George Washington & Slavery: The Legacy of His Silent Condemnation by Harry Schenawolf

Part 3. Paradox of Liberty & Slavery

Washington & Servant Billy
Washington & Servant Billy

George Washington never set a single slave free during his life. Only after his and his wife’s death were those slaves that he owned allowed their freedom. The majority of Mt. Vernon’s bondsmen were dowry slaves and as such, remained slaves for life. Though expressing privately his growing distaste of slavery, he never put his limited condemnation of the institution into action. He rarely used his political influence or took a public stand on important issues, favoring to remain silent and allow the debate to swirl around him. “Virtually all of Washington’s comments on slavery were expressed privately, and even then, he only alluded to the practice of slavery being wrong. On no occasion did he reveal publicly his own antipathy toward the institution or his privately expressed hopes that it would either wither naturally or be abolished by legislative action.”[1] During the Revolutionary War, while a new nation in America was being founded stating that all men are created equal and guaranteeing independence for all, Washington’s correspondence indicates that he had not given much thought to the plight of African Americans.

Washington not only refused to take a public stand against slavery, but he took actions that favored the retention of African Americans as slaves.   While president he signed into law the Fugitive Slave act allowing slaves to be apprehended in free states, bypassed a state’s law to assure he retained his own slaves, and condemned slaves taking up arms in Saint Domingo to fight for liberty, unleashing harsh words against the Haitian bondsmen while offering money and symphony to the French Government. Had a leader of another country lashed out against the colonists of America for crying out “give me liberty or death” while “taking up arms to break the bonds of slavery,” and offered condolences and money to England for her troubles, Washington would have been among the first to cry foul.

A Virginia planter and large slaveholder, Washington, like his contemporaries, held the viewpoint that freedom was a white man’s right. Many sincerely believed that such liberties could not be bestowed upon their slaves. Influential men such as Thomas Jefferson reasoned persuasively that the black man, if granted freedom, could never become the intellectual equal of whites and take advantage of the opportunities to advance. Washington referred to his bondsmen as “poor creatures” that needed his sympathy and paternal care. The African American, to Washington and other slaveholders both north and south, was an investment that had a monetary value upon his person. In support of fellow planters who objected strongly to any movement towards emancipation, he privately sided with those who wished to retain their bondsmen, repeatedly classifying the African American as entitled “property.”

His letters reveal that his remarks against slavery were tendered with mixed messages. While writing that he, as no other man, sought for the eventual demise of slavery, he condemned Quaker societies seeking emancipation. favored slaveholders intent on reclaiming lost slaves during the war, (himself included), actively and passionately sought after his runaway slaves (in some cases spending years), and adverted or took every opportunity to postpone any detailed discussion on the subject – this while reaping the financial benefits of free labor and the convenience of household servants.

His elusiveness can be seen in a letter addressed to the Marquis de Lafayette, April 7th, 1783. “The scheme my dear Marqs., which you propose as a precedent to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this country from that state of bondage in which they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your heart. I shall be happy to join in so laudable a work; but will defer going into a detail of the business till I have had the pleasure of seeing you.”[2]

Kinder toward his slaves than many of his fellow planters, it seems apparent that it was financial and not moral reasons that guided Washington’s actions towards the treatment of his bondsmen. James Monroe, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and many other planters who invested heavily in slave labor shared Washington’s distaste for slavery, but agreed that it would be upon their “ruin” if they were to turn their bondsmen free.

Ellen Glasgow warns us “To take a true view, one must not believe what is pleasant over what is painful in spite of the evidence.” It is “pleasant” for most contemporary readers, especially those who hold Washington in high esteem, to view him as a kind and humane slaveholder who did what he could to end the evils of slavery, ultimately freeing all his slaves. There is material in Washington’s correspondence for those desirous of holding this view. A careful examination of the record reveals that Washington was more of a traditional Virginia planter than modern Americans might wish him to have been. He was not exempt from employing the cruelty that was essential in maintaining a system based on slave labor. Many can be sympathetic with Washington and the dilemmas he faced both financial and politically. He may be admired for his growth on the issue of slavery, yet his words and actions (and in the case of emancipation during his lifetime – inactions) make difficult reading and grate on the sensitivities of most modern readers.[3]

This article is set in the following sections: Mount Vernon & Acquiring Slaves, Defended Slavery as Property, Washington’s Personality, Emancipation, Low Opinion & Theft, Correcting, Caring for & Reasons, Condition of Slave Quarters, African Americans as Soldiers, Conclusion.

Mount Vernon & Acquiring Slaves

Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon

Washington inherited, purchased, and bartered for his slaves. Most were acquired through marriage; the largest bulk of his slaves were the “dowry slaves” of his wife Martha Custis. Augustine Washington left his eleven year old son George “Ten negro slaves” that remained in possession of his Mother Mary until his 21st birthday. At 22, he took over Mount Vernon after his brother Lawrence’s death and 18 more slaves became his possession.   From 1754 until 1772 he purchased 43 slaves spending a total of £1,736, 15 pence; a considerable sum for the time. In 1760, Washington paid tithes on 49 slaves, 1765 on 78 slaves, 1770 on 87 slaves, 1774 on 134 slaves. After his marriage to Martha, he temporarily controlled the ‘dower’ slaves of his wife.[4]

At the height of its development as a plantation, Mount Vernon comprised eight thousand acres divided into five separate farms; Mansion House, Dogue Run, Union, Muddy Hole, and River. Each contained a small village of African-born and Virginia-born slaves. By the time of Washington’s death in 1799, roughly ninety percent of the plantation’s population consisted of over three hundred African American bondsmen, forty of whom Washington rented from a neighbor.   The remaining ten percent made up the Washington family and white hired workers and their families. The largest slave community, ninety people, lived at Mansion House Farm. Many of them were artisans who practiced the multiple crafts needed to supply the plantation and keep it running. The four other farms consisted mainly of field hands. Their slave villages ranged in size from forty-five residents at Dogue Run, fifty-seven at River, forty-one at Muddy Hole, and seventy-six at Union.[5]

Washington viewing one of his farms with his Overseer and Bondsmen
Washington viewing one of his farms with his Overseer and Bondsmen

While developing Mount Vernon’s farms, Washington purchased and sold slaves as needed. Complying with the custom of transporting troublesome blacks to the West Indies, Washington writes to Captain John Thompson on July 2, 1766, asking him during his next voyage to the West Indies to sell one of his slaves, “a rogue and a run-away.” He had little concern for his slave’s comfort, recommending that Thompson keep him shackled until aboard ship.   “With this letter comes a Negro(Tom),which I beg the favour of you to sell in any of the Islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch and bring me in return for him. “One hhd of best molasses, One ditto of best rum, One barrel of limes if good and cheap, One pot of tamarinds containing about 10 lbs., Two small ditto of mixed sweet meat as about 5 pounds each… must beg the favor of you (less he attempt his escape), to keep him handcuffed until you get to sea or in the bay, after which I doubt not that you may make him very useful to you.”[6] Another “misbehaving fellow was shipped off in 1791 and sold for “one Pipe and quarter cask of wine from the West Indies.”[7]

Washington had relatively few runaways when compared with his fellow planters. He always endeavored to actively seek their return. Between 1760 and 1771 he placed ads for their capture and paid handsome rewards for “taking up” a total of five slaves. In 1781, the British invaded Virginia and a number of his slaves escaped or were carried away by the enemy. Washington sought their return at war’s end in 1783, but was unsuccessful.

By 1778, Washington experienced a surplus of slaves. The economic fact was clear that except for plantations on the richest of soils, slaves “only added to the expense.” While Commander-in-Chief of the American forces during the Revolutionary War, through correspondence, he tried to barter the excess slaves for land writing, “Negroes, of whom I every day long more to get clear of.”[8] He writes to his agent expressing his desire to purchase land, but claims poverty, lamenting that he did not have the cash. He proposes an exchange “if it could be accomplished by any means in my power, in ye way of barter for other land-for Negores… or in short-for anything else… but for money I cannot, I want the means.”[9]

Washington cut back sharply on his purchases of slaves after the war and during the Confederation years, but he occasionally continued to acquire them. In 1786 he accepted five slaves in payment for a debt owed him by the Mercer family, even though, as he wrote Mercer on Nov. 6, “Although I have great repugnance to increasing my slaves by purchase… I will take six or more negroes of you, if you can spare such as will answer my purpose; upon the terms offered in your former letter… ”[10] Here is an instance where his words do not mirror his actions. A little later he wrote Henry Lee on Feb. 4, 1787, requesting him to purchase a bricklayer for him. As in most of his correspondence in later years, he tempered this request for additional bondsmen with his disclaimer against retaining any more slaves; “I am in a great degree principled against increasing my number of slaves by purchase… if you are not disposed to buy the bricklayer advertised for sale for your own use… I should be glad if you would buy him for me. I have much work in this way to do this Summer.”[11] This simulates a pattern where his words do not mirror his actions; as if consoling his conscious or ‘walking the middle road’ by softening others opinion of him.

Hercules, Escaped Cook
Hercules, Escaped Cook

By 1791, Washington decided to never buy another slave, however he makes an exception to replace his cook Hercules who absconded when he was returned to Mount Vernon temporarily and was put to work in the fields. Washington writes to George Lewis on November 13, 1797, that “the running off of my cook has been a most inconvenient thing to this family, and what rendered it more disagreeable, is that I had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase, but this resolution I fear I must break.”[12] Soon after, his resolution to never acquire another slave was again broken when a few more slaves were taken in payment of a debt, though out of necessity as Washington frames it, not by choice.[13]

Washington wrote of concern for his ‘faithful servants’ overall well-being as reasons to actively seek his run-away slaves. As Washington’s second term of his Presidency concluded, in May, 1796, one of Martha’s slaves, 22 year old Ona Judge, escaped from Philadelphia. Washington spent the next several years, right up until the year of his death, trying vigorously to regain her as his slave. Judge had been with the Washington family for seven years and was Martha’s first attendant, taking care of Mrs. Washington’s personal needs. It is believed that when Martha decided to give Judge away as a wedding present to her granddaughter, Judge fled Philadelphia for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There she married Jack Staines, a free black sailor with whom she had three children. Judge and her offspring were vulnerable to slave catchers. They lived as free people under New Hampshire’s law, but still legally belonged to Martha Washington as one of her dowry slaves.

On Nov. 28 1796, Washington made inquiries of Joseph Whipple, U.S. Collector of Customs, Portsmouth, NH, as to the possibility of recovering Judge who he wrote had absconded with a “deranged Frenchman” to New England adding, “however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of people (if the latter was in itself practicable) at this moment, it would neither be politic nor just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference, and thereby discontent beforehand the minds of all her fellow servants, who, by their steady attachment, are far more deserving than herself of favor.”[14] Once again, in the same letter, he tampered his desire to retain his slaves while disclaiming the institution of slavery.

Ad for Escaped Slave Oney Judge
Ad for Escaped Slave Oney Judge

Washington and his agents pursued Judge for the next two years. He dispatched friends, officials and relatives to his cause, (his cousin Lund Washington traveled to New Hampshire and met with Judge and authorities to maneuver her return). Washington was relentless in his desire to recapture her, but with the help of close allies, Judge managed to elude all of Washington’s attempts at returning her to slavery. Washington did not want to anger his Quaker friends in Philadelphia and kept his actions secretive writing that “but I would not have my name appear in any advertisement, or other measure, leading to it.”

Washington expressed concern that recovered slaves would contaminate others on the farm. He writes on August 4, 1797 to his nephew Lawrence Lewis offering advice on a runaway, “I am sorry to hear of the loss of your servant, but it is my opinion these developments will be much more, before they are less frequent, and that the persons making them should never be retained if they are recovered, as they are sure to contaminate and discontent others.”[15] He followed his own advice by shipping off unwanted slaves to the West Indies, a near death warrant from disease and abuse from French overseers.

Defended Slavery as Property

Thomas Paine, Abolitionist
Thomas Paine, Abolitionist

Washington’s letters often referred to the African American as a person’s lawful property and as such, matters concerning slaves were dealt with in a manner similar to selling and trading livestock or sacks of grain. In the face of growing concern to treat slaves as humans and not property, Washington remained dogmatic in his conviction that the slave, a man’s property, should not be tampered with by law.

Within days after British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781, Washington writes to David Ross on October 24th, concerning runaway slaves who were recaptured from the British. “The Negros that have been retaken, from whatever State, whose owners do not appear, should all be… advertised in the states they came from. Those from New York are most probably the property of the inhabitants of that state… and should be advertised [there]. If any officers, knowing who the owners are, will undertake to send them home, they may be delivered to them.”[16]

At war’s end, Washington was far more concerned with the return of runaway slaves to their masters than the plight of blacks who fought for the American cause. These African American soldiers were promised freedom and were being illegally returned to slavery. Nearly eight hundred black soldiers were delivered unto their former masters in Virginia alone without so much as a comment from the Commander-in-Chief. Some of these soldiers were free men prior to the war, but through deceit or the turn of head by politicians, were shackled and sold to slaveholders. The same occurred in northern states where individuals, like Colonel Varnum of Rhode Island, spent years fighting for their fellow soldiers’ release from bondage.

The seventh article of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War stipulated the rights of property. Washington was vexed that it had been reported to him that slaves, property of American citizens, were being allowed to leave the country. He was most concerned with New York City where a large contingency of runaway slaves had sought freedom behind British lines. Sir Guy Carleton, British commander, wrote to Washington requesting an American delegation within New York City to supervise the transfer of said property. Washington wrote to one of the American delegates for negotiations, Daniel Parker on April 28, 1783, requesting him to look in on his family’s runaway slaves. “Some of my own slaves, and those of Mr. Lund Washington who lives at my house, may probably be in New York, but I am unable to give you their description – their names being so easily changed, will be fruitless to give. If by chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them, I will be much obliged by your securing them so that I [can] retain them again.”[17]

Among the first order of business at a conference on May 6, 1783, between Washington and General Carleton, was an agreement on the release of American ‘property’ – slaves. Washington objected to England allowing a considerable number of bondsmen within New York City to seek freedom on British transports. Carlton “insisted that he conceived it could not have been the intention of the British Government by the Treaty of Peace, to reduce themselves so the necessity of violating their faith to the Negroes who came into the British lines under the proclamation of his Predecessor in command [General Clinton]. That… delivering up the Negros to their former Master would be delivering them up to some possible execution and others to severe punishments, which in his opinion would be a dishonorable violation of the public faith pledged to the Negroes in the proclamations.”[18]

It was clear that Washington was not concerned with the well being of slaves that were returned to their masters and pressed the point. Carlton replied “that if the sending off the Negroes should hereafter be declared in infraction of the treaty, compensation must be made by the crown of Great Britain to the owners [and] that he had taken measures to provide for this by directing a register to be kept of all the Negroes who were to be sent off.”[19] Washington, placing his fellow slaveholders first and no doubt thinking of his own personal ‘property’, feared that such actions could not be done accurately. He was convinced that former masters may not receive the compensation due. He insisted that the spirit of the treaty was not being followed, but was forced to accept the British offer. Approximately three thousand former slaves were placed on a list and allowed to leave New York City on British transports. The remaining thousands of African Americans were rounded up after the British left, many violently, and returned to former masters or shackled and sold outright at auctions.

The Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 began dismantling slavery within the borders of Pennsylvania, releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthday. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This was a problem for the New President who took office on April 30, 1789 and set up residency in Philadelphia. In April 1791, fearing the impact of the Pennsylvania law, he instructed his secretary Tobias Lear to ascertain what effect the statue would have on the status of the slaves who served the presidential household in Philadelphia. In case Lear believed that any of the slaves were likely to seek their freedom, Washington wished them sent home to Mount Vernon prior to the end of their six month stay.[20]

Washington concocted a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. As the six month period for each slave approached, he would send them back to Mt. Vernon under some pretext before returning them to Philadelphia. He writes to Tobias Lear on April 12th, 1791. “… in case it shall be found that any of my slaves may… attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you send the whole or part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chose to keep… although I do not think that they would be benefit by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great of a temptation for them to resist… it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I should not only lose the use of them, but may have them to pay for. [If] it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the public – and none I think would effectually do this as Mrs. Washington coming to Virginia next month .”[21] In effect he would reset the clock and take action that bypassed a Pennsylvania law that was designed to gradually emancipate slaves stating that “it behooves me to prevent the emancipation of them; this from a man who personally wrote that he endorsed gradual emancipation, the exact purpose of the law he was disobeying. Once more Washington maintains a pattern of saying one thing in private, but acting completely opposite in public.

While President of the United States, Washington continued to support a slaveholders’ right to his property. In 1793, Washington signed the first fugitive slave law which allowed escaped bondsmen to be apprehended in any state, tried, and returned to their ‘rightful’ owners. The law was entitled: An Act respecting fugitives from justice and persons escaping from the service of their masters. Anyone who harbored or assisted a ‘fugitive’ faced a $500 penalty and possible imprisonment. Having never spoken out publicly against slavery, Washington naturally signed the bill, especially in the face of the House of Representatives who supported the act on February 4, 1793 by a vote of 48-7 with 14 abstaining. The law was approved eight days later.

Historians point out that in fairness to Washington, he was concerned for the state of the union and feared major fractions of opinion that might break up the fragile country. No one was more aware than Washington of the potential threat that the slavery issue posed for the destruction of the Republic.[22] Americans viewed the sanctity of property as sacrosanct; after all, this was one of the major issues for which they had fought Britain for eight and a half long years. Slaves, to the slaveholder, were property pure and simple and an issue that they were willing to fight dearly for. Washington had written to Alexander Spotswood in 1794, “I shall be happily mistaken if [slaves] are not found to be a very troublesome species of property ere many years pass over our heads.” No matter his moral repulsion towards slavery, he would not wage into the slavery issue while trying to maintain his status as the peace maker.

The above argument has merit, however it loses credibility when considering Washington’s continued practice as one of the nation’s largest slaveholders. Even though under political pressure not to press the issue of emancipation, Washington could have made good his personal condemnation of slavery and by example to the nation, begin setting his own slaves free. Don Higgenbothem wrote in his text, Washington Reconsidered, that from Washington’s occasional comments on slavery expressing his desire to see it disappear from the new American nation, it is difficult to decipher how deep his sentiments ran. It is likely that he had come to disapprove of the institution on moral grounds, and that he considered it a serious impediment to economic development, although he did not make sufficient comments on the institution of slavery for modern historians to be certain. It appears that his opposition dealt more with the immorality of one man holding ownership over another than with the cruelty and abuse to individuals.[23]

Washington’s Personality

Bondsman Tom at Mount Vernon
Bondsman Tom at Mount Vernon

Washington thought of liberty in the stoic way, as independence from what he called “involuntary passion.” He was a man of strong passions, constantly struggling to maintain “full possession of himself.” Among his “family,” aids and close staff during the war, his temper flares were well known, however he always quick to regain control and never exposed his “inner demons” in public.[24] Washington, like his gentry peers, believed that only a gentleman of independent means could be truly free. Gentlemen of honor and independence, such as the wealthy planters of Northern Virginia, had great liberty; small freeholders had not so much of it. Tenants had little liberty, servants less, and slaves none at all. This was a hierarchical world where liberty and slavery coexisted, to us a contradiction because we do not share the assumption of inequality on which it rested.[25]

Washington matured among many inequalities and accepted most of them throughout his life. He was very conscious of social rank, being completely at ease and privately open with those he considered his social peers, “people of rank” as he called them. He deliberately kept all others at a distance, however showed a certain level of respect. At age sixteen, Washington had copied by hand the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated into English by Francis Hawkins in 1640. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests. Washington absorbed a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals. He spent a lifetime practicing the ‘rules of civility’ with fervor. The thirty-sixth rule pertained to his treatment of inferiors which would include slaves, “those of high degree ought to treat artificers & persons of low degree with affability & courtesies, without arrogance.”[26]

Washington deliberately kept all others at a distance and advised his manager at Mount Vernon to deal that way with inferiors. He wrote to William Pearce on December 18th, 1793, “To treat them civilly is no more than what all men are entitled to… but my advice to you is to keep them at a proper distance, for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority.”[27] Washington took his own advice, treating inferiors with decency and respect while consciously adhering to a system of inequality.

One of Washington’s weaknesses as a politician was the fact that he was extraordinarily thin-skinned and criticism of either his personal or political behavior troubled him far out of proportion to the event.[28] Dorothy Twohig, Associate Professor, University of Virginia, writes in her article That Species of Property, Washington’s Role in the Controversy of Slavery, that Washington rarely expressed publicly his views on controversial issues. His reticence in general on public matters was a considerable discussion during his presidency. He had learned from painful experience as early as his service in command of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War that it would not be necessary to retract, explain, or apologize later for what he had not said in the first place. By the time he reached the presidency, it had become habit. Washington remained throughout his career very conscious of the speed with which both public and private sectors could turn on their unsuccessful servants. John Adams noted that Washington had “the gift of silence.”[29]

Anthony Benezet
Anthony Benezet

Washington was driven to make his home, Mount Vernon, the model of ingenuity and progress. In doing so, he developed a controlling personality that micromanaged all affairs at the mansion and farm. He continued to do so as Commander-in-Chief, writing his cousin Lund Washington repeatedly on farm affairs and the renovation at Mount Vernon, demanding he be kept abreast of all details. In the summer and fall of 1776, when sleepless nights were spent dealing with one crisis after another while outmaneuvering the pursuing British army, Washington would sit for hours with quill in hand, going over every sale of grain, every structural repair, and every aspect of managing his farms. This included his slaves; “He [the overseer] will take all necessary and proper care of the negroes committed to his management, treating them with humanity and tenderness when sick, and preventing them when well, from running about and visiting without his consent, as also forbid strange negroes frequenting their quarters without lawful excuses for so doing.”[30]

“Washington was a particularly energetic manager who sought to reinvent Mount Vernon as a model of progressive agriculture. These characteristics further set him apart from the majority of his peers. Partly as a consequence of his limited success in his efforts to improve the plantation operations, and because of his growing frustration in his attempts to enlist unmotivated slave laborers to achieve that vision, Washington developed strong opinions regarding the proper management of his workers.[31]

Washington Family at Mount Vernon
Washington Family at Mount Vernon

A taskmaster, Washington tried to maximize the most production out of his slaves. He thought that by his direct intervention with the supervision of his slaves, he could achieve his goal of a more efficiently run plantation. He writes to his estate manager in 1789, ‘‘To request that my people may be at their work as soon as it is light, work till it is dark, and be diligent while they are at it… the presumption being that every laborer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength without endangering the health, or constitution, will allow of.”[32] Even in their free time and in the most personal aspects of their lives, Washington’s slaves were never free of his ultimate control.[33]

During his long absences from the farms and probably out of frustration that he was present to see to matters personally, Washington was notoriously displeased with his overseers writing “the insufferable conduct of my overseers may be one mean of frustrating my plan for the next year.” He desired that his overseers “be constantly with [his] people,” while maintaining a professional relationship with the slaves. A situation he suspected was lax at best.[34]

Emancipation

In the summer of 1798, a worldly travelor visited Mount Vernon. John Bernard, a highly regarded comic actor and impresario of the English stage had migrated to the United States at the close of the 18th century. He recorded a conversation he had with Washington with regard to slavery.

The conversation began with Washington expressing “full faith in the power of civil liberty which he saw all around him, leading him to foresee that it would, ere long, prevail in other countries…” At that moment an African American servant entered the room carrying a jug of spring water. Bernard could not repress a smile which Washington at once interpreted. “This may seem a contradiction, but I think you must perceive that it is neither a crime nor an absurdity,” Washington said. “When we profess, as our fundamental principle, that liberty is the inalienable right of every man, we do not include madmen or idiots; liberty in their hands would become a scourge. Till the mind of the slave has been educated to perceive what are the obligations of a state of freedom, and not confound a man’s with a brute’s, the gift would insure its abuse… slaves were bequeathed to us by Europeans, and time alone can change them; an event, sir, which, you may believe me, no man desires more heartily than I do.”[35]

One wonders if it did not occur to Washington that merely by educating the African American, then and there, and not wait for a time when such ‘wonders’ could be bestowed upon the ‘African’, could the ‘black man’ be granted the status beyond that of a madman or idiot.

Typical of most of Washington’s correspondence on the subject of slavery, he tempered words of oppression with that of desire to see the demise of slavery. Mixed messages of this sort flowed from his pen in personal letters and during dialogue among friends. It seemed as if Washington supplemented his conscious as a slaveholder with words, rather than deeds. During his conversation with Bernard, after having basically stated that time is needed to change the black man before he may be considered the equal of the white, he says, “Not only do I pray for it,” this miraculous change, “on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”[36] Meaningful words, with no substance to back them up, a common thread throughout Washington’s commentary on slavery.

Twohig writes that to historians of succeeding generations, not only Washington’s ownership of slaves, but his failure to speak out publicly against slavery in the face of his own growing opposition to the institution or to bring the weight of his enormous prestige to bear against it, has sometimes eclipsed his reputation as the first man of his age. Why did he not, from the platform of his enormous prestige and public veneration, speak out publicly against a system that his private correspondence reveals he had gradually come to regard with distaste and apprehension?[37]

In 1794, Washington wrote to Alexander Spotswood: With respect to the other species of property [slavery]… I shall frankly declare to you that I do not like even to think much less talk of it… I shall, in a few words, give you my ideas of it… I am principled against selling Negros, as if you would sell cattle in the market, I would not, in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one as a slave.[38]

One cannot fail to wonder if Washington’s words mirrored his sincerity and conviction on the subject of emancipation. Though he writes of disappointment that each resolution for emancipation of the African American brought before the legislature is tabled, he also is concerned of the inconvenience and mischief such an act would cause. In a letter he writes to his close friend the Marquis de Lafayette on May 10, 1786, he ends with a look toward the future as if once more postponing any action on emancipation. “your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit might diffuse itself generally, into the minds of the people of this country. But I despair of seeing it. Some petitions were presented to the Assembly at its last session, for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarcely obtain a reading. To set the slave afloat at once would, I really believe, be productive of much inconvenience and mischief, but by degrees it certainly might and assuredly ought to be effective; and that too by legislative authority.”[39]

There are many instances of Washington’s elusiveness when it came to the issue of slavery.

In 1785, the clergyman Francis Asbury, first Bishop of the Methodist Church in America asked Washington during a visit to Mount Vernon if he thought to sign a petition for the emancipation of slaves. Perhaps Washington had the presidency in mind when he answered that it would not be possible. He added, “If the Maryland Assembly discusses the matter; I will address a letter to that body on the subject, as I have always approved of it.”[40]   There was a discussion, but he never addressed such a letter, effectively passing on the subject.

Slave Quarters Greenhouse
Slave Quarters Greenhouse

Washington continually defended the rights of slaveholders to obtain their human property. The southern planter saw Washington as their champion to stand before a growing sentiment against the institution of slavery. On September 9, 1786, he wrote to John Francis Mercer stating his desire to see a means of gradual emancipation to take place, “I never mean to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery may be abolished by some slow, sure and imperceptible degrees…”[41] However, just five months prior to this letter, he vigorously condemned an organization that brought suit to uphold a law that guaranteed just that!

Washington wrote to Philadelphian Robert Morris on April 12, 1786 on behalf of an acquaintance of his, Mr. Dalby of Alexandria. In 1784, Mr. Dalby brought one of his slaves from Virginia to Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society sued on behalf of the bondsman’s freedom. Two years later the court came to trial. Washington, who privately had endorsed gradual emancipation, attacks the society whose goal is to maintain the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Law of 1780 that grants freedom to all African Americans within the states boundary after six months. His letter supports Mr. Dalby and his right to retain his property stating boldly that he makes no apology for his position on the matter. He expresses his strong opposition to “a vexatious lawsuit respecting a slave of his [Dalby], which a Society of Quakers in the city, [Philadelphia] (formed for such purposes) have attempted to liberate.” He labels the attempt by the Quakers as “acts of tyranny and oppression.”

Washington desires a plan to free the “unhappy people” held in slavery, however his strong wording against the Quaker initiative and sympathy for the slaveholder, labeling them “misfortunate to have slaves,” questions his sincerity towards emancipation. “… this Society is not only acting repugnant to justice so far as its conduct concerns strangers, but, in my opinion extremely impoliticly with respect to the State… but by acts of tyranny and oppression, to accomplish their own ends. And if the practice of this Society… is not discountenanced, none of those whose misfortune it is to have slaves as attendants will visit the city if they can possibly avoid it; because by so doing, they hazard their property… I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people… in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it…” He continues to press the need for legislative change , “and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.” And in the next sentence, he speaks of the “happy slave.” “But when slaves who are happy and contented with their present masters, are tampered with and seduced to leave them; when masters are taken unawares… he loses his property for want of means to defend it… it is oppression… and not humanity in any; because it introduces more evils than it can cure.”[42]

The argument that slaves were content to be living in a perpetual bondage that was passed to all their children might have seemed laughable if not a majority of slaveholders, including powerful leaders of a new nation, did not believe it to be so. In any case, Washington’s argument against the Quaker organization and suit did not prevail.[43]

Edward Rushton
Edward Rushton

Washington, with his passion for order, feared the element of anarchism in the antislavery movement. In general he did not give a warm reception to gadflys – esp. Quaker gadflys – and the tone of many of the antislavery appeals with which he was deluged in the 1780’s and 90’s combining imperious demands with evangelical piety, was not likely to incline him in their favor.[44] He felt personally attacked by criticism and tended to ignore or brush aside letters such as Edward Rushton[45] wrote to him in July, 1796. The quotation is taken from a contemporary copy in the Rhode Island Historical Society. Rushton, a prominent English antislavery advocate, later published in England his Expostulatory Letter to George Washington on his continuing to be a Proprietor of Slaves.

“It will generally be admitted, Sir, and perhaps with justice, that the great family of mankind were nevermore benefited by the military abilities of any individual, than by those which you displayed during the American contest. . . . By the flame which you have kindled every oppressed nation will be enabled to perceive its fetters. . . . But it is not to the commander in chief of the American forces, nor to the president of the United States, that I have ought to address. My business is with George Washington of Mount Vernon in Virginia, a man who, not withstanding his hatred of oppression and his ardent love of liberty, holds at this moment hundreds of his fellow being in a state of abject bondage–Yes: you who conquered under the banners of freedom–you who are now the first magistrate of a free people are (strange to relate) a slave holder. . . . Shame! Shame! That man should be deemed the property of man or that the name of Washington should be found among the list of such proprietors. . . . Ages to come will read with Astonishment that the man who was foremost to wrench the rights of America from the tyrannical grasp of Britain was among the last to relinquish his own oppressive hold of poor unoffending Negroes. In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelibile a blot.”[46]

This letter of compassion written by a champion of abolition, who sacrificed his own sight for the cause, the disease contracted while treating slaves, was ignored by Washington. The copy of Edward Rushton’s polemic bears a notation in a contemporary hand, dated Liverpool, 20 Feb. 1797, that the letter was transmitted to Washington in July 1796 and “a few weeks ago it was returned under cover, without a syllable in reply.”

Over the years, Washington lamented the slave trade and ownership of slaves more frequently. Many of the nations’ early leaders indulged themselves and their family with the convenience of owning another human. Later in life these same men like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and George Washington would despair of the practice, but were unable or refused to relinquish their slaves for financial means. Patrick Henry vocally opposed slavery, but kept his own slaves because, as he said rather lamely, of the “general inconvenience of living here without them.”[47]

Others, like Benjamin Franklin, set free their slaves or halted the “flesh trade” and condemned it outright. Washington writes to John Mercer in 1786, “I never mean, unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in the country may be abolished by law.”[48]

By the mid 1780s it was evident that the idealism of the 1770s had turned out to be an illusion. As Washington well knew, the last decades of the century witnessed a reversal in states like Virginia, where during the war there had been widespread public attacks on slavery and embryonic plans for the abolition of the institution.   Proslavery petitions proliferated in Virginia. In response, the Deep South tightened legislation regarding slaves. There were sporadic objections to slavery on moral grounds, some northerners pointing out as early as 1790 the immorality of aristocrats living off the sweat of their slaves. On occasion, northern intellectuals may have espoused a free-labor ideology, but they failed to advance their cause by overt action. Even the North profited by slavery in terms of its economic connections with the South, and except for occasional lip service from societies to promote manumission, there was little mainstream opposition from that quarter.[49]

Washington was a political realist. Presiding over the Constitutional Convention left him fully aware of the specter slavery had presented at the convention. Although it had not seemed an important factor when sessions began in Philadelphia, by the end of the summer it had permeated every phase of the deliberations. In the convention, the strongest supporters of the Constitution were willing to take a stand on matters they felt essential to the success of the enterprise–to the making of a new government; but, as Washington had observed, they were not willing to sink their ship by taking on North and South Carolina and Georgia on the subject of slavery.   The experience of the Convention may well have shown Washington that there would be little substantive support from antislavery spokesmen if he had decided to take a vigorous position on the question.[50]

Throughout Washington’s presidency, he did not use his influence to suggest a plan for gradual emancipation, something he professed in private letters. “Washington sought a private avenue to enable him to act on his growing antipathy to the institution of slavery, even though he chose not to support the initiatives of abolitionists during his terms as president.”[51] Many historians agree that these ‘private avenues’ he pursued were very limited in scope. Modern opinion points out that slavery was the norm and our leaders were caught up in its general acceptance both north and south. However, before and during Washington’s presidency, there was a split in the nation on this issue and it appears Washington was dismayed that such a thing could divide his country. He had always thought that after the war, the general opinion of the nation would be as one. At the beginning of his presidency, there was no concept in his mind of two opposing political parties. As these fractions developed, he felt compelled to act as the ‘peace maker’ between the Jeffersonian and the Federalist as well as the slaveholders and abolitionists.

Rhode Island 1st
Rhode Island 1st

By the end of the Revolution, it was not lost on Washington that slaveholders had an enormous economic stake in the preservation of the institution while advocates of abolition had nothing to lose. Washington shared the determination of his own generation of statesmen by not allowing slavery to disturb their agenda for the new Republic. Antislavery sentiment came in a poor second when it conflicted with the powerful economic interests of proslavery forces. Washington proceeded tentatively with his customary caution. “To form a new government,” he had written John Washington in 1776, “requires infinite care and unbounded attention; for if the foundation is badly laid, the superstructure must be bad… A matter of such moment cannot be the work of a day.”[52]

If Washington had any doubts concerning reaction in the United States to the specter raised by the question of emancipation, public reaction toward the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint Domingo in 1791 would have confirmed his determination to avoid pursuing the issue at all costs. Americans turned a blind eye to the appalling conditions that had inspired the revolt, instead showing apathy towards their French masters. Frenchmen fled the island in droves and arrived along the coasts of America. They brought horror stories of death and mutilation at the hands of bondsmen turned ‘savage.’ This only served to force the southern slaveholding states to dig their heels in deeper and oppose any and all actions towards emancipation. Strict laws were enacted limiting manumission and the movement of slaves to counter any possibility of slave insurrections. A phobia fearing America’s large slave population swept the entire country both north and south and draw inspiration from the successful rebellion on Hattie.

On September 24, 1791, Washington writes to Jean Baptiste Ternant, French minister, promising arms and money to combat the slave insurrection. “Sincerely regretting, as I do, the cause which has given rise to this application; I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and allies the French to quell the alarming insurrection of Negros in Hispaniola…”[53]

Whatever Washington’s changing views towards slavery, he, like many of his antislavery contemporaries, still let his own economic interests rule when they interfered with his principles.   It is difficult to discern from his meager comments whether Washington’s disgust with slavery rests on moral grounds or primarily on the grounds of the institution’s economic inefficiencies.[54]

After his presidency and returning to Mt. Vernon, Washington is entrapped by financial concerns regarding his slaves. He fears complete ruin if he were to turn them free and lays his reason for not selling them on his aversion to the slave trade. He writes to Robert Lewis in 1799, “It is demonstratively clear, that on this estate (Mount Vernon), I have more working negroes by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system… To sell the over plus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out, is almost a bad, because they could not be disposed of in families so any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion. What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined…”[55]

Clearly, Washington’s own economic necessities seconded his political caution. He wrote Tobias Lear in 1794 giving elaborate instructions on the sale of land to put his financial affairs in order. “I have no scruple to disclose to you, that my motives to these sales . . . are to reduce my income, be it more or less, to specialties, that the remainder of my days may, thereby, be more tranquil & freer from cares.”[56]

Monument to African American Soldiers Savannah, GA
Monument to African American Soldiers Savannah, GA

Many modern historians are eager to forgive Washington in this matter and tend to agree with his predicament. Mr. Pogue writes, “…he was not at liberty to free all of the Mount Vernon slaves. Washington owned only 123 of the 316 slaves at Mount Vernon’s farms by 1799.[57] Any manumission plan that he devised would leave the majority of the slave community in bondage.” Interesting that one can own ‘only’ 123 humans. What of the 123 slaves owned by Washington?   Mr. Pogue fails to consider their possible thoughts on Washington not being at liberty to set them free when considering the dowry slaves.   Why could not a plan for manumission be devised so that some of these 123 slaves be set free during his life, perhaps over a period of time? Washington admittedly was keen to hope that the people of this country would do so through legislation. However he did nothing to point the nation in that direction.

Praise has been laid on Washington for emancipating his slaves in his will. An article on the web entitled Freeing His Slaves is One of Washington’s Greatest Legacies by Nancy Hurrelbrinck joins in this bandwagon of laurels heaped upon Washington. The fact remains, for all his growing adversity to slavery, Washington, in his lifetime, never set a single slave free. This while other statesmen had taken a financial loss and thrown off the yoke of slavery.   Throughout Washington’s life, he never took a strong stand nor voiced strong sentiments in public, preferring to ‘kick the can down the road.’ He did the same with slavery. He put off emancipating his slaves until after his and his wife Martha’s death, assuring that during his and her lifetime, they enjoyed the comforts of slave labor. He wrote in great detail how the slaves were to be treated and dealt with while Martha remained alive and after her death. Modern opinion is more lenient toward what they believe are logical reasons for Washington’s decision to hold firm to his slaves during his and his wife’s life. Mr. Pogue is but one example writing, “Seeking to avoid the “painful sensations” that he knew would result from the disruption of families formed by members of the two groups, Washington called for his slaves to be freed after his death.”   How could these ‘painful sensations’ from disruption of families be any less severe after Washington and Martha died? Granted, he stipulated how his heirs should deal with his slaves to lessen the separation. But could not Washington have initiated a plan to begin setting some of his slaves free while he and Martha lived? Could not some of those freed African Americans find work and save enough to buy their loved one’s freedom? It is easy to forgive one’s actions by setting them within an historical context where such actions were generally acceptable, but not so easy to excuse those actions when, in that same time period, others took far more drastic steps than Washington to elevate the horrors of slavery.

Low Opinion & Theft

Washington, like most of his contemporaries, thought that he had entered into a type of “patriarchal contract” in which his slaves owed him service in return for care. Reciprocal obligations and duties between master and servant were the essence of the patriarchal system. Washington was the provider and the slaves owed him something in return. That something was “that every laborer (male and female) does as much in 24 hours as their strength… will allow.”[58] This patriarchal compact was potentially an austere code which justified severity to ensure that the slaves kept up their end of the ‘contract.’[59]

Washington often thought that he, not his slaves, suffered from this arrangement. Following a fire, Washington wrote to his plantation manager. “I wish you would inform him [Isaac] that I sustain injury enough by their idleness, they need not add to it by their carelessness.” It was Washington who sustained “injury” from the system of slavery. Thinking in these terms, he was eager to get as much back for his investment as possible.[60]

Washington was not impressed with his slaves as a labor force. There are frequent comments in his correspondence with his managers on their irresponsibility and indolence, although he believed their poor work habits to be a result of the system itself.[61]   He would constantly lament that “lost labor can never be regained,” and urged his overseers to be constantly vigilant because “there are few Negros who will work unless there be a constant eye on them.” He reminded his overseers to remember that the slaves were working for him, “I expect to reap the benefit of the labor myself.”[62]

Washington was repeatedly concerned with the lazy nature of his bondsmen writing during the war, “all necessary care should be taken of them when they are so [sick]; but if you do not examine into their complaints, they will lay by when no more ails them, than all those who stick to their business, and are not complaining from the fatigue and drowsiness which they feel as the effect of night walking and other practices which unfit them for the duties of the day.” Washington, when made aware of his slaves’ extended sickness would suspect their honesty, “Is there anything particular in the cases of Ruth, Hannah and Pegg, that they have been returned sick for several weeks together? Ruth I know is extremely deceitful… if they are not made to do what their age and strength will enable them, it will be a bad example for others – none of whom work if by pretexts they can avoid it.”[63] Other examples of his complaints: “Paris has grown to be so lazy and self-willed… and made to do a sufficient day’s work of it otherwise (if suffered to be idle) more will walk in her steps.” He’s upset that many are not producing their usual quota of work, “Tell them therefore from me, what has been done, shall be done.” He’s concerned about the smiths, “whilst I was at home, I take to be two very idle fellows…” He wrote that the overseer should pay close attention to the gardener, “some of whom I know to be as lazy and deceitful as any in the world.”[64]

Slaves who were supposed to be riding the plantation checking on Washington’s stock was usually engaged “in pursuits of other objects… more advances of his own pleasure than my benefit. Every place where I have been there are many workmen and little work.” To thwart theft, overseers were ordered to visit slave quarters at irregular hours, wait along the roads to catch anyone making off with goods from the farms, broken tools had to be turned in before receiving a replacement, and materials were rationed and kept close count of.[65]

When robbed of potatoes, Washington complains in a letter on June 1, 1794 to one of his farm mangers, William Pearce of the overall deceitfulness of his bondsmen, “the deception… is of a piece with other practices of a similar kind by which I have suffered hitherto; and may serve to evince to you, in strong colors, first how little confidence can be placed in any one around you,; and secondly the necessity of an accurate inspection into these things yourself…”[66] He would often pepper his letters home with reminders to his managers and Lund, his cousin, of the need to keep accurate stock of food and equipment. “Alexandria is such a receptacle for everything that can be filched from the right owners… and I have such an opinion of my Negros (two or three only excepted)… that I am perfectly sure not a single thing that can be disposed of at any price, at that place [Alexandria], that will not, and is not stolen… and carried thither to some of the underling shop keepers who support themselves in this kind of traffic.”[67]

He was careful not to leave wine unlocked. He writes to Pearce on Nov. 23, 1794, cautioning him “because the knowledge I have of my servants is such, as to believe, that if opportunities are given them, they will take off two glasses of wine for every one that is drank by such visitors… watch over the as the other business you are employed…”[68] He was always suspicious of his slaves’ abilities to accomplish assigned work, writing from Philadelphia on May 4, 1793, “… placed under the care of a trusty negro, if there be such a one…”[69] and “I know not a negro among all mine, whose capacity, integrity and attention could be relied on for such a trust as this.”[70]

He writes to Anthony Whiting on Feb. 3, 1793. Besides giving great detail as to issues in farm management, including the quantity of bricks needed for a specific project, he expresses wonderment and suspicion at the reported number of nails used for repair, “I cannot conceive how it is possible that 6,000 twelve penny nails could be used in the corn house at River Plantation, but of one thing I have no great doubt, and that is, if they can be applied to other uses, or converted into cash, rum or other things, there will be no scruple in doing it.[71]

Washington repeatedly wrote to his managers and overseers to be cautious of all his property, including the sacks used to carry grain to market. In 1792, farm manager Anthony Whiting complained that a number of bags or sacks, which would have been useful in transporting wheat to the mill, had been “Stole by the Negroes & otherwise Lost.” Whiting recommended that bags purchased in the future be made of coarse sacking from Europe, “which a Negro could not mend his Cloaths with without a discovery” and that, in addition, the sacks be marked on both sides.[72]

On July 14th, 1793, Washington, true to his controlling and paranoid personality, wrote a very long, detailed letter from Philadelphia addressed to his overseers. Within he cautions that his managers must be diligent against his ‘people’s’ theft and reminding them by not doing so, they are reaching into his purse and stealing from him. He numbers his concerns and writes in his 18th point, “Tho’ last mentioned, it is not of the least importance; because the peace and good government of the Negros depend upon I, and not less so my interest and your own reputation. I do therefore in explicit terms enjoin it upon you to remain constantly at home… and to be constantly with your people when there. There is no other sure way of getting work well done and quietly by Negros; for when an Overlooker’s back is turned, the most of them will slight their work, or be idle altogether. In which case correction cannot retrieve either, but often produces evils which are worse than the disease. Nor is there any other mode but this to prevent thieving and other disorders…”[73]

During Washington’s presidency and extended residency in Philadelphia, he seemed obsessed believing his slaves were continually robbing his property. On June 7th, 1795, Washington writes to Pearce, his overseer, “… Nathan has been suspected [of theft], if not detected, in an attempt of this sort formerly; and is as likely as anyone to be guilty of it now. Postilion Joe has been caught in similar practices; and Sam, I am sure would not be restrained by any qualms of conscience, if he saw an opening to do the like…”[74] Historian Fitzpatrick, in his edited volumes of Washington’s complete correspondence, lists over twenty letters within a six month period that illustrate the President’s suspicions and cautionary advice to his overseers over the theft by his “people.”[75].

When the slaves’ entrepreneurial activities threatened Washington’s interests, his concern with their private lives came to the fore. In the fall of 1794, for example, he learned that Sally Green, the abandoned wife of one of his white carpenters and the daughter of his old servant, Thomas Bishop, was thinking of moving to Alexandria to open a shop. The President feared that with her long-standing ties to the Mount Vernon slaves that the shop would be “no more than a receptacle for stolen produce” from his farms, he told his manager, William Pearce. He asked Pearce in a letter dated Nov. 30, 1794, to caution Green against dealing with his slaves, for if “she deals with them at all,” Washington thought, “she will be unable to distinguish between stolen, or not stolen things.” He warned that if she came under any suspicion of dealing in stolen goods, “she need expect no further countenance or support from me.”[76]

Dogs owned by slaves was a concern expressed by many planters. They feared the slaves used dogs to round up livestock to be sold off. Washington was no exception. He writes from Philadelphia, “It is astonishing to see the command under which their dogs are,” he commented to his manager Anthony Whiting on Dec. 16, 1792. Although the slaves probably kept the dogs ostensibly for hunting, both men felt that they used the dogs during “night robberies” to round up Mount Vernon sheep, which they then sold to certain outside “receivers.” Washington and Whiting also feared that dogs might kill the sheep.[77] Washington eventually ordered Whiting to decide which dog or dogs to keep on each farm, then kill all the others. Afterward, “if any negro presumes under any presence whatsoever, to preserve, or bring one into the family. . .,” Washington proclaimed, “he shall be severely punished, and the dog hanged.”[78] Thomas Jefferson actually made good on his threat. He had one of the slave’s dogs hanged and left to rot as a warning to his bondsmen.

Correcting

There is but a single statement in all of Washington’s writings in which he urges one of his overseers to “give a good whipping” to a slave. Several texts and articles quote this out of context to prove that Washington used the whip on his farms. Reading the entire passage, one leans that Washington wrote in response to a slave who had badly beaten his wife. The slave was from another plantation who was married to a Mount Vernon slave.[79]

It was common for a bondsman’s master to use the term correction when referring to some type of physical punishment laid upon their bondsmen. Washington, during his absences wrote to his managers approving of some type of correction towards his slaves without being specific. “The correction you gave Ben, for his assault on Sambo, was just and proper. It is my earnest desire that quarrels may be stopped, or punishment of both parties follow…”[80]   Another hints that the use of force to keep his slaves in line was more frequent than his writing indicates. Washington responds to his overseer Anthony Whiting on March 3, 1793, regarding a slave, “I am very sorry that so likely a fellow as Matilda’s Ben should addict himself to such courses as he is pursuing. If he is guilty of any atrocious crime… he might be given up to the civil authority for trial; but for such offenses as most of his color are guilty of, you had better try further correction, accompanied with admonition and advice… if a stop is not put to his rogueries and other villanies… I will ship him off, as I did Wagoner Jack, for the West Indies…”[81]

So too did women feel the pain of ‘correction’. “Your treatment of Charlotte,” he wrote to his manager, “was very proper, and if she, or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.”[82] Regarding a runaway, “Let Abram get his deserts when taken, by way of example; but do not trust to Crow [white overseer] to administer it as he is swayed more by passion than judgment in all his corrections.”[83]

Washington was always concerned with his slaves stealing from him. The meat house was a primary target. He did not hesitate writing to his overseer to ‘bring him [the culprit] to punishment” I wish you could find out the thief who robbed the Meat house at Mount Vernon, and bring him to punishment. And at the same time secure the house against future attempts…”[84]

Prince Louis Philippe’s[85] first visit to America occurred on April 5, 1797. He visited Mount Vernon and was an overnight guest of Washington. He later wrote a ledger of his travels. He states that the whip was not used on Washington’s estate. This information must have come to him through conversation with white masters and their overseers. “There are about 400 blacks scattered among the different farms. These unfortunates reproduce freely and their number is increasing. Virginia law imposes the same punishment on a master who kills a slave as on any other murderer, but the law is very rarely applied; as slaves are denied by statue the right to bear witness, the charge is never proved. General Washington has forbidden the use of the whip on his blacks, but unfortunately, his example has been little emulated.[86]

Washington made good use of the lash in disciplining troops during the Revolutionary War. Though Prince Philippe heard to the contrary, rumors spread that he did so at Mount Vernon. Many of Washington’s friends and ‘inner family,’ his staff during the war years, never expressed any thoughts that Washington was a master who physically disciplined his slaves. Joseph Reed writes of Wash. “for the first time I have heard slander on his private character, viz. great cruelty to his slaves in Virginia and immorality of life, thos’ they acknowledge so very secret that it is difficult to detect…” Reed also writes that he believes the “falsehood of the former [cruelty to slaves] from the known excellence of his disposition…”[87]

In 1793 during the presidency, Washington believed that affairs at Mount Vernon were getting out of control in his absence. On May 19, 1793, he ordered his farm manager, Anthony Whiting, to “absolutely forbid the Slaves of others resorting to the Mansion house; such only excepted as have wives or husbands there, or such as you may particularly license from a knowledge of their being honest and well disposed.” Whiting, after giving them a warning, was to punish all others “whensoever you shall find them transgressing these orders.”[88]

Care of Slaves

The slave, who constituted the backbone of the labor force at Mount Vernon and who performed virtually all of the hard and menial chores as well as many of the semiskilled functions, were entitled to nothing more than food and a roof over their heads. A minimal clothes ration and a modicum of medical care for the seriously ill were the major fringe benefits. These African Americans therefore had some semblance of cradle-to-grave security, but with one vial and significant exception; the proprietor had the sole and undisputed right to sell off his chattel property whenever it suited his purposes. Therefore, from the slave’s point of view, the master’s commitment was neither secure nor comforting. In fact, the implied or covert threat of being sold, particularly of being sent to the West Indies (a death sentence by disease) was a very effective means for maintaining discipline among the slave population.[89]

If Washington was perhaps more concerned than some planters with his slaves’ welfare, his principal interest was still their contribution to the economic life of the plantation.[90] Like many gentlemen planters, it appears Washington took comfort in believing his motive for the slaves’ health was genuine compassion. There was no doubt that Washington felt some level of benevolence towards his human property. However, as much as modern historians would like to portray Washington as one whose care towards his human property was driven by moral apathy, the truth of the matter is that he was no different from the typical slaveholder whose concern for his slaves’ welfare was driven by financial considerations.   Healthy slaves increased productivity. Sickly slaves were expensive in doctor’s fees, medicines, additional food, and loss of work, not only for the slave that was ill, but for the attending slaves who remained in the quarters to nurse the sick. If a slave succumbed to his or her illness, pure and simple, that was a substantial loss of valuable property.

“When I recommended care of and attention to my Negros in sickness, [they] should be closely watched, and timely applications, and remedies be administered; especially in Pluerisies, and all inflammatory fevers accompanied with pain when a few days neglect, or want of bleeding, might render the ailment incurable…”[91]

Washington repeatedly expressed his concern for his slaves in letters to his nephew Lund. He was concerned that his overseers neglected his slaves’ heath during his absence. “Although it is last mentioned, it is foremost in my thoughts, to desire you will be particularly attentive to my negroes in their sickness and to order every overseer positively to be so likewise for I am sorry to observe that the generality of them view these poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draught horse or ox, neglecting them as much when they are unable to work, instead of comforting and nursing them…”[92] He writes in another letter, “My fear is, as I expressed to you in a former letter, that the overseer… in short viewing the negroes in no other light than as a better kind of cattle, the moment they cease to work, they cease their care of them.”[93] And in another letter, “I am sorry to find by your last reports that there has been two deaths in the family [referring to his slaves] since I left Mount Vernon… I hope every necessary care and attention was afforded him. I expect little of this from McKoy [Henry McKoy, overseer]… for they seem to consider a Negro much in the same light as they do the brute beast, on the farms; and often times treat them as inhumanly.”[94]

The work ethic reigned supreme at Mount Vernon, while humanity ran a distant second. On January 1, 1789, Washington wrote a lengthy set of instructions to John Fairfax, one of his overseers for the Mount Vernon farms titled, “A View of the work at several Plantations in the year 1789, and general directions for the execution of it.” He wrote, “To request that my people may be at their work as soon as it is light – work until it is dark – and be diligent while they are at it… lost labor can never be regained – the presumption being that, every laborer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health, or constitution, will allow of it.[95]

The general population likes to believe that Washington was a kind master, if history can bestow such a title upon anyone who claims to own another human. He showed concern for his slaves’ diet, but he also had other motives for doing so. He believed that they would take to stealing from him if not properly provided. He also understood the need for a healthy slave population to produce a level of productivity he deemed acceptable: “whether this addition [food rationing] is sufficient, I will not undertake to decide… I desire they have plenty; for I will not have my feelings hurt with complaints of this sort, nor lye under the imputation of starving my negroes, and thereby driving them to the necessity of thieving to supply the deficiency.”[96]

Despite his often harsh treatment of his bondsmen and his seeming indifference to their personal welfare, Washington appears to have been held in high regard by his slaves. James T. Flexner claims, “Eyewitness accounts exist of blacks weeping when Martha departed, rejoicing when George Washington returned.” The white populace, including poets, liked to think that the slaveholders’ ‘kindness’ towards their slaves bore fruit in an attachment for their master. This concocted relationship between slave and master helped dampen the conscious and the horrific reality of owning another human being. Humphrey’s[97] poem on Washington eluded to this joyful affection his slaves had toward their master writing: “Returned from war, I saw them round him press, And all their speechless glee by artless signs express.”[98]

Often Washington proved himself kinder towards his slaves than many of his contemporaries, some took great joy in personally ‘correcting’ their slaves. In the spring of 1768, when George Washington left the home of his brother-in-law, Burwell Bassett, he was probably acting properly when he left fifteen shillings and nine pence for the “Servants,” who would have had extra duties to perform in caring for him or for any other houseguest.[99]  During his presence at Mount Vernon, there are many recorded instances of Washington personally riding out to his farms when word reached him of ailments in the quarters. “Visited my plantation and found two of my negroes sick… found that lightening had struck my quarters and ten negroes in it, some very bad… ordered Lucy down to the house to be physic… found the new negro Cupid, ill of a pleurisy [and] had him brought home in a cart for better care of him… Cupid extremely ill all this day and at night, when I went to bed, I thought him within a few hours of breathing his last.”[100]

George Washington purchased foodstuffs from not only his own slaves, but from those on neighboring farms as well. Eggs, chickens, ducks, melons, cucumbers, and honey all found their way from the quarters to the mansion table over the years. Washington’s slaves also sold their chickens in Alexandria, to “procure for themselves a few amenities,” wrote Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish traveler who visited Mount Vernon in early June of 1798.

He oversaw his slaves’ marriage affairs on his farms, taking a paternal interest in his slaves’ domestic affairs. George Washington himself ended the marriage of one of his slaves. In February 1795 when he learned that a woman named Fanny at River Farm was “Laid up” for an entire six-day work week because she had been “badly beat” by her husband, Ben, who was owned by a Mr. Fowler. Washington was so incensed that he refused to allow Ben on the plantation and ordered him whipped if he disobeyed.[101] He writes on March 1, 1795, “I think Mr. Stuart (William, overseer at River Farm) ought to be informed if ever Folwers [Fowlers?]Ben comes on the Farm, you are to give him a good whipping, and forbid his ever returning.[102] However, it was more likely that Washington’s anger stemmed from the fact that he lost a week’s work while Fanny healed.

He was generous at Christmas time providing “the negroes” spirits for the festivities, while keeping a cautious eye on control of his slaves and the budget. He writes to his overseer Whiting on May 26, 1793, “a hogshead of rum must be purchased; but I request at the same time, that it may be used sparingly.”[103] In 1787, he instructed an agent to purchase a mason, however if he were married, he did not want the slave parted from his family and therefore decline the purchase.

However, food was not the only purchase Washington made of his slaves. He also paid handsomely for teeth, and may have acquired some from his bondsmen. It is common knowledge Washington had poor teeth. Hippopotamous teeth were a common replacement as well as using human teeth, either from the dead, or purchased from those willing to sell their own. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure. “I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantation,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784.[104]

Ironically, Washington often wrote that his overseers “view these poor creatures” as animals, when in fact, his actions and affection toward his slaves could be construed as the same one would show towards a favorite dog or horse; symbiotic bond of caring for the animal’s needs in exchange for the labor and attachment of a loyal “creature.”[105] Historians and the general public remind those who criticize slaveholder’s behavior that slavery, in the 18th century, was an accepted norm. However that does not allow for the portrayal of Washington as one demonstrating a sincere warmth toward slaves, who he considered and wrote often of as his ‘property’. He took advantage of a system that allowed for his comfort and needs far beyond those who had no other choice than to be under his care. And such care, as evidenced by visitors and guests, was often far from a condition most whites would ever dream of finding themselves living under.

Condition of Slave Quarters

The Mount Vernon estate comprised the mansion complex and five farms.   Those slave quarters on the farms, like plantations throughout the south, were in poor condition. In 1775, Washington’s cousin Lund wrote to him in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he had taken command of the American Forces. “Some of our negro quarters are so very bad, that I am obliged to have them mended…” Visitors to the estate would comment on the wretched conditions under which Washington’s slaves lived.

Julian Niemcewicz[106] was a Polish traveler who visited Mount Vernon in June of 1798, staying for thirteen days. He had long talks with Washington and free rein of his farms. He describes one of the slave homes he visited. “We entered one of the huts of the blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants… The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace [most were wooden fireplaces], some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot. A boy of fifteen was lying on the ground, sick, and in terrible convulsions… A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with five or six hens, each one leading 10 to 15 chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them; for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry at Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities.”[107] A typical interior of a slave dwelling at Mount Vernon presented a scene of dire poverty. Slaves made an attempt at bettering their meager living conditions by decorating their cabins with homey items of their own purchase such as the “cups and teapot,” that Niemcewicz had noticed.

One Englishman, Richard Parkinson, who lived near Mount Vernon and desired to lease some land from Washington recorded some of his discussions with Washington’s neighbors. He wrote “it was the sense of all his [Washington’s] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man…” This type of criticism was rare. Mary Thompson, Mount Vernon historian, writes that this type of neighborhood gossip hinged on Washington’s strict management of the estate, which became progressively modern and scientific over the years.[108] Washington’s propensity to micro-manage all affairs at Mount Vernon and his continued interest in exploring new and developmental ways of agriculture added a great deal of time and leveled new hardships upon his slaves who strove to keep up with his innovations. It took long hard days to keep up with Washington’s demands which must have contributed to his neighbors’ impression of his stern treatment of his bondsmen.

Prince Louis Philippe observed the slave quarters during his brief overnight stay on April 5, 1797. “Here Negroes are not considered human beings. When they meet a white man, they greet him from a distance and with a low bow… All agricultural labor in Virginia is performed by blacks, who on the various farms are housed in wretched wooden shacks here called quarters. Usually these shacks swarm with pickaninnies in rags that our own beggars would scorn to wear… their labor never profits them… on the contrary, it profits those whom they must naturally hate.”   He comments on Washington’s cook Hercules who ran away and is presumed in Philadelphia. He left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. When Phillipe asked her that she must be deeply upset never to see her father again she answered, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.” Philippe was surprised to see how ‘white’ were Washington’s house servants: “some of whom have kinky hair still, but skins as light as ours. I noticed one small boy whose hair and skin were so like our own that if I had not been told, I should never have suspected his ancestry.   He is nevertheless a slave for the rest of his life.”[109]

From Washington’s own description, a slave house might be so insubstantial that to move it, the slaves could just pick it up and put it on a cart. A black overseer’s house was so flimsy, Washington’s manager feared a strong wind might knock it over and kill the overseer’s family. Washington referred to the slaves’ houses as ‘coverings,’ implying that they offered but the bare minimum of shelter. He admitted that white people would not live in them. His cousin and manager, Lund, thought of the slaves’ houses as the benchmark of squalor. In describing to Washington the poor workmanship of some new chimneys in the mansion, Lund wrote in 1775 that “they really smoke’d so bad that the wall looked as bad as any Negro Quarter…”[110]

Washington fully accepted the condition of his slaves’ quarters. He viewed society as hierarchical. There would always be people at the bottom, laborers, both white and black, whose lot was a harsh one. Slaves were on the very bottom whose lives would remain hard as were the living conditions that Washington provided.[111]

African Americans as Soldiers

Like most southerners, he had strong objections to using blacks as soldiers, even free men. And, again like most southerners, he was too conscious of the possibility of slave revolts to look easily upon the distribution of guns into the hands of slaves. His initial reluctance was bolstered by a long colonial tradition of prohibiting slaves to bear arms; so too freemen who may use their freedom of arms to influence their ‘brethren’ to take up arms. The emergence of Dunmore’s[112] plan to enlist slaves and offer them their freedom and Washington’s own desperate need for men in the aftermath of failed recruiting policies and massive desertions forced him and Congress to reconsider their initial positions at least in regard to free blacks.  By 1778 Washington went so far as to favor Rhode Island to raise a battalion of African-Americans[113]. Washington continued to use former slaves in a number of more menial capacities during the course of the war.[114]

Washington believed that no good could come by either side of the conflict arming slaves. Early in the war he was enflamed over Lord Dunmore’s arming of over eight hundred former slaves. He feared a general slave insurrection throughout the south, threatening the livelihood of his and his neighbor plantation owners. He wrote a letter to his good friend, politician, and fellow planter, Richard Henry Lee, on December 26, 1775. It revealed his concern and vengeance towards any action to arm slaves. “If, my dear sir, that man [Lord Dunmore] is not crushed before spring, he will become the most formidable enemy America has. His strength will increase as a snowball, by rolling, and faster, if some expedient cannot e hit upon to convey the slaves and servants of the impotence of his designs.” Washington intercepted a satchel of letters from Dunmore addressed to Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Ministerial Forces in American, General William Howe. “You will see by his letters what pains his is taking to invite a reinforcement, at all events, there, and to transplant the war to the southern colonies. I do not think that forcing his Lordship on shipboard is sufficient… nothing less than depriving him of life and liberty will secure peace to Virginia.”[115]

After taking command of the Army stationed around Boston in the summer of 1775, Washington saw that a significant number of African Americans were serving among the ranks of New England forces. When the matter of recruiting African Americans for the Continental Army came up that fall, he was against it. He also felt strongly that all African Americans within the ranks should not be allowed to reenlist. On the eighth of November, a council of war was held consisting of Washington and his generals; Ward, Lee, Putnam, Thomas, Spencer, Heath, Sullivan, Greene, and Gates. They considered the question whether or not it would be advisable to enlist African Americans in the new army or “whether there be any distinction between such as are slaves and those who are free.” It was unanimously agreed to reject all slaves and by a large majority to refuse blacks altogether.[116]

Ten days after this council, the question of devising a method of renovating the army was presented before a Committee of Conference. The question of enlisting blacks came up. The leaders of this council were non-military; Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Lynch, the Deputy Governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island, and the Committee of Council of Massachusetts.[117] This council also agreed that African Americans should be rejected altogether. Washington had all he needed to issue General orders dated November 18th, 1775 stating that “neither Negros, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men unfit to endure fatigues of the campaign should be enlisted. The question of reenlistment of those black already in the army was not addressed.

New England officers continued to bring the issue of allowing free blacks to enlist in the army. Washington had no desire to make a firm decision on his own and in General Orders, Dec. 30, 1775, writes that he will bring the matter before Congress. “As the General is informed that the numbers of free Negros are desirous of enlisting, he gives leave of the recruiting officers to entertain them and promises to lay the matter before Congress, who he doubts will not approve of it.”[118]

The question of allowing those African Americans already in the army permission to reenlist was addressed by Washington in January, 1776. As mentioned, he favored removal of all black soldiers within the ranks of the army, however, over time, he changed his mind when it became a genuine concern that freemen would serve with the British if not the Americans. He writes to the president of Congress on January 15th, 1776, “It has been represented to me that the free Negro who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employment in the Ministerial army, I have presumed to depart from the resolution respecting them and have given license for their enlistment.”[119]

That same day Washington wrote to Congress, they opened the door a crack in allowing the possibility of slaves serving in the armed forces. “Resolved: That no bought or indentured servants be employed onboard the fleet, or in the army of the United Colonies without the consent of their master.”[120] The next day, January 16th, they allowed the free black man to reenlist, “That the free Negros who have served faithfully in the Army at Cambridge may be reenlisted therein, but no others.”[121] One wonders if Washington had seen the writing on the wall by informing Congress that he decided to allow free blacks to reenlist. His letter to Congress dated the 15th in which he stated this could not have arrived in time for Congress to consider it when they voted to allow free blacks to reenlist.

A week later, on January 24, 1776, Washington penned a letter to Robert Bricket appointing him Commissary in raising a regiment in Massachusetts. He reiterates his desire to not allow “Negros” to enlist. “Neither Negroes, (being slaves), old men, or boys, unable to bear arms, and to endure the fatigues of the campaigning, or persons laboring under any bodily infirmity whatsoever, are to be allowed to pass muster, of which you are to take due notice.”[122]  While still in Cambridge, Mass., Washington reaffirms his decision not allowing slaves to enlist in General Orders, February 21, 1776. “The General, being anxious to have the established regiments completed with all possible expedition, desires the Colonels and commanding officers forthwith to send an officer from each incomplete company, onto the country, upon the recruiting service, who are expressly forbid enlisting any boys, old men or slaves…”[123]

After the disasters in and around New York in the summer and fall of 1776 and being driven across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, Washington was faced with the demise of what army he had left. Terms of enlistment were up and he scrambled to retain what men he could. Word went out to recruiters to aggressively sign up new recruits. Agents were given incentives to look the other way or not be so careful with documentation when enlisting supposedly freemen. By the winter of 1777 – 1778, nearly one in every five faces at Valley Forge turned to Washington at muster were African Americans. They had proved themselves worthy in every major conflict and unlike the white farmer and merchant who hurried home at the end of each enlistment, African Americans stayed. Washington’s firm stance on not allowing the enlistment of slaves had faded. When the Legislature of Rhode Island allowed the enlistment of slaves, Washington gave his approval and sent Colonel Varnum of Rhode Island home to begin recruiting an all black regiment.

Though Washington eventually gave his approval to slaves enlisting, he never gave much support to the idea. He writes to Colonel John Laurens on March 20, 1779. It is in response to Laurens’ recommendation that consideration should be given to arming slaves. Washington remains somewhat aloof in his response, expressing some concern, however he admits that after four years into the war, he had not really considered the issue. “But as this is a subject that has never employed much of my thoughts, these are no more than the first crude ideas that have struck me upon ye occasion.”[124] Laurens pressed his plan to the South Carolina State Legislature to raise three or four battalions of emancipated slaves. When the plan was defeated, Washington wrote to Laurens a consoling letter on July 10, 1782. In it he admitted that the initial passions of the Revolution had been replaced by selfish greed. “I must confess that I am not at all astonished at the failure of your plan. That spirit of freedom, which at the commencement of the Revolution would have sacrificed everything to the attainment of this object, had long since subsided, and every selfish passion had taken its place; it is not the public but the private interest which influences the generality of mankind nor can the Americans any longer boast an exception…”[125]

State after state lined up allowing slaves to enlist including Virginia which supported a substitute system. With the promise of freedom for military service, many slaves were sent to the army as substitutes for freemen. The effort of inhuman masters to force such African American soldiers back into slavery at the close of their enlistment actuated liberal legislators of the Virginia Commonwealth to pass the Act of Emancipation, proclaiming freedom to all ‘Negros’ who had thus enlisted and served their term faithfully, and empowering them to sue in forma pauperis, should they thereafter be unlawfully held in bondage.[126]

As fine as this act sounded on paper, it basically remained just that, words without any real enforcement built in. In the fall of 1783, at the close of the war, the Virginia Assembly passed the Emancipation Act condemning owners who “contrary to principles of justice and to their own solemn promise” kept their solder substitutes as slaves. They were freed by legislative decree with instructions to the attorney general of Virginia to act on behalf of any former slave held in servitude despite his enlistment. Unfortunately, a slave could not himself initiate legal proceedings for his own manumission.[127] Of the nearly 800 African Americans who fought with the Virginia Line and went home at war’s end, only eight were known to have been granted the promised freedom by Virginia Legislature for the entire Revolutionary War! All other slaves who served in the Virginia line, were returned to spend the remainder of their lives and the subsequent lives of their children in slavery.

And while this injustice was occurring to his soldiers at war’s end, Washington seemed more intent on reclaiming slaves that had fled to the British. As detailed earlier in this article, Washington aggressively pursued British General Guy Carlton in trying to obtain his and his fellow planters’ slaves that had flocked to England’s banner of promised freedom. The only recorded record of Washington writing on an African American soldier’s behalf occurred in 1782. The letter was written on Aug. 5, 1782 to the Secretary of War on behalf of a request by Colonel Olney of the Rhode Island 1st, a predominantly black regiment. Washington requests the release of an African American soldier from a Maryland jail rather than selling him to pay for his internment. “As it will be extremely unjust and cruel that the soldier should be any longer confined or should be sold to pay the charges of his prosecution, I request you to take the matter up as soon as possible and procure his release…”[128]

Washington did nothing when his friend the Marquis de Lafayette wrote to him asking his assistance in helping him free a black soldier who had been the Marquis’ aid during the Battle of Yorktown and had been illegally returned to slavery. It took years for Lafayette to finally procure his aid’s release.

Conclusion:

When historical figures embroiled in controversy, or in this case the great evil of slavery, we tend to seek excuses and labels for their actions. This is most especially true when dealing with leaders and national icons. We are told we cannot judge a person from another time and culture by our own standards. The general public is placated by scholars and historians who are quite convincing in their arguments.

Mary Thompson, historical curator at Mount Vernon writes, “While I can understand the disgust many people in our society feel about slavery and how they cannot fathom how anyone could “own” another person, judging a person from another time and culture, by one’s own standards is quite naïve. Not only does it take a person, in this case Washington, out of the context of the time in which he lived, but in the question of slavery, takes him out of human history as a whole. Given the long history of slavery in the world and the relative constancy of human nature, it is pretty amazing that anyone ever came to question whether it was right to enslave another person. The fact that George Washington could make the transformation from being an unthinking slaveholder to freeing his slaves, in the short span of twenty-four years is quite miraculous.”

What of the slave? If the great slaveholder is allowed to live in a world in which amends are made for the constancy of human nature, is the bondsman held to that same constancy of human nature and thereby walk the same path? Did those enslaved think, act, and feel along similar lines in a hierarchy that lavished liberties upon those of lucky birth while subjecting the less fortunate to horrendous conditions? Are we free to classify human nature by the constraints of time and designate levels of evil we deem acceptable? Would we be so quick to claim it naïve to condemn Washington if he were a murderer and if the majority of the eighteenth century population practiced that form of constancy of human nature? Would we be so forgiving? What if Washington adhered to genocide?   It can be argued that by his inaction towards slavery, he did little if nothing to stop the sub-human treatment of millions of men, women, and children and the horrific death of thousands. Can he be held responsible, if not partially? Or again, would we place him in the context of history and be so forgiving?

Death of Spartacus
Death of Spartacus

I return to the bondsman.   Indeed, slavery extended back to biblical times, however nowhere in the bible is slavery neither ordained nor sanctioned. The Israelites recognized slavery for what it was and broke that bondage when led by Moses from Egypt. The Greeks and the Romans made good use of the institution of slavery. It benefited the wealthy then as it did at Mount Vernon. However, from the earliest days of slavery, resistance was a constant feature. It took many forms; individual acts of sabotage, poor work, feigning illness, committing crimes like arson and poisoning, running away – in some cases forming fugitive groups of slaves in independent communities in inaccessible areas, and the most desperate – slave insurrections. In North America alone, scholar Herbert Aptheker has counted over two hundred plots, conspiracies, and actual uprisings between the early seventeenth century and the American Civil War.[129] Two of the more significant, resulting in a large loss of life occurred twenty years before Washington’s birth and the other nearly forty years before the Declaration of Independence.[130]

No matter the span of long history, insurrections by slaves and even just the fear of rebellions were dealt with most violently.[131] Between 73 BC and 71 BC, escaped slave Spartacus aroused tens of thousands of slaves to bear arms against the Roman legions in what became known as the Third Servile War,[132] the last of three huge slave insurrections that were brutally put down by the Roman Empire. Thousands perished in several battles with the last remaining six thousand of Spartacus’s slave followers captured and crucified along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua. Can we question that to these desperate men and women, those who died by the sword or were terribly tortured to death, that slavery was wrong? Can their tragic struggles be ignored? They lived slavery every day of their lives, risked death to abolish it, and perished under its strict constraints. Slaves in America were burned at the steak and lynched before mobs of hysterical whites for trying to break these bonds, or even if there were rumors that the attempt were to be made.  How can it be that human nature allows both forms of passions to coexist? How can we accept both and excuse one while dismissing the other? What may not be wrong and a great injustice to the white slaveholder, who turned his and her back on history, was something so terrible that the bondsman was willing to tamper death to rip off their shackles.

We look back on history fraught with this paradox and are told we should excuse those who benefited from the hardships of slavery simply because it was the norm. The norm has been and will forever be man fighting for and dying for his or her freedom. The desire to break that bondage held by a despot or ‘great man’ and national figure is timeless. Passions of the human spirit cry out for it. No context of time in which one lives can dampen that which is the ‘true constancy’ of human nature.

Thompson writes that given the long history of slavery in the world, it was amazing that anyone every came to question that slavery was not right? I find it amazing, given the long history of countless millions of enslaved souls who questioned, fought, and died to eradicate a great injustice to mankind, that such a statement ignoring their sacrifice is made. Throughout the centuries, leaders, literary giants, and philosophers spoke out against slavery, recognizing a great wrong. Men and women like Bartolomé de las Casas, Charles Baron de Montesquieu,  Francis Hutcheson, William Blackstone, William Wilberforce, Francis Hutcheson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Granville Sharp, Guillaume Thomas, Lord Mansfield, François Abbé Raynal, Elizabeth Heyrick , William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, Marie Jean Antoine, Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet,  Abbé Grégoire,  Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, Marie Joseph Motier, and Marquis de Lafayette. This is but a fraction of those who took actions against the institution of slavery and wrote countless document condemning its use.

Those leaders in their own right who spoke out and formed anti-slavery organizations in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth century were many that included Washington’s peers; Roger Williams & Samuel Gorton (made slavery illegal in Rhode Island in 1652), Quakers from Germantown including Francis Daniel Pastorius who passed the first prominent anti-slavery resolution in 1688, John Woolman (who gave up most of his business in 1756 to campaign against slavery), Anthony Benezet,  Benjamin Franklin (former slave trader and later emancipation activist), Aaron Burr, John Jay of New York, John Adams and future president, Elias Hicks, John Wesley, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, Thomas Paine , and James Otis Jr. who asked the simple question, if all people were born free and equal, how could it be “right to enslave a man because he is black?”  Also Dr. Benjamin Rush, close patriot of Washington, who denounced and set his slaves free during his lifetime portraying slavery as a “vice which degrades human nature.”

These men from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries wrote extensively of the evils of slavery. They modeled what they preached in public by either never owning slaves or freeing their slaves during their lifetime. Washington took pride in his early education. Are we to believe that he was never exposed to these views against slavery as a young man before it finally dawned upon him in the last twenty-four years of his life? Can it be considered miraculous that he expressed his views against slavery in private only and never released any of his slaves during his life?

Many who excuse eighteenth century slaveholders seem to assume that emancipation was something new that emerged during the eighteenth century and was only shared by individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many countries, leaders of nations, and governments, from Japan to Finland, condemned the act or in many cases, took steps to abolish slavery; up to twelve hundred years prior to Washington’s sudden awakening to disclaim slavery in private. Acacius of Amida was a fifth century priest who spent his life working to abolish slavery, Pietro !V Candiano did the same in 960. In 1102, the Council of London condemns the slave trade. Fifteen years later in 1117, Iceland abolishes slavery.   By 1200, slavery disappeared in Japan. Twenty years later, 1220, the Sachsenspiegel, the most influential German code of law from the Middle Ages, condemns slavery. In 1256 Bologna and in 1274 Norway both do away with slavery. Louis the X of France denounces slavery and took actions to elevate it. Sweden and Finland abolish slavery in 1335. Poland followed in 1347. China’s Hongwu Emperor establishes the Ming dynasty and abolishes all forms of slavery in 1368. The region of present day Croatia does away with slavery in 1416. The concept of the “freeborn Englishman” who could not be enslaved had emerged by the 17th century. Scholars and leaders, both religious and political soon began a transfer of this freeborn to the ‘heathens’. However, those who benefited handsomely from the slave trade chose to ignore the growing plea; most especially the agricultural aristocracy of the New World in which Washington was an active member.

Edward Rushton, like George Washington, was embroiled in slavery. Like Washington, later in life he saw the institution for what it was and began to write against it. Unlike Washington he wrote in public, never peppered his writing with mixed messages, and most importantly, acted on his conviction. He was an Englishman who was charged with mutiny after he was the only one aboard a slave ship who defied his captain and treated the sick and dying Africans. While doing so, he contracted ophthalmia which claimed his sight in one eye and developed severe cataracts in the other. From that time on, he wrote passionately about slavery, placing his finances at risk to spend his last years on earth championing the cause. Rushton’s letter to Washington condemning him for taking no action towards emancipation was returned to him unopened! What miracle did Washington perform by that act which occurred towards the end of his presidency and the last years of his life?

The Jean-Antoine Houdon Bust of Washington
The Jean-Antoine Houdon Bust of Washington

Washington spoke privately of his disgust of slavery, but we cannot brush his inaction towards emancipation aside, stating that he was trapped in a ‘culture of history.’ He benefited handsomely from owning humans and subjected them to squalid, living conditions while working them from dawn to dusk. A truly great man sees a great wrong and casts aside the yoke of normalcy and forges down an unknown and hazardous path. Washington put his amenities and personal finances first and foremost, far above any conviction towards emancipation. He gave lip service to a ghastly institution that kept him and his family comfortably embraced in slavery’s benefits. He learned early on that by remaining silent, one need not explain oneself later, nor would history be so harsh. He was right.

There was nothing miraculous in Washington privately condemning slavery, nothing worthy in putting off one’s sentiments until after death. Washington was not unique in his condemnation of slavery in later life. It was common among slaveholding politicians to disclaim slavery. Many like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry spoke out against it, lamenting the paradox of liberty taking root alongside a thriving trade of peddling flesh. At least Patrick Henry was honest when he said he could never give up slavery for the convenience the institution offered; an honesty that Washington held close to his heart, and never dared project to the public.

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Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind. 1971: Harper & Row Publishers, New York, NY.

Grizzard, Frank E. George Washington, A Biographical Companion. 2002: ABC – CLIO, Santa Barbara, California.

Hartgrove, W. B., “The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1916), pp 110-131.

Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. 2006: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Henry, William Wirt. Patrick Henry, Life Correspondence & Speeches, In Three Volumes.1891: Charles Scribners & Sons, New York, NY.

Higginbotham, Don. George Washington Reconsidered. 2001: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, VA.

Hirschfeld, Fritz. George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal. 1997: Missouri Press, St. Louis, Missouri.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Notes on Virginia” The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 1787: Printed for John Stockdale, London, UK.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619 – 1877. 1993: Hill and Wang Publ., New York, NY.

Lanning, Michael Lee. African Americans in the Revolutionary War. 2000: Kensington Publishing Company, New York, NY.

Locke, Mary Stoughton. Anti-Slavery in America from the Introduction of African Slaves to the Prohibition of the Slave Trade (1619-1808). 1901: Ginn & Company, Boston, MA.

Meier, August & Elliott Rudwick, ed. The Making of Black American, Volume 1, The Origins of Black Americans. 1969: Kingsport Press, Inc., Kingsport, Tennessee

Moore, George Henry, Ed. Charles Lowell Woodward. Work and Materials for American History. 1890: D. Appleton & Co., New York, NY.

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Morgan, Kenneth, “George Washington and the Problem of Slavery,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2000), pp 279-301.

Morgan, Philip D., “To Get Quit of Negroes: George Washington and Slavery,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 39, (2001), pp 403-429.

Nash, Gary B., The Unknown American Revolution. 2005: Viking Penguin, member of Penguin Group, New York, NY.

Niemoupcewicz, Julien Ursyn, Translated to English by Metchie Budka.   Podróże po Ameryce 1797–1807 Travels Through America in 1797-1799, Published under the title Vine and Fig Tree. 1965: Grassman Publishing Company, Elizabeth, NJ.

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[1] Twolig, pg 115.

[2] Ford, Worthington. The Writings of George Washington Vol. 10, pg. 220.

[3] Henriques, pg. 146.

[4] Ford, Paul. The True George Washington, pg. 138.

[5] Thompson, pg. 180.

[6] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 2, pg. 437.

[7] Ford, Writings of Washington, Vol. 2, pg. 211.

[8] Ford, The True Washington, pg. 139. Also, this small passage is usually quoted out of context by those seeking evidence that Washington sought to be rid of his slaves for moral reasons.

[9] Ibid. pg. 115.

[10] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 29, pg. 56.

[11] Ibid, pg. 154.

[12] Ibid, Vol. 36, pg. 70.

[13] Ford, The True Washington, pg. 139-140.

[14] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 35, pg. 296.

[15] Ibid. Vol. 36, pg. 2.

[16] Ford, Writings of Washington, Vol 9, pp. 392-393, Fitzpatrick, Vol. 23, pg. 262.

[17] Ibid Ford, Vol. 10, pp. 246-247.

[18] Ibid, pp. 241-243.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Twolig.

[21] Letters and Recollections of George Washington to Tobias Lear, pg. 38.

[22] Higginbothem, pg. 130

[23] Ibid.

[24] Fisher, pg. 14.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Washington, Rules of Civility, pg. 7.

[27] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 33, pg. 191.

[28] Higginbothem, pg. 129.

[29] Twohig, That Species of Property.

[30] Ford, The True Washington, pg. 141.

[31] Pouge, pg. 4.

[32] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 30, pp. 175-76.

[33] Thompson, The Private Lives of George Washington’s Slaves.

[34] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 33, pg. 188.

[35] Bernard, pg. 90-91.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Twohig, That Species of Property, pg. 116.

[38] Higginbothem, pg. 128.

[39] Sparks, prt. III, 163-164..

[40] Ford, The True George Washington, pg. 153.

[41] Fitzpatrick, Vol 29, pg. 5.

[42] Ibid, Vol 27, pg. 407.

[43] Nash, pg. 412.

[44] Higginbothem, pg. 129, Twohig,pg. 127.

[45] Before writing this letter to Washington, Edward Rushton was charged with mutiny on a slave ship where he complained of the treatment of slaves. The slaves had caught blinding and contagious ophthalmia and he was the only one who would care for them. For his troubles, he was charged with mutiny and threatened with irons. He caught the disease himself and went blind, yet moved on in life to become a prominent writer, bookseller, co-founder of Britain’s first school for the blind, and a leading advocate for the abolition of slavery.

[46] Twolig, pg. 115

[47] Patrick Henry had a habit of putting his own personal needs well before his country. The man who stood before the Virginia Legislature and said “give me liberty or give me death,” resigned his commission as colonel of a regiment in the continental army at the start of the war. He chose the liberty to safely remain on his Virginia plantation for the duration of the war.

[48] Letters of George Washington Article, pg. 419.

[49] Higenbothem, pg. 125.

[50] Ibid, pg. 124.

[51] Pouge, pg. 4

[52] Twolig, pg. 126.

[53] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 31, pp. 375-376.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ford, Vol. 14, pp. 196-197.

[56] Twolig, pg. 127.

[57] Forty slaves belonged to a neighboring planter. Of the remainder, 123 were owned by Washington and 153 were dower slaves legally bound to the heirs of the estate of the first husband of Martha Washington, Daniel Parker Custis.

[58] Henriques, pg. 148.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid, pp 148-149.

[61] Twohig article.

[62] Henriques, pg. 149.

[63] Ford, True Washington, pp. 144-145.

[64] Ibid, pg. 147.

[65] Henriques, pg. 149.

[66] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 33, pg. 394.

[67] Ibid, pp. 394-395.

[68] Ibid, Vol. 34, pg. 42.

[69] Ibid, Vol. 32, pg. 444.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid, Vol. 32, pg. 330.

[72] Thompson, The Private Lives of George Washington Slaves.

[73] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 33, pp. 11-12.

[74] Ibid, Vol. 34, pg. 212

[75] Fitzpatrick. Refer to the following pages of Volume 32; 66, 227, 277, 279, 293, 297, 307, 330, 331, 348, 358, 366, 424, 442, 463, 481, and 483.

[76] Ibid, pg. 48.

[77] Thompson.

[78] Fitzpatrick, Vol, 32, pg. 261.

[79] Ibid, Vol. 34, pg. 128.

[80] Ibid, pg. 358.

[81] Ibid., pg. 364.

[82] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 32, pg. 307

[83] Henriques, pg. 150.

[84] Ibid, Vol 34, pg. 212.

[85] Prince Louis Philippe (1773-1850) was the future king of France (1830-1848). He was embroiled in the French Revolution at an early age having supported and distinguished himself in the Revolutionary Army, rising to Lt. General at the age of nineteen. Politics and suspicion eventually claimed the life of his father (though he supported the Revolution) and so too threatened Louis. He fled France in 1793 in exile, not returning until 1815. He spent several years traveling and avoiding capture by both French and English agents. From 1776 until 1800, he lived and traveled the United States. Except for a time in the Caribbean and Nova Scotia, most of that time was in the homes of prominent US statesmen and wealthy supporters from Nashville to Maine. He visited Mount Vernon in early April of 1797. He wrote extensively of his travels and recorded his stay at Mount Vernon.

[86] Philippe, Diary of My Travels, pg. 31-32.

[87] Ford, True Washington, pg. 108.

[88] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 32, pg. 465.

[89] Hirschfeld, pg. 32

[90] Twohig.

[91] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 32, pg. 184

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid, pg. 197.

[94] Ibid, Vol. 34, pg. 193.

[95] Twohig, pg. 40.

[96] Ford, True Washington, pg. 149.

[97] David Humphreys (1752-1818) was a Revolutionary War soldier, farmer, statesman, industrialist, entrepreneur, innovator, author (writing a biography of Putnam), and poet. He was on the staff of Generals Israel Putnam and George Washington, becoming a close friend of Washington. During the presidency of Washington, Humphrey was assigned minister to Spain from 1796 – 1801 where he met his wealthy wife Anne Bulkeley. When he returned to America, he settled in Boston and bought a large farm in Darby, Conn.(where he introduce merino sheep) and started a factory in Seymour, Conn. that manufactured iron tools. Having witnessed poor working conditions in factories in England, he introduced much better conditions in America resulting in states factory inspections.   At the conclusion of the war, Humphrey returned with to Mount Vernon with Washington after his commander had resigned his commission. The poem quoted here was no doubt penned upon viewing the Mount Vernon slaves welcoming their master. Later in life, in 1801, he wrote an anti-slavery poem entitled A Poem on the Industry of the United States of America.

[98] Ford, True Washington, pg. 140.

[99] Thompson.

[100] Ford, True Washington, pp. 143-144.

[101] Thompson.

[102] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 34, pg. 128

[103] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 32, pg. 474.

[104] Ford, True Washington, pg. 149.

[105] Ibid, pg. 142.

[106] Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz,  (born February 6, 1757 or 1758, Skoki, Poland—diedMay 21, 1841, ParisFrance), Polish playwright, poet, novelist, and translator whose writings, inspired by patriotism and concern for social and governmental reform, reflect the turbulent political events of his day. In 1797 he traveled to America with Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Engineer who aided the Americans during the Revolutionary War) and visited with the major statesmen of the time including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He married and remained in the United States until 1807, returning to Poland. He wrote of his travels in America entitled Podroze po Ameryce 1797-1807.

[107] Budka, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz: Man of The Enlightenment, pg. 267. Budka, Under the Vine & Fig Tree, pp. 100-101.

[108] Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret.

[109] Philippe, Diary of My Travels, pg. 31-32.

[110] Wiencek, pg. 349.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Lord Dunmore, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (1730-1809). Scottish peer and colonial governor of New York (1770) and later Virginia (1771-1775). At the start of the Revolutionary War, he sought to establish British authority over Virginia. After much conflict with the Virginia Legislature and local militias, he issued a document proclaiming martial law entitled Dunmore Proclamation. The Proclamation, besides claiming martial law, enflamed southern contempt for it granted freedom to all slaves of patriots who offered their services to England and agreed to bear arms against the rebel forces. After the Battle of Great Bridge and the burning of Norfolk, he and his small fleet of merchants and loyalists fled to New York City the summer of 1776 which by then was in British hands. He personally rose the flag over Fort George after the Americans abandoned the city. He later returned to Britain and assigned Govenor of the Bahama Islands from 1787-1796.

[113] The 1st Rhode Island Regiment, the first regiment that actively recruited a large number of African Americans, both free and slaves .

[114] Twohig.

[115] American Archives Vol. 4, pg. 465.

[116] Moore, Historical Notes, pg. 5.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 4, pg. 194., American Archives, Vol. 4 pg. 471.

[119] American Archives, Vol. 4, pg. 485.

[120] Ibid, pg. 1642.

[121] Ibid, pg. 1644.

[122] Ibid, pg. 849.

[123] Ibid, pg. 1505.

[124] Ford, Vol. 7, pg. 371.

[125] Hartgrove, pg. 125, Fitzpatrick, Vol. 24, pg. 471, Sparks, Vol. 8, pp. 322-323.

[126] Hartgrove, pg. 119.

[127] Selig, The Revolutionary’s Black Soldiers.

[128] Fitzpatrick, Vol. 24, pg. 467.

[129] History.com

[130] The first one occurred in 1712 in New York City. Twenty five slaves armed themselves with guns and clubs. They killed the first nine whites who attacked them. They were all either killed or captured. Later 18 were tortured and executed in the most horrific manner. The second, Cato Conspiracy, South Carolina in 1739. Eighty slaves took up arms and attempted to march to Spanish Florida where they expected to find refuge. Forty four blacks and twenty five whites were killed in the ensuing battle.

[131] Accusations alone pertaining to a series of fires, supposedly set by a group of conspiring African Americans. A white servant claimed to have knowledge of this conspiracy. Those she named implicated others to avoid execution. A frenzied panic struck the city and when it was over, thirty one slaves including four whites were hanged or burned alive.

[132] The Servile Wars were a series of three slave revolts. Servile is derived from servus, Latin for slave. The First Servile War occurred from 135 BC to 132 BC in Sicily, led by Eunus, a former slave claiming to be a prophet, and Cleon from Cilicia. The Second War, 104 BC – 100 BC happened in Sicily and was led by Athenion and Tryphon. The Third Servile War was from 73 BC to 71 BC in mainland Italy, led by escaped gladiator Spartacus.

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