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Slavery was never benevolent or kind. Despite the realm of opportunities provided a slave, she or he always desired freedom and liberty.

Because of their status on the plantation, some slaves were awarded extra privileges. These privileges may have included the ability to earn income from selling leftover foodstuffs or their own crops in the marketplace; the opportunity to wear fine clothes; and, permission to travel outside the plantation. Despite these advantages, slaves, no matter how revered or “well-treated,” still longed for freedom. Holidays, with relaxed work schedules and absent slaveholders, along with festive events provided opportunities for escape.

  • White man and woman and two girls sit by a table, with an African American woman in the background.

    George Washington and Family, Thomas Prichard Rossiter, ca. 1858–1860

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Circumventing freedom

    During the presidency, the Washingtons repeatedly rotated, albeit illegally, enslaved Africans between their official household in Philadelphia and their Mount Vernon plantation. This circumvented the Gradual Abolition Act, which allowed slaves remaining in Pennsylvania for more than six months to gain their freedom. Rotating them reset the point when the clock on their residency began.

  • African American man wearing all white, including a white cylindrical cook's hat.

    Portrait possibly of Hercules, attributed to Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1795–1797

    Courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza/Scala/Art Resource, NY

    From enslaved chef to freedman

    Ever aware that he was in bondage, Hercules, considered George Washington’s favorite “capital cook,” longed for freedom. On February 22, 1797, Washington’s 65th birthday, Hercules escaped and was never heard of again.

  • Metal flip out razer attached to brown handle.

    Shaving razor, 1800–1830

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Cultured and prosperous but still a slave

    Like many enslaved house servants, Hercules, a cook for George Washington, sought respectability and integrity by practicing the finest in decorum, proper work habits, and attention to detail, including his personal grooming.

  • Metal slightly conical skillet that rests on three legs, the skill has a long thin handle.

    Grease skillet, ca. 18th century

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Withstanding the heat of the hearth

    Described as “highly accomplished…proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States,” Hercules had the role of overseeing Washington’s kitchens. He would have mastered hearth cooking, knowing the proper amount of oil and lard to fry foods, and how to wield long handled skillets to deftly maneuver hot pans while roasting meats.

  • Cylindrical metal canister with a tapered top.

    Canister, ca. 18th century

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Guarded food

    Hercules, one of several enslaved cooks, had the role of overseeing George Washington’s kitchens. He would have used canisters to contain flour, rice, corn meal, and other dry goods to keep out insects and vermin. Foods were closely guarded and carefully rationed.

  • Text in a newspaper.

    Runaway advertisement for Oney Judge, Philadelphia Gazette, May 24, 1796

    Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

    Using food to escape power

    Some slaves took advantage of mealtimes and festive events to provide a distraction in order to “abscond.” According to an 1845 interview, Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s personal servant, left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.

  • White bowl with top sitting in a slightly upwardly curved circular tray.

    Sugar bowl with top, ca. 1778

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Sweetness and power

    Large meals featured desserts of fruits, nuts, and sweet wines. Such “sweetness and power” often belied the tensions that existed in the dining room. “Invisible” servants, while tending to the comforts of the plantation family, often thought about how they might obtain their freedom.

  • White bowl with top sitting in a slightly upwardly curved circular tray.

    Tea bowl and saucer, 1779–1782

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    With power comes leisure

    While the Washingtons enjoyed a light repast of bread and leftover meat known as “tea,” the slaves’ day continued. They could not eat until the dining room table had been cleared and cleaned, and tea brewed; wood chopped for the next day; dough kneaded and hoecake batter prepared for breakfast the next morning.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    A Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate. ..., Simon Paulli, translated by Robert James, 1746

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Taking tea, Tasting freedom

    Some slaves earned money to purchase teacups and a teapot or kettle. The social elite viewed taking tea as a necessary social performance. While the Washingtons enjoyed this leisurely ritual, enslaved cooks continued to serve them tea, even as they dreamed of freedom.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, ... , J. M. Toner, 1888

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Serving their way to freedom

    Reportedly, George Washington followed rules of civility and decent behavior at his dinner table and in life.

    Male and female house servants studied the comfort and welfare of the Washingtons as much to serve as to avoid punishment. They also needed to be aware should an opportunity arise to take their freedom.