George Washington didn’t always have the best of luck when it came to hiring workers for his New Room. His custom was to give preference to those who had worked on his estate before, rather than outsiders, in his “wish to see them do well.” However, this practice backfired on the General in the instance of Thomas Green.
Green joined the Mount Vernon workforce in 1782 as a joiner and later became an overseer of the plantation carpenters. While George Washington was at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, his letters home to his nephew, George Augustine Washington, reflect frustration with Green’s work ethic and give the younger Washington the power to fire Green if necessary. He wrote, “You may inform Thos Greene that if Drunkeness, or idleness constitutes any part of his conduct, that I have directed you to discharge him. Practices of this sort are violations of the agreement, & I will keep no person in my Service who is addicted to them.”
Thomas Green’s signature.
Washington also noted that Green was frequently absent from his work duties, and wrote to George Augustine, “Hardly any weekly report comes to hand by which it does not appear that Thos Greene is absent one or more days.” Green was nevertheless retained at Mount Vernon; although, based on continuing letters, he showed little to no improvement in his behavior.
In 1789, Washington wrote directly to Green in the hopes of convincing him to be a more reliable overseer. On March 31, he threatened Green with firing and advised him to spend less time drinking and more time caring for his young family. Washington was clearly displeased with Green’s work when he wrote, “If then a man receives [pay] for his labour and he withholds that labour or if he trifles away that time for which he is paid, it is a robbery—and a robbery of the worst kind because it is not only a fraud but a dishonourable, unmanly and a deceitful fraud.”
In addition to the New Room, Thomas Green also worked on the sixteen-sided treading barn, which was reconstructed at Mount Vernon in 1996. Left: An 1870s photograph of the original barn. Right: The 1996 reconstruction.
A follow-up letter from Washington more than four years later in December 1793 reveals that his advice, threats, and pleading have done little to no good in improving Green’s work at Mount Vernon. Exasperated, Washington told Green, “I know full well, that to speak to you is of no more avail, than to speak to a bird that is flying over one’s head.” The next year, Green left his employment at Mount Vernon, which Washington described as “a lucky circumstance, as my repugnance to turning him away was on account of his helpless family.”
Lynn Price, Historic Preservation & Collections