LAST WEEK AT Mt. Vernon, a monument was dedicated to the slaves owned by George Washington -- the father of his country, but also, as befit the economics and customs of the time, the owner of other men and women who worked his land and ran his household.

It isn't easy for contemporary Americans to accept this fact about Washington, but there is no escaping it. Like nearly every prominent Virginian of the l8th century, he was a slave owner.

By contemporary standards there can be no excusing slavery, but by the standards of his time and place Washington appears to have been relatively enlightened. There is ample evidence that Washington understood that his slaves were human beings who would make the most of their lives, whatever the external constraints imposed upon them, and that this included the formation and preservation of families.

This was not a universal attitude. Many slave owners found it easier to regard their slaves more as chattel than as people. Not Washington.

Mount Vernon slave families generally lived together, and those who did not were able to visit at night. Visits to and from spouses on other plantations also were common and perhaps frequent. Families were not indiscriminately separated and most children grew up experiencing, at last indirectly, the bonds of an intact nuclear family.

Slave marriages at the time were not legally binding or formally recognized in most white society. Because slaves were not legal persons they could not register their marriages. Washington's notations regarding slave husbands and wives on his farms, however, referred to lasting and serious, rather than casual and transient, relationships.

At the time of his death in 1799, Washington held in servitude more than 300 black men, women and children on his five farms.

These slaves performed every sort of labor on his Mount Vernon plantation. They planted, tended and harvested his crops, and in so doing provided the wealth and social status that initially made Washington a man of substance. Other slaves served as distillers, coopers and millers, and nearly all participated in the yearly harvest and packing of Potomac River herring.

For the domestic chores at Mount Vernon, Washington had slave carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, cooks, knitters, seamstresses, gardeners, milkmaids, house servants and even a personal body servant, William Lee.

Washington's slaves had a profound effect on his political career, and therefore on American history. Because the slaves cared for his estate, he, like the other founding fathers of Virginia, had the time and leisure to devote to local and national political concerns.

Even though he found it necessary to write frequent and detailed letters regarding plantation operation to his Mount Vernon overseers, both while he was in command of the Continental Army and while serving as president, it was the slaves who continued to work and care for his home and farms who gave him the freedom to serve and become the father of his country. George Washington owed a great deal to his slaves.

From a list Washington made shortly before his death, it has been possible to reconstruct the domestic arrangements of most of his slaves, and to establish family connections between the farms (a mother and her children were often quartered on one farm with the husband and father on another) and between Washington's slaves and the slaves on other plantations, some of these across the Potomac in Maryland.

The Mount Vernon slaves were domiciled on the farm where they were assigned to work, rather than by family units, although families lived together when quartered on the same farm. Children under 13 usually lived with their mothers.

At the time of the inventory, approximately 90 slaves were living on the grounds of the mansion house, including four slave families with children, two childless couples, three women with children but without husbands and five women with husbands on other farms or plantations.

Also living at the mansion house were 14 single women, seven single men and 20 men with wives or families elsewhere. Three men had wives and children at Muddy Hole Farm, part of which is now Hybla Valley south of Alexandria. Three had wives and three had wives and children at River Farm along the Potomac River north of Mount Vernon. Four, including Washington's personal body servant, Will, had families at the Dogue Run Farm on nearby Dogue Creek. And three had families at Union Farm, just south of the mansion grounds along the river. One woman had a husband living at Washington's mill on Dogue Run.

Slave housing on the mansion house grounds was generally superior to that on the outlying farms. As early as 1776, Washington built and maintained for the mansion slaves a substantial two-story "house for families."

In 1792, this building was replaced by the greenhouse quarters, now reconstructed and open to visitors. These were a series of ground-floor rooms with fireplaces that shared one-half of a long brick building with a greenhouse. Each had a fireplace and several bunk beds; the use of bunk beds for slave housing was apparently a unique idea of Washington's.

How often the mansion house slaves with spouses elsewhere got to visit their mates is uncertain. It was four miles by land, around Little Hunting Creek, to River Farm and somewhat less to the other Mount Vernon slave quarters. But whatever Washington's policy about family visitation was, his caution to his overseers about "the effect of nightwalking" -- he warned that slaves who were out at night would be less capable workers the next day -- indicates that nighttime visits were common among the slaves.

Richard Parkinson, an Englishman who visited Mount Vernon in 1799, noted in his journal "though you have them slaves all the day, they are not so in the night. . . . All the black men . . . used to be out all night and return in the morning." Parkinson's journal clearly records that the Mount Vernon slaves visited wives and family on a regular basis, and that Washington was aware of this fact.

Of special interest regarding the mansion house slaves are the four men and four women whose spouses were among other men's slaves. Washington made note of these relationships, which indicates that he allowed his slaves to visit kin on other plantations, some at a great distance, and that other local slave owners did the same.

Betty Davis had a husband at Hayfield, slightly inland and down river from Mount Vernon, at the home of the widow of George's cousin, Lund Washington. Lucy, a knitter, had a husband at Daniel McCarty's Cedar Grove, a few miles down river near Pohick Bay. Tom Davis, Grace and Dundee all had spouses at Tobias Lear's Wellington (Walnut Hill Farm), land rented from Washington at the northern extreme of River Farm.

Anna, a mansion house laborer, had a husband at Georgetown. Among whose slaves her husband lived or how the relationship developed is not known. But it appears that Washington either allowed this woman to journey 17 miles upriver and then ferry to the Maryland side of the river or that the slave husband made the journey to Mount Vernon, because Washington took time to note that Anna's husband was at Georgetown, and because the woman had three small children, the youngest only 18 months old.

Also of special interest at the mansion house were Alice with four children, whose husband was Charles, "a freeman" (so noted by Washington), and Caroline with five children, whose husband, he noted, was Peter Hardman. These men were not among Washington's slaves and he did not indicate they were at some other plantation. Judging from Washington's notation, Charles was a free black; Hardman may have been as well, perhaps among the growing number of free blacks at Alexandria.

Washington's largest farm, with slaveholdingsamilies w second only to the mansion house, was River Farm. There resided 50 or 60 slaves "warmly lodged chiefly in houses of their own building," but which, Washington was forced to admit to the Englishman Arthur Young, "might not be thought good enough for the workmen or day laborers of your country."

These accommodations were described by a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon in June 1798 as "huts . . . one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace." There was, of course, a much better house for the overseer of each farm, and at least one of Washington's overseers was a black slave. The Polish visitor clearly recorded that Washington's slaves were living in family units.

It is surprising that there were no family connections with slaves on any of Washington's other farms, expecially with the Muddy Hole slaves, as the two farms were separated only by Little Hunting Creek. Indeed, the overland route from River Farm to the mansion house was through Muddy Hole. Yet, the relationships either did not exist or were not known to Washington.

In 1793, Washington described the housing for the slaves living at Muddy Hole Farm as "covering for about 30 negroes." In 1796, he referred to the same housing as "sufficient for 15 or more with their families," which again indicates the existence of slave families and that Washington allowed them to live together whenever possible.

Two of the Muddy Hole slaves had their wives in residence, Davy, the black overseer, and Will, whom Washington identified as a "minister." This man probably was not ordained, but apparently he fulfilled this role within the slave community. His wife, Kate, is thought to have been a midwife to the slaves.

The 45 slaves at Dogue Run Farm also were living predominantly in family groups. They included four complete families, four women (with children) whose husbands were at the mansion house (here also the numerous and young children indicate regular conjugal visits), two single men, five husbandless women (two of whom had children) and an 18-year- old with a husband at Moretons.

One of the single males was Lawrence, 14, whose mother was at the mansion house. Fourteen generally was the age at which Washington felt his slaves were no longer children and could be separated from their mothers. Nowhere did he list a slave over 14 among the children, although occasionally a 13- or even 12-year- old was included with the adults. By allowing the children to remain with the mothers until 14, Washington helped to foster family life among his slaves.

At Union Farm, the latest of Washington's acquisitions associated with his home estate, none of the 36 slaves lived in a complete family, although several had spouses or family members living on Washington's other farms or off the plantation. Family life among the Washington slaves was at its lowest at Union Farm and the separation of mothers from their children was at its highest. The major reasons for this were almost certainly the shorter period of time that Washington had maintained a slave force there, and the fact that he stopped buying new (presumably young and unmarried) slaves around 1786.

As in any human society, it took family life a while to develop among any given group of slaves, and those slaves had to include enough young adults for the process to take place.

In 1796, when Washington was attempting to rent his farms, he observed to his overseer "how much the Dower negroes (the slaves he acquired through his marriage) and my own are intermarried, and the former with the neighboring negroes." The next year, when he was attempting to purchase or hire a new slave cook, a black cook was recommended to him, and he inquired "whether he has a wife, and expects to have her along with him; and in that case, what children they have."

Washington's concern for maintainies wing the integrity of his slaves' families extended to the last year of his life. Barely four months before his death, after complaining that "I have more working negroes . . . than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system," he not only refused to sell any slaves but even to hire them out "because they could not be disposed of in families to my advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion."

In his will the instruction that his slaves be freed and cared for was delayed until his wife's death because freeing them during her lifetime would "be attended with such inseparable difficulties on account of their intermixture with the Dower negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations."

To what extent Washington encouraged initial formation of families among his slaves, or whether he only accepted what the slaves could not be denied, is unknown. But it is worth remembering when visiting the new slave memorial at Mount Vernon that, at least after the workday ended, slave life there was a family affair.