There was more to see, but I realized that I had already spent a couple hours at the education center and that the time to meet Mary V. Thompson had come. The one thing I knew about Mary Thompson was that she had been thanked in the acknowledgements of virtually every book written about Washington in the last several years. She was, as the recent Pulitzer Prize winning author of Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow, had written, a “major resource” for anyone taking on the task of writing about Washington.”
Thompson took me to her office, which contained thousands of pages scattered on her desk, some in the form of large manuscripts but others lying in piles making up several Leaning Towers. On one spot of the desk lay the phone, but
it was surrounded on every side by piles of papers, and I marveled at her ability to ever use it. Eventually I saw that, between some of the piles was a little pathway, like a mole might make, and I assumed that she reached in through that passageway to access the phone. It looked to be a delicate operation, and, given the fact that the phone had a cord that would also have to come through the passageway, I had no doubt that on several occasions, the phone had brought teetering piles of documents crashing down upon her. All in all, the desk made for an impressive sight.
Thompson herself was kindly and humorous and spoke with great precision, pausing before saying anything as if to insure that what she said was entirely accurate, and that no scholar in future ages would find something to contradict her. There are those who speculate, but Thompson chooses to secure her information with scientific exactitude, and leaves the speculations to others. Quite recently she had made the important discovery that Washington’s cook, Hercules, had escaped from Mount Vernon on Washington’s 65th birthday, and had not escaped from the President’s House in Philadelphia, as all prior scholarship had said. Once she came out with this discovery, it was pretty much accepted by everyone, such is the trust
and respect given her.
Thompson was born at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, the daughter of an army officer who moved every few years – from Missouri to Kentucky to Germany and then back to Missouri. She went to college at Stanford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and then attended the University of Virginia for Graduate School. Once out of graduate school, she found herself struggling to find work, and ended up spending her time on an unpaid internship, which at least kept her busy.
When she was offered an extremely low paying job at Mount Vernon as a tour guide, she grabbed it, figuring that low pay was better than no pay. She never looked back, starting her time at Mount Vernon by giving tours and moving up through the years, eventually to her current position as research historian.
Her first research gig at Mount Vernon was too look into curatorial matters so that the house could incorporate her findings on their tours. She discovered that by researching the food at Mount Vernon, she was researching almost everything that went on there – “What was being grown and purchased and utensils and whose serving it, whose cooking it, what are people eating, what are meals like here in the 18th century and looking at all the people on the estate, not just the Washingtons,
but the indentured and higher people and the slaves and just sort of the big picture.”
Her first major project, that resulted in a book, came about almost by accident. “We had just gotten e-mail, and this inquiry came in about Washington’s religious beliefs. And I was kind of surprised because usually I didn’t get those, but, I thought, well, okay, it’s kind of a slow week. Ordinarily I would have just said, you know, ‘Washington was a member of the Anglican/Episcopal Church for his entire life but despite that most historians believed that he was a Deist. Thank you for your question.’ And so it was a slow week and I thought, well, let me get the person maybe some quotes from Washington that will get this idea across. And I started looking at them and I thought, this guy is not a Deist. And so I took a few days andtold them what I was seeing in my research and hit send and it bounced back and said it was undeliverable. And so I played with it a little bit and it would never go through. And so I just stuck the answer in a folder and it was like, for months
afterwards, everything I looked at, I would go through the financial papers and find something about him buying wine for the communion service at Powhick Church or something and it was like, ok, I get the idea, you know, I’m supposed to be writing on this, okay.” Her book examines Washington from almost a detective’s point of view, and makes the persuasive argument that, although Washington was never strict in his religious observances, he was a practicing Christian.
From there her boss asked her to take on the issue of Washington and slavery, which had been touched upon only lightly by prior historians.When I asked her a question about Washington’s feelings about slavery, she paused,
uncomfortable with the broader questions that allow so many to put in their own views in the place of the subject’s. “Uhhhhh. Well, he’s….for much of his life, you know, up until the Revolution, he just seems to have thought that slavery was a fact of life and when you think back at the way he would have been raised in Virginia at that time, either everybody he knew had slaves or would have, you know, wanted to get to the point where they could own slaves. Slavery was a feature of the society. So there wouldn’t have been anyone there to tell him it was wrong. It just would have made it seem like, well, it’s been around for thousands of years. And very few people actually other than the Quakers, there might have been a few people, but up until the Revolution, very few people were questioning slavery in the British Empire, and then during the war that changes and Washington comes to believe that slavery is wrong and you find him within two or three years of the start of the war saying, I wish I could be quit of slavery, I think is the phrase.”
If Washington changed his position on slavery, the question is, why? What made him change? Many believe that any change in Washington’s pronouncements was more a matter of his concern about how he would look to future historians than it was about any spiritualistic or moralistic awakening. Thompson believed that part of the reason Washington changed was that he was experiencing the life and the people of other regions. “Further north most of the slaves tend to be domestic workers, so he’s in places where people are growing crops and things without using slaves. The army is more integrated under Washington then it would be until after the Second World War. Some of the estimates are that like twenty percent of the army was black. So he’s seeing people, they’re fighting as well as the rest of his men. He’s got young officers that he’s working with that he’s very close to, like John Warren, from South Carolina, or the Marquis de Laffayette, also Alexander Hamilton, who are anti-slavery, and there’s just the rhetoric of the war, about freedom and liberty and he can see the contradictions there.”
The contradictions could not be missed. How strange it must have been for those southerners who became steeped into a war of independence that took them away from their homes for as long as – in Washington’s case – seven years, to return to a world where nothing is changed, and where the economy is dependent on the work of these un-free, un-independent workers.
A lot had changed during the years Thompson had worked at Mount Vernon. Back in the 70s when she was a tour guide, the slaves, if alluded to at all, were supposed to be called “servants,” and never “slaves.” Now, besides the information on slavery provided at the Education Center, there was a forty-five minute “slave tour” that, stated the literature, “highlights the lives and contributions of African-Americans who built and operated” Mount Vernon.