You are here

"The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret"

George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon
Mary V. Thompson

BUY Cloth · 520 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813941844 · $29.95 · Jun 2019
BUY Ebook · 520 pp. · ISBN 9780813941851 · $29.95 · Jun 2019

James Bradford Biography Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (2020)

George Washington’s life has been scrutinized by historians over the past three centuries, but the day-to-day lives of Mount Vernon’s enslaved workers, who left few written records but made up 90 percent of the estate’s population, have been largely left out of the story.

In "The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret," Mary Thompson offers the first comprehensive account of those who served in bondage at Mount Vernon. Drawing on years of research in a wide range of sources, Thompson brings to life the lives of Washington’s slaves while illuminating the radical change in his views on slavery and race wrought by the American Revolution.

Thompson begins with an examination of George and Martha Washington as slave owners. Culling from letters to financial ledgers, travel diaries kept by visitors and reminiscences of family members as well as of former slaves and neighbors, Thompson explores various facets of everyday life on the plantation ranging from work to domestic life, housing, foodways, private enterprise, and resistance. Along the way, she considers the relationship between Washington’s military career and his style of plantation management and relates the many ways slaves rebelled against their condition. The book closes with Washington’s attempts to reconcile being a slave owner with the changes in his thinking on slavery and race, ending in his decision to grant his slaves freedom in his will.


Mary Thompson skillfully describes George Washington’s attitude toward slavery and his treatment of the Mount Vernon slaves. But forget Washington. With her decades of research and her narrative gifts, Thompson brings us closer to this eighteenth-century slave community than we have ever been.

Woody Holton, author of Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era

Mary Thompson is uniquely positioned to offer this detailed case study of enslavement at Mount Vernon. For decades, she has worked in the copious records of this unique historic site with a single purpose in mind. The impressive result is a careful, understated book that will open new perspectives for thousands of Americans. After exploring the lives of hundreds of President Washington’s unpaid black workers, you may rightly ask, "Why didn’t I know about all this before?" Read. Rethink. Discuss with a friend.

Peter H. Wood, Duke University, author of Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America

Thompson, a research historian at George Washington's Mount Vernon, offers a superb study of slavery there from Washington’s first cultivation of the estate in 1754 to his death in 1799. Through meticulous research gathered over 30 years, Thompson glimpses Washington and slavery in contextualized, fine-grained discussions, primarily drawn from concerns articulated by Washington in his copious correspondence.... Summing Up: Highly recommended.


Thompson focuses on various aspects of slave life with each chapter of The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret. The reader gets a thorough understanding of how Mount Vernon operated as a business community. There are valuable and interesting facts about how the slaves ate, worshipped, dressed, and spent their infrequent recreational time. Other topics include crime and punishment, the slave economy, diseases, housing, and how the slaves resisted their condition.... The extensive research is evident throughout the book. Thompson’s extensive work at Mount Vernon has made her an unquestioned authority on the estate and the people involved with its history.

Journal of the American Revolution

Drawing upon decades of research and writings as staff historian at Mount Vernon, Mary V. Thompson has, in "The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret," produced a superb, moving portrait of the plantation's enslaved community. Thompson's admiration for George and Martha Washington is strong, but her focus is on the enslaved, whose stories she tells vividly and without sentimentality.

Henry Weincek · Washington Independent Review of Books

A judicious scholar, Thompson treats a difficult subject with an unflagging evenhandedness.Nuanced, richly detailed, and thoroughly researched, "The Only UnavoidableSubject of Regret" seems likely to become a landmark in Mount Vernon’s historiography.

North Carolina Historical Review

Importantly, throughout this study, Thompson consistently centers the lives and voices of the enslaved when possible. She also works to situate Mount Vernon within the broader trends of plantation management and organization, the relationship between the enslaved community and the broader white community, agricultural improvements, and the role of slavery in Americans’ understanding of the late eigh- teenth century. Furthermore, explorations of how George Washington reacted to the enslaved community provide an important contribution to understandings of his life. Because of this, "The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret" is an excellent addition to the historiographies of race, class, slavery, and the founding of the United States.

Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Mary Thompson’s book is the most detailed examination yet published of slavery at Mount Vernon.... [Her] command of the sources makes possible an almost encyclopedic description of the conditions of slave life.

London Review of Books

Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books