Winner of the George Washington Prize
A fresh, original look at George Washington as an innovative land manager whose singular passion for farming would unexpectedly lead him to reject slavery.
George Washington spent more of his working life farming than he did at war or in political office. For over forty years, he devoted himself to the improvement of agriculture, which he saw as the means by which the American people would attain the “respectability & importance which we ought to hold in the world.”
Washington at the Plow depicts the “first farmer of America” as a leading practitioner of the New Husbandry, a transatlantic movement that spearheaded advancements in crop rotation. A tireless experimentalist, Washington pulled up his tobacco and switched to wheat production, leading the way for the rest of the country. He filled his library with the latest agricultural treatises and pioneered land-management techniques that he hoped would guide small farmers, strengthen agrarian society, and ensure the prosperity of the nation.
Slavery was a key part of Washington’s pursuits. He saw enslaved field workers and artisans as means of agricultural development and tried repeatedly to adapt slave labor to new kinds of farming. To this end, he devised an original and exacting system of slave supervision. But Washington eventually found that forced labor could not achieve the productivity he desired. His inability to reconcile ideals of scientific farming and rural order with race-based slavery led him to reconsider the traditional foundations of the Virginia plantation. As Bruce Ragsdale shows, it was the inefficacy of chattel slavery, as much as moral revulsion at the practice, that informed Washington’s famous decision to free his slaves after his death.
Delightfully instructive…In this reliable and thorough rendering of ‘the most celebrated farmer of the age,’ Ragsdale undeniably casts new light on Washington on the question of slavery. By bringing to life Washington’s farming world, he does more than that. Washington at the Plow reminds us of the importance of agriculture and its enlightened improvement to America’s founding. In doing so, it illuminates much for early-American specialists and general readers alike.
George Washington is typically known as the first U.S. president and a general. But for most of his life he was a farmer, and the implications of this agrarian background are, Ragsdale argues, far-reaching. Washington’s understanding of nation-building was inextricably linked to the concept of land cultivation, and his attempt to modernize farming techniques led him to reconsider, and ultimately reject, slave labor.
Ragsdale does a masterful job presenting the quandary that slavery created for the first president…[This book] adeptly uses the lenses of agricultural development and slavery to present a multidimensional representation of America’s first—and arguably most revered—president. Both scholars and lay readers will find Ragsdale’s account a strong contribution to the historiography of Washington as a landowner, a public leader, and a private citizen.
Bruce Ragsdale’s excellent work advances the scholarship of Washington and slavery using the rich resources Washington left behind…The flowing prose and readability make this book accessible to scholars and a general audience looking for a unique perspective on George Washington the farmer.
Washington played a cautious, often contradictory role with respect to slavery. Why he did so is the subject of [this] timely new book…A portrait of Washington deeply rooted in the culture and politics of his era.
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.’…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.
A landmark work that both deepens and complicates our understanding of George Washington. Ragsdale’s focus on farming—the subject the general and president cared most about—casts new light on nearly every other aspect of his life, not least the vexed issue of slavery. This fascinating book has done more to change my views on Washington than anything I have read in a long time.
Ragsdale depicts a wealthy white man in a slave society aspiring to be an enlightened farmer and a republican icon. Washington at the Plow is detailed, discerning, judicious.
This absorbing study of Washington as citizen farmer makes for compelling reading. Ragsdale is an authoritative guide to the famed Virginian’s embrace of agricultural innovations, then being pioneered in Britain, and to his attempts to make the enslaved workforce at Mount Vernon more productive, leading to his subsequent disillusionment with forced labor. He sheds new light on the African American communities on the Washington farms and the former president’s decision to emancipate his slaves after his death.
In his engagingly written study of Washington as the ‘founding farmer,’ Bruce A. Ragsdale reveals that although the American Revolutionary War and the presidency would take Washington away from Virginia, the cultivation of the plantations at Mount Vernon were never far from his mind. Ragsdale convincingly argues that the ‘story of Washington’s life as a farmer fundamentally reshapes the familiar biography of the general and president.’
An excellent book, clearly written and argued. What is most impressive is how far-reaching it is: Ragsdale helps us realize that agriculture tells us so much about Washington’s thought and character, from his plans for the political economy of the new nation to his view of slavery. Washington tried every device he could to make slavery work before eventually deciding the slave system was hopelessly flawed and must be abandoned. Better than anyone, Ragsdale explains Washington’s complicated decision to free his slaves in his will.
- 368 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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