J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Gen. Washington’s Welcome to His New Headquarters?

According to a story told in nineteenth-century Cambridge, when Gen. George Washington came to his new headquarters in the John Vassall house, one of the first people he met was a child—a black child still legally enslaved to the absent Loyalist owners of that house.

The first appearance of this story in print was in a New England Historical and Genealogical Register article about Longfellow House published in 1871:

An anecdote is related of one of these [slaves], called Tonie Vassall, who, when Washington in 1775 took possession of Mr. Longfellow’s house, was found swinging on the gate. Learning that Tonie belonged to the place, the General, to set his mind at rest for his future, told him to go into the house and they would tell him what to do and give him something to eat.

Feeling the value of his freedom, Tonie inquired what would be the wages, at which Washington expressed surprise at his being so unreasonable at such a time as to expect to be paid.

Tonie lived to a great age, and when on one occasion he was asked what he remembered of Washington, said he was no gentleman, he wanted [a] boy to work without wages.
Decades later, the Cambridge historian Samuel F. Batchelder pointed out that Anthony Vassall was thought to be over sixty years old in 1775, and thus could not have been a “boy…swinging on the gate” that July. The long-lived former slave who told this anecdote about Washington, Batchelder wrote, must have been Tony’s son Darby Vassall (1769-1861).

Obviously, the transmission of that anecdote is hazy. Nonetheless, I think it contains a germ of truth because in nineteenth-century America George Washington was so revered that there was no advantage to making up stories that put him in a bad light—especially if one was a poor black man.

Given the risk in telling such an anecdote, Darby Vassall must have been strongly motivated to do so, most likely by his memory of a difficult encounter. Vassall’s unusual perspective on Washington is probably also why his contemporaries recalled and repeated the tale.

It’s also conceivable that the person who met Gen. Washington was the grown-up Tony Vassall, ready to work for wages, and the white chroniclers who recorded the story told by him and his family preferred to imagine him as a “boy.”

Either way, there’s no evidence in the headquarters accounts or Massachusetts records of Tony Vassall’s family being paid to work for Gen. Washington. But somebody maintained the Vassall fields, gardens, and orchards in those months, and documents show Tony Vassall and his family remained on the estate in the later 1770s. Most likely they received food and other necessities in exchange for their labor, and were treated as property belonging to the estate and therefore unpaid.

(Thumbnail of vintage postcard of the Longfellow House’s front gate above courtesy of dejean.com’s gallery of photos from the Maynard Workshop.)


Unknown said...

I believe it was customary (until the mid-20th Century) for Southerners to use the appellation, "boy," to refer to a black man. Thus, Washington may have indeed been referring to Tony.

J. L. Bell said...

We don’t have this story from Washington. We apparently have it from people in Cambridge, who heard it from an aged Vassall man (or from people who had heard him). It’s possible that those locals used “boy” to refer to any black man, even one as old as Tony Vassall was in 1775, and that someone embellished the tale with the “swinging on a gate” detail. It’s also possible that the people passing on the anecdote didn’t care enough to distinguish between Tony and Darby Vassall.

Incidentally, Washington wrote of his manservant William Lee as a “man” in most correspondence after Lee’s teens. We don’t know how the general spoke of his male slaves, of course. But it’s conceivable that the demeaning custom of calling grown men “boy” spread after emancipation as a way to reinforce the American caste system.