Indian King Tavern News head
233 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield, NJ, 08033

George Washington Speaks of Life in the 1700s

See Photo Essay: Washington Visits Indian King Tavern

HADDONFIELD, N.J. (Sept. 21, 2000) --- In an event that marked the high point of the Indian King Tavern's 250th anniversary celebration, George Washington visited today to speak of his life as a boy, a farmer, a general and the owner of many slaves.

William Sommerfield as George Washington
George Washington impersonator William Sommerfield is a scholar as well as an actor with the American Historical Theatre.

In an afternoon performance that drew a standing ovation from a capacity crowd, William Sommerfield, in full 18th century military regalia, brought Washington to life.

The event, sponsored by the N.J. State Park Service, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the Indian King Volunteers, took place in the second floor Assembly Room of the historic tavern building. It is the same room where, more than two centuries ago, local residents gathered to debate the actions of the real George Washington whose troops were battling British and Hessian soldiers throughout the region.

Renowned Washington reenactor

Bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to his subject, the white-haired Sommerfield is America's most renowned George Washington reenactor. A co-founder and artistic director of the American Historical Theatre in Philadelphia, he is both an actor and a Washingtonian scholar. The only person ever authorized to appear as George Washington at Mount Vernon, he has performed the role more than 3,000 times throughout the U.S. and Europe.

William Sommerfield as George Washington
Washington appeared in the Assembly Room of the historic tavern building.

Washington remembered his father, Augustine, who "could crack walnuts between the fingers of his hand," and spoke fondly of his half brother, Lawrence, who served with the British marines in the 1740s. In fact, it was in honor of British Admiral Edward Vernon, that Lawence changed the name of the family's Virginia farm from "Little Hunting Creek" to "Mount Vernon."

Owning slaves

After some other tales of life along the Potomac in Colonial times, Washington threw himself open to questions from the Indian King audience.

The first question shouted out was: "How do you feel about owning slaves?"

There was a hush across the floor as the racially-mixed crowd awaited the response.

Sommerfield's Washington touched his fingers together, paused for a few seconds and then spoke with thoughtful sadness about one of the great ironies of the eighteenth-century war that secured American freedoms:

"I was born into a world where slavery existed," he explained. "In my father's will, I inherited ten slaves. When I married Mrs. Washington, she brought to the marriage 50 slaves in her dowry. Those slaves intermarrried at Mount Vernon

300 slaves

"We never sold any slaves because I thought it was despicable to break up these families. When I retired from the war, there were 300 slaves there and Mount Vernon was losing money very fast because it was not producing what it should.

"We changed what we were growing. We decided not to grow tobacco any more because tobacco demanded that you have many hands to pick and pack it. Instead, we started to be wheat farmers and grew cows and sheep as well. I became not a planter but a farmer. But we still had 300 slaves who needed shoes, clothes and medical treatment.

"Many other Virginia farmers faced this same problem and what did they do? They sold their slaves down river. Sold them into the Indies, into the cane fields and into the Carolina rice fields where conditions were severe. I could not do that. It was against my conscience. So, I decided that I would develop a plan.

Virginia slave law

"I would divide my farms into five parts around Mount Vernon and I would lease those to anyone who would retain my slaves for wages. For, you see, you could not leave a slave loose unless that slave was supported. If you did, anyone might take that person and sell him or her. That was Virginia law.

"But after 100 years of growing tobacco on Mount Vernon land, the soil was worn out. No one leased the farms and the scheme had to be abandoned.

"Then, I decided ten years before my death that I would write a codicil in my will that said upon my death and the death of my dear wife, that all our slaves should be free and given a stipend of $30 a year. And those who were too old might live out their lives at Mount Vernon and those who were too young might live there until they were 18. But no one could leave Mount Vernon unless they learned to read. It's in the will.

"Although I felt slavery was despicable and I was criticized for not speaking out, in my heart I knew that sooner or later, it must be expunged from our nation."

All Rights Reserved
© 2000, Hoag Levins


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