Ties That Bound: Founding First Ladies and Slaves by Marie Jenkins Schwartz
The work of both public and academic historians in the past decade has done much to illuminate the lives of enslaved people in the households of the nation's first presidents. Since 2016 alone, Erica Armstrong Dunbar has published her account of the Washingtons' runaway slave Ona Judge, Mount Vernon has opened the exhibition "Living Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon," and James Madison's Montpelier has debuted its own exhibition on slavery, "The Mere Distinction of Colour."1 Marie Jenkins Schwartz's Ties That Bound enters this field with the story of First Ladies of the founding era and their slaves, arguing that we cannot tell the stories of these white women without examining their enslaved workers.
Ties That Bound brings together the stories of First Ladies and their enslaved people in three sections that each address one presidential household: Washington's, Thomas Jefferson's, and Madison's. The short chapters in each section follow the lives of Martha Washington, Martha Wayles Jefferson and Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, and Dolley Madison, focusing on how they were intertwined with slavery. Though Schwartz's goal is laudable and imperative, some of the weaknesses of her text indicate the challenges inherent in restoring these stories.
The first section traces Martha Washington's transition from her middling-status childhood to her role as slave mistress of a large estate and then as First Lady. Martha's first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis advanced her socially and required her to learn how to run a large slave-powered estate. She brought this experience to her marriage to George Washington and her move to Mount Vernon, along with a large number of Custis slaves. Schwartz accurately paints Martha as a demanding master but is on less firm ground arguing that Martha was harsher than George; though she illustrates Martha's severe treatment of slaves, she omits the many available examples of George's. She also tells the more familiar stories of Judge's escape and the emancipation of her husband's slaves through his will; as Schwartz discusses, Martha, who owned the majority of the slaves at Mount Vernon, never freed her slaves.
Schwartz's analyses, however, are often problematic when going beyond these well-trodden stories. Her characterization of three African American [End Page 374] figures from the Washington household—Ann Dandridge, William Custis Costin, and West Ford—relies on Henry Wiencek's An Imperfect God, which has been criticized for factual and interpretive problems that could equally be applied to her work.2 Schwartz states, despite a lack of definitive evidence, that "Ann Dandridge was Martha's half sister" (44). She is more careful in addressing Costin and Ford. Schwartz claims that there is "circumstantial, but persuasive, evidence" (64) that Costin was the son of Martha's son John (Jacky) Parke Custis and Ann Dandridge, and that it is "possible—if not probable—that George [Washington] was West's father" (108). But she describes Costin as "the only enslaved person Martha ever freed" while noting that "even in his case she could not bring herself to execute a formal deed of manumission. His name was simply omitted from any list of Mount Vernon slaves" (65)—which could also mean that he was always treated as a free person. Schwartz should have engaged, even in the footnotes, with other scholars who have read the evidence differently and disagree.3 In correcting years of willful ignorance of these relationships, historians need to be particularly careful in untangling possible family relationships to ensure accuracy and fully qualify any conjectural claims. Instead, Schwartz later takes these blood ties between the Washingtons and enslaved people as a certainty, noting that "Martha and George both had blood relations of mixed race" (107).
Similar conjectures shape Schwartz's ensuing treatments of Martha Wayles Jefferson, her daughter Martha (Patsy) Jefferson Randolph, and the Hemings slaves. While a particularly poignant chapter on Martha Jefferson's death with slaves at her bedside illustrates the sometimes uncomfortably close relationships the women had with their enslaved relatives, Schwartz's treatment of Thomas Jefferson's daughter Patsy again is too speculative. For example, she insists that Patsy's arrival at the White House in 1802 was designed as a distraction from the emerging Sally Hemings scandal and [End Page 375] notes that Sally Hemings did not bear any more children to Jefferson after Patsy moved to Monticello, timing she calls "suggestive" (223).4 In cases such as this one, or in Schwartz's suppositions about the Jefferson women's feelings about the Hemingses, the paucity of evidence means that Schwartz should have been more circumspect in her claims.
In the section on Dolley Madison, Schwartz most clearly articulates how the stories of First Ladies and the enslaved are inextricably linked. She follows Madison from her birth in Virginia to a Quaker family that freed its slaves to her role as mistress of Montpelier and more than one hundred slaves. Madison was well known for her lavish entertaining and extravagant fashion while in Washington, and Schwartz astutely points out that Madison relied on slaves "to enhance her physical presence and social status" (274). After her husband's death, Madison's expensive tastes not only harmed her personal finances but also endangered the future of her slaves. Schwartz argues for "strong but inconclusive evidence suggesting that Dolley Madison ignored a second will or other instructions from her husband" (345) regarding freeing their slaves; however, the evidence is so inconclusive that it is hard to also describe it as "strong." Still, whether or not Madison subverted her husband's wishes, she had influence on the ultimate disposition of their slaves, and Schwartz points out that historians should not blame only men for failing to end slavery; their wives were an important part of these decisions. Here Schwartz makes an important intervention that could have been woven more fully into the book.
Regrettably, this book suffers from factual errors throughout the text.5 And because Schwartz relied primarily on published sources and did not take advantage of the fresh research and wealth of material that researchers at presidential homes have compiled in the past decade, the book misses the opportunity to dive deeper and provide original insights into what these stories can tell us about slavery, the First Ladies, and the founding era. Yet Schwartz is ultimately quite successful in conveying her motivation and goal: to push scholars, public historians, and readers to integrate the stories of the founding First Ladies with those of enslaved people. As she points [End Page 376] out, the stories of enslaved people in the founding presidents' households are often told separately from accounts of the presidents and First Ladies themselves. Schwartz is particularly concerned with the public history dimension of these stories, noting in an epilogue that "the central and dynamic role of slaves and slavery does not get displayed inside the houses" (349). Indeed, despite the new exhibitions and tours focused on slavery at founding presidents' homes, the stories of enslaved people remain insufficiently integrated into the central narratives told in house tours.6 Schwartz's efforts in this book should be a reminder to both academics and public historians that the stories of the founding presidents and First Ladies cannot be told without incorporating the enslaved people upon whom they so greatly depended. However, it will take further scholarship to probe more deeply what can be gained from bringing these stories together. What can looking at the First Ladies and enslaved people in a unified story tell us about the construction of gender and race; the personalities, motivations, and private lives of women living in the public eye; and the emotional labor, public role, and particular burdens of enslaved people working in such households? Ties That Bound had the potential to address such questions, but it will be up to other scholars to answer them. [End Page 377]
1. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York, 2017). The book was a finalist for the National Book Award.
2. Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York, 2003). See for example Peter R. Henriques, who argues that the book, "marred by errors, unjustified leaps of imagination, and the author's own biases, does as much to muddle our understanding of George Washington and slavery as it does to expand it"; Henriques, review of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, by Wiencek, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 111, no. 4 (2003): 414–16.
3. See for example Scott E. Casper, Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (New York, 2008), 26–27; Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York, 2010), 492–93. Philip D. Morgan argues that it is unlikely Ann Dandridge was Martha Washington's sister, calls the idea that George Washington fathered West Ford "highly improbable for a variety of reasons," and says Henry Wiencek's case is "so circumstantial as to be fanciful"; Morgan, "'To Get Quit of Negroes': George Washington and Slavery," Journal of American Studies 39, no. 3 (December 2005): 403–29 ("highly," 419, "circumstantial," 420 n. 26). The staff at Mount Vernon has done extensive research and consulted with scholars on the topic, and the site's official interpretation does not accord with Wiencek's or Schwartz's on any of these individuals.
4. Cynthia A. Kierner also points out that Patsy's arrival in Washington distracted from the Hemings scandal, but she sees this as only part of Patsy's role. For Patsy's part in the scandal, see Kierner, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2012), 119.
5. In the first section of the book, the errors range from quite small (for example, Eleanor [Nelly] Parke Custis is incorrectly identified as Martha Washington's daughter ) to more significant (Hercules escaped from Mount Vernon, not the executive mansion in Philadelphia, and thus was not in a state where he could be legally free after a set residence period ). Nelly is correctly identified elsewhere in the text as Martha's granddaughter (17). On Hercules's escape and documentation that it was from Mount Vernon, see George Washington to Tobias Lear, Mar. 10, 1797, in The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition (Charlottesville, Va., 2008), n. 2. (The note to which I refer here was updated with additional research in 2009 and thus the online edition differs from the print edition.)
6. This problem is currently being addressed at historic homes as part of larger efforts to better interpret slavery. Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of James Monroe's Highland, has been a particularly outspoken proponent of integrating the "material and site specific aspects of enslaved life to a larger historic picture of race, power, and culture in the United States" and discussing "slavery as part of the same historic narrative of Monroe himself, placing these stories on equal footing"; Bon-Harper and Kyle W. Edwards, "Interpreting Landscapes of Slavery at James Monroe's Highland" (paper presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference, New Orleans, La., January 2018).