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Welcome Remarks for Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with Bruce Ragsdale about his new book, Washington at the Plow.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up next week on our YouTube channel.

On Monday, December 13, at 1 p.m., Jeremy Dauber will be here to discuss his new book, American Comics, which is a history of cartoons, comic strips, and graphic novels over the past century.

And on Wednesday, December 15, at 1 p.m., we will present a program called “Anti-Federalists and the Bill of Rights.” Professors Mary Sarah Bilder and Woody Holton will discuss the arguments of the Anti-Federalists and present-day controversies over how we teach the Bill of Rights.

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In the summer of 1787, in the midst of the meeting of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington recorded an outing in his diary: “observing some Farmers at Work, and entering into Conversation with them, I received the following information with respect to the mode of cultivating Buck Wheat, and the application of the grain.”

In his letters and diary entries throughout his life, Washington frequently makes observations on crops and farming practices. For his own Mount Vernon estate, he kept careful accounts, always seeking improvements in agricultural practices. One can read Washington’s own words on Founders Online, a searchable website hosted by the National Archives through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

Over time, Washington’s ideas about agriculture and agricultural labor changed, based on his own experiences and application of modern farming techniques.

In today’s program, we’ll hear from author Bruce Ragsdale, whose new book, Washington at the Plow, discusses these changes and examines how Washington’s passion for farming led him to question the reliance on enslaved labor.

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Bruce A. Ragsdale served for 20 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, Mount Vernon, and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Now let’s hear from Bruce Ragsdale. Thank you for joining us today.