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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.
Bruce A. Ragsdale served for twenty years as director of the Federal Judicial History Office at the Federal Judicial Center. The author of A Planters' Republic: The Search for Economic Independence in Revolutionary Virginia, he has been a fellow at the Washington Library at Mount Vernon and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.
Cynthia Kierner is a professor of history at George Mason University and author of multiple books on Virginia during the founding era.