George Washington and slavery

George Washington and slavery

Examination of the history of George Washington and slavery reveals that he was a typical Virginia slave owner for most of his life. After the Revolutionary War, Washington sought a way to free his slaves, ultimately emancipating them upon his death.

Early life

At the age of ten, he inherited ten slaves; by the time of his death there were 316 slaves at Mount Vernon, including 123 owned by Washington, 40 leased from a neighbor, and an additional 153 "dower slaves" which were controlled by Washington but were the property of his wife Martha's first husband's estate. As on other plantations during that era, his slaves worked from dawn until dusk unless injured or ill and they were whipped for running away or for other infractions. They were fed, clothed, and housed as inexpensively as possible, in conditions that were probably quite meager. Visitors recorded contradictory impressions of slave life at Mount Vernon: one visitor in 1798 wrote that Washington treated his slaves "with more severity" than his neighbors, while another around the same time stated that "Washington treat [ed] his slaves far more humanely than d [id] his fellow citizens of Virginia." [Number of slaves: Henry Wiencek, "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America", p. 46; Ellis, pp. 262–63. Quotes from visitors to Mount Vernon: Ferling, p. 476.]

Revolutionary period

Before the American Revolution, Washington expressed no moral reservations about slavery, but by 1778 he had stopped selling slaves without their consent because he did not want to break up slave families. Historian Henry Wiencek speculates that Washington's slave buying, particularly his participation in a raffle of 55 slaves in 1769, may have initiated his gradual reassessment of slavery. His thoughts on slavery may have also been influenced by the rhetoric of the American Revolution, by the thousands of blacks who sought to enlist in the army, by the anti-slavery sentiments of his idealistic aide John Laurens, and by the enslaved black poet Phillis Wheatley, who in 1775 wrote a poem in his honor. In 1778, while Washington was at war, he wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon that he wished to sell his slaves and "to get quit of negroes", since maintaining a large (and increasingly elderly) slave population was no longer economically efficient. Washington could not legally sell the "dower slaves", however, and because these slaves had long intermarried with his own slaves, he could not sell his slaves without breaking up families, something which he had resolved not to do. Confronted with this dilemma, his plan to divest himself of slaves was dropped. [Slave raffle linked to Washington's reassessment of slavery: Wiencek, pp. 135–36, 178–88. Washington's decision to stop selling slaves: Fritz Hirschfeld, "George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal", p. 16. Influence of war and Wheatley: Wiencek, ch 6. Dilemma of selling slaves: Wiencek, p. 230; Ellis, pp. 164–7; Hirschfeld, pp. 27–29.]

Following the war

After the war, Washington often privately expressed a dislike of the institution of slavery. In 1786, he wrote to a friend that "I never mean ... to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees." To another friend he wrote that "there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery. He expressed moral support for plans by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette to emancipate slaves and resettle them elsewhere, but he did not assist him in the effort. [Quotes and Lafayette plans: Dorothy Twohig, "'That Species of Property': Washington's Role in the Controversy over Slavery" in "George Washington Reconsidered", pp. 121–22.]

During the years when Washington was alive, the laws of Virginia did not permit any slave owner to emancipate a slave without imposing a great financial burden to himself. Thus, the only remaining means to dispose of one's slaves was to sell them, and had Washington not been opposed to this practice, he gladly would have used that means to end his ownership of all slaves. As he explained "Were it not that I am principled against selling Negroes... I would not in twelve months from this date be possessed of one as a slave."

The personal circumstances faced by Washington prove that his convictions were indeed genuine and not merely rhetorical. The excess number of slaves which he held was economically unprofitable for Mount Vernon and caused a great financial burden on him. Washington wrote "It is demonstratively clear that on this Estate (Mount Vernon) I have more working Negroes by a full [half] than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system." Washington could have sold his "surplus" slaves and immediately have realized a substantial income. As prize-winning historian James Truslow Adams correctly observed, "One good field hand was worth as much as a small city lot. By selling a single slave, Washington could have paid for two years all the taxes he so complained about." Washington himself acknowledged the profit he could make by reducing the number of his slaves, declaring " [H] alf the workers I keep on this estate would render me greater net profit than I now derive from the whole."

Despite the financial benefits he could have reaped, Washington adamantly refused to sell any slaves, saying "To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse [break up] the families I have an aversion."

This stand by Washington was remarkable for his day. Refusing to sell slaves and also refusing to break up their families differentiates Washington from the culture around him during that early era and particularly from his State legislature. Virginia law, contrary to Washington's personal policy, recognized neither slave marriages nor slave families. Not only did Washington refuse to sell slaves or to break up their families, but he also felt a responsibility to take care of the slaves he held until there was, according to his own words, a "plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished."

Not only did George Washington commit himself to caring for his slaves and to seeking a legal remedy by which they might be freed in his State, but he also took the leadership in doing so on the national level. The first federal racial civil rights law in America was passed on August 7, 1789 with the endorsing signature of President George Washington. That law, entitled "An Ordinance of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio," prohibited slavery in any new State interested in seeking to enter the Union. Consequently, slavery was thus prohibited in all the American territories held at the time; and it was because of this law, signed by President George Washington, that Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all prohibited slavery.

Despite the slow but steady progress made in many parts of the nation, especially in the North, the laws in Virginia were designed to discourage and prevent the emancipation of slaves. The loophole which finally allowed Washington to circumvent Virginia law was by emancipating his slaves on his death, which he did. Unfortunately, by the time of Thomas Jefferson's death, this loophole had been closed by the Virginia State Legislature, thus preventing Jefferson from doing the same. [cite web
title=George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, & Slavery in Virginia
author=David Barton

Posthumous emancipation

Washington was the only prominent, slaveholding Founding Father to emancipate his slaves. He did not free his slaves in his lifetime, however, but instead included a provision in his will to free his slaves upon the death of his wife. William Lee, Washington's longtime personal servant, was the only slave freed outright in the will. The will called for the ex-slaves to be provided for by Washington's heirs, the elderly ones to be clothed and fed, the younger ones to be educated and trained at an occupation. Washington did not own and could not emancipate the "dower slaves" at Mount Vernon.

Washington's failure to act publicly upon his growing private misgivings about slavery during his lifetime is seen by some historians as a tragically missed opportunity. One major reason Washington did not emancipate his slaves earlier was because of the financial costs involved. To circumvent this problem, in 1794 he quietly sought to sell off his western lands and lease his outlying farms in order to finance the emancipation of his slaves, but this plan fell through because enough buyers and renters could not be found. "He did not speak out publicly against slavery", argues historian Dorothy Twohig, "because he did not wish to risk splitting apart the young republic over what was already a sensitive and divisive issue." [ Twohig, "That Species of Property", pp. 127–28.]

George Washington's slaves

*Henry WashingtonAfrican American slave who became Black Loyalist
*Davy Jones
*Oney Judge – escaped slave who avoided recapture multiple times


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