by a professional staff, were kept during Washington’s time by some paid white workers but also by African-American farmers and artisans, who forged metalwork, tended gardens and fields and beehives, and otherwise kept the place running. Many are buried in the small slave burial ground on the property.

Anyone who’s been to Mount Vernon or read moderately on the history of the revolutionary generation knows that Washington owned people too. At the age of 11, he inherited 10 slaves, but by his death he was owner or part-owner of over 300 men, women, and children. In his will, he famously freed the 123 enslaved people he owned outright (less than half of the total.)

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which bought the property in 1853 and which Kalman also describes, also would have gained their money from the labor of enslaved people, since almost all substantial wealth in Virginia during the early 19th century was connected to the slave system. (By the early 19th century, Virginia and most other southern states strictly regulated manumission, requiring that any freed slave leave the state— a measure meant to discourage slaveowners from emancipating their human property.)

Kalman uses stories about George Washington and Mount Vernon as a starting point for a piece about what it means to be happy, how humans might find happiness. Reflecting on the dead (both historic and recent) in a kind of memento mori, she asks, “Where are you all?,” then points out, “This is NOT a question to ask / if you want to be / Happy.”

One wonders whether Washington’s complicity with slavery is also, for Kalman, not a topic to consider “in the pursuit of happiness.” It’s essential for her readers to know those stories too.

2 Responses
  1. January 5, 2010

    Great post, I always get tired of people pulling out the “George Washington freed all his slaves in his will” trope without stopping to consider just what exactly it meant that he owned slaves.


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