Samford history graduate Mary V. Thompson has been on the staff at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, since 1980, advancing from tour guide to manager of the curatorial collection to serving as staff historian. She has written widely on the first president, producing books, articles and chapters in books written by others.
Her latest book, her third, published in 2019, is “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret” George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. In meticulous detail, the book tells the story of slavery at the Virginia plantation. It also deals with Washington’s changing views on the institution.
Washington “changed into someone who saw that slavery was wrong, that freedom was the right of every human, regardless of race,” Thompson wrote in the book’s closing chapter. What prompted such a change?
“There were a number of factors,” Thompson said in an interview. “Probably foremost among them was the American Revolution, a period of eight years in which Washington came home to Virginia only once (on the way to and from the battle of Yorktown), spending the remainder of those years in the middle colonies and New England.
“There he saw domestic establishments, businesses and agriculture being run without slave labor. A number of the younger officers on his staff—men like Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens and the Marquis de Lafayette—whose opinions he listened to and trusted, were also antislavery, and discussed their views at the dinner table.
“Through the rhetoric of the war,” she continued, “Washington could also see the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty and freedom, while holding other human beings in bondage.”
Washington eventually arranged to free his slaves in his will. But he began thinking seriously about doing so during the Revolution.
“Within three years of the war’s beginning, he wrote to the cousin managing Mount Vernon in his absence to say that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner,” said Thompson. “Unfortunately, in 1778, it was still illegal for individual slave owners in Virginia to manumit their slaves. While he was president Washington tried to work out several schemes for manumitting the enslaved people on his plantation, but nothing worked out, leaving him to take that step in his will.”
Thompson remembers studying about Washington in her Samford history classes in courses taught by professors George Irons and Carolyn Satterfield. “I still have those books, too,” she said. She graduated in 1977 and began graduate study at the University of Virginia. She started her work at Mount Vernon in the spring of 1980 as “temporary seasonal help.” She remembers thinking initially that Washington was not particularly interesting but discovered after working there for a time that there were many elements of his life that had never been seriously studied.
“As I came to know him better, I found that I really became attached to him, to other members of his family, and life here at Mount Vernon.”
The North Carolina Historical Review described Thompson’s book as “richly detailed and thoroughly researched,” and said it “seems likely to become a landmark in Mount Vernon’s historiography.”
Thompson’s other two books are In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington in 2008 and A Brief Biography of Martha Washington in 2017.