The relationship between George Washington and slavery was complex, contradictory and evolved over time. It operated on two levels: his personal position as a slaveowning Virginia planter and later farmer; and his public positions first as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and later as President of the United States. He owned slaves almost his entire life, having inherited the first ten slaves at the age of eleven on the death of his father in 1743. In adulthood his personal slaveholding increased through inheritance, purchase and natural increase, and he gained control of dower slaves belonging to the Custis estate on his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis. He put his slaves to work on his Mount Vernon estate, which in time grew to some 8,000 acres (3,200 ha) encompassing five separate farms, initially planting tobacco but diversifying into grain crops in the mid 1760s. Washington's early attitudes to slavery reflected the prevailing Virginia planter views of the day; he demonstrated no moral qualms about the institution and referred to his slaves as "a Species of Property." He became skeptical about the economic efficacy of slavery before the American Revolution, and grew increasingly disillusioned with the institution after it. Washington remained dependent on slave labor, and by the time of his death in 1799 he owned 124 slaves, whom he freed in his will, and controlled another 193, most of whom remained enslaved.
Washington expected his slaves to work diligently from dawn to dusk, six days per week, and be kept busy year round. By 1799, nearly three-quarters of them labored in the fields, while most of the remainder worked at the main residence as domestic servants and artisans. They were accommodated in poorly constructed cabins at the outlying farms, and in cabins or communal quarters at the main residence. Field slaves were provided with a set of clothes each year which, due to the nature of their work, were quickly worn out. Domestic slaves who attended the Washingtons and came into regular contact with visitors were better clothed. Slaves were provided with a basic food ration, which they supplemented by hunting, trapping and growing their own vegetables in their free time. They had some sources of income, largely through the sale of game and produce, which they spent on extra rations, clothing and housewares. They built their own community around marriage and family, though because Washington allocated slaves to farms according to the demands of the business without regard for their relationships, many husbands lived separately from their wives and children. Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage and discipline his slaves, but was constantly disappointed when they failed to meet his exacting standards. They resisted by various means, including theft to supplement food and clothing and as another source of income, feigning illness and running away.
Washington's first doubts about slavery surfaced in the 1760s, when the transition from tobacco to grain crops left him with a surfeit of slaves, prompting him to question the economic viability of slavery. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, he initially refused to accept blacks, free or slave, into the ranks, but reversed this position due to the exigencies of war. The first indication of moral doubt appears during efforts to sell some of his slaves in 1778, when Washington expressed his distaste for selling them at a public venue and his desire that slave families not be split up as a result of the sale. His public words and deeds at the end of the American Revolutionary War betrayed no antislavery sentiments, but after the war, Washington expressed support in private for abolition by a gradual legislative process. Politically, Washington was concerned that such a divisive issue as slavery should not threaten national unity, and he never spoke publicly about the institution as President. Privately, Washington considered plans in the mid 1790s to free all the slaves he controlled, but they could not be realized because of his failure to secure his own financial security and the refusal of his family to cooperate. His will provided for the emancipation of his own slaves, but because many of them were married to Martha's dower slaves, whom he could not legally free, Washington stipulated that his slaves be freed on the death of Martha. She freed them in 1801, a year before her own death, but the dower slaves were passed to her grandchildren and remained in bondage.
Slavery was introduced into the British colony of Virginia when the first Africans were transported to Jamestown in 1619. Those who accepted Christianity became "Christian servants" with time-limited servitude, or even freed, but this mechanism for ending bondage was gradually shut down. In 1667, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that barred baptism as a means of conferring freedom. Africans who had been baptised before arriving in Virginia could be granted the status of indentured servant until 1682, when another law declared them to be slaves. Whites and blacks in the lowest stratum of Virginian society shared common disadvantages and a common lifestyle, which included intermarriage until the Assembly made such unions punishable by banishment in 1691.
In 1671, Virginia counted 6,000 white indentured servants among its 40,000 population but only 2,000 blacks, up to a third of whom in some counties were free. Towards the end of the 17th century, British policy shifted in favor of retaining cheap labor rather than shipping it to the colonies, and the supply of indentured servants in Virginia began to dry up; by 1715, annual immigration was in the hundreds, compared with 1,500–2,000 in the 1680s. As tobacco planters put more land under cultivation, they made up the shortfall in labor with increasing numbers of slaves. The institution was rooted in race with the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, and from around 1710 the growth in the slave population was fueled by natural increase. Between 1700 and 1750 the number of slaves in the colony increased from 13,000 to 105,000, nearly eighty percent of them born in Virginia. In Washington's lifetime, slavery was deeply ingrained in the economic and social fabric of Virginia, where some forty percent of the population and virtually all African Americans were enslaved.
George Washington was born February 22, 1732, the first child of his father Augustine's second marriage. Augustine was a tobacco planter with some 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) of land and 50 slaves. On his death in 1743, he left his 2,500-acre (1,000 ha) Little Hunting Creek to George's older half-brother Lawrence, who renamed it Mount Vernon. Washington inherited the 260-acre (110 ha) Ferry Farm and ten slaves. He leased Mount Vernon two years after Lawrence's death in 1752 and inherited it in 1761. He was an aggressive land speculator, and by 1774 he had amassed some 32,000 acres (13,000 ha) of land in the Ohio Country on Virginia's western frontier. At his death he possessed over 80,000 acres (32,000 ha). In 1757, he began a program of expansion at Mount Vernon that would ultimately result in an 8,000-acre (3,200 ha) estate with five separate farms, on which he initially grew tobacco.[a]
Agricultural land required labor to be productive, and in the 18th-century American south that meant slave labor. Washington inherited slaves from Lawrence, acquired more as part of the terms of leasing Mount Vernon and inherited slaves again on the death of Lawrence's widow in 1761. On his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, Washington gained control of eighty-four dower slaves which, although he had no legal title to them – they belonged to the Custis estate and were held in trust by Martha for the Custis heirs – he managed as his own property. Between 1752 and 1773, he purchased at least seventy-one slaves – men, women and children. He scaled back significantly his purchasing of slaves after the American Revolution but continued to acquire them, mostly through natural increase and occasionally in settlement of debts. In 1786, he controlled 216 slaves, making him one of the largest slaveholders in the area. Of that total, 103 belonged to Washington, the remainder being dower slaves, and 122 were productive men and women. Six were listed as dead or incapacitated, and the remaining eighty-eight were children. By the time of Washington's death in 1799 his slave population had increased to 317 people, including 143 children. Of that total, he owned 124, leased 40 and controlled 153 dower slaves.
Although Washington employed a farm manager to run the estate and an overseer at each of the farms, he was a hands-on manager who ran his business with a military discipline and involved himself in the minutiae of everyday work. During extended absences while on official business, he maintained close control through weekly reports from the farm manager and overseers. He demanded from all of his workers the same meticulous eye for detail that he exercised himself; a former slave would later recall that the "slaves...did not quite like [Washington]", primarily because "he was so exact and so strict...if a rail, a clapboard, or a stone was permitted to remain out of its place, he complained; sometimes in language of severity." For Washington, "lost labour [sic] is never to be regained," and he required "every labourer (male or female) [do] as much in the 24 hours as their strength without endangering the health, or constitution will allow of." He had a strong work ethic and expected the same from his workers, slave and hired. He was constantly disappointed with slaves who did not share his motivation and resisted his demands, leading him to regard them as indolent and insist that his overseers supervise them closely at all times.
In 1799, nearly three-quarters of the slaves, over half of that quantity female, worked in the fields. They were kept busy year round, their tasks varying with the season. The remainder worked as domestic servants in the main residence or as artisans, such as carpenters, joiners, coopers, spinners and seamstresses. Between 1766 and 1799, seven dower slaves worked at one time or another as overseers. Slaves were expected to work from sunrise to sunset, six days per week. With two hours off for meals, their workdays would range between seven and a half hours to thirteen hours, depending on season. They were given three or four days off at Christmas and a day each at Easter and Whitsunday. Domestic slaves started early, worked into the evenings and did not necessarily have Sundays and holidays free. On special occasions when slaves were required to put in extra effort, such as working through a holiday or bringing in the harvest, they were paid or compensated with extra time off.
There were elements of patriarchy and paternalism in Washington's attitudes to his workforce; he thought of his workers as part of an extended family in which he occupied the position of a father figure, with mutual obligations between master and servant. He instructed his overseers to treat slaves "with humanity and tenderness" when sick. Slaves who were less able, through injury, disability or age, were given light duties, while those too sick to work were generally, though not always, excused work while they recovered. Washington provided them with good, sometimes costly medical care – when a slave named Cupid fell ill with pleurisy, Washington had him taken to the main house where he could be better cared for and personally checked on him throughout the day. The humanitarian concern for the welfare of his slaves was mixed with an economic consideration for the lost productivity arising from sickness and death among the labor force. Although Washington insisted on an emotional distance between master and slave, there are examples of genuine affection, such as was the case with his valet William Lee, and evidence that slaves were able to approach him with their concerns and grievances.
At the main residence, most slaves were housed in a two-story frame building known as the "Quarters for Families". This was replaced in 1792 by brick-built accommodation wings either side of the greenhouse comprising four rooms in total, each of some 600 square feet (56 m2). The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association have concluded these rooms were communal areas furnished with bunks that allowed little privacy for the predominantly male occupants. Other slaves at the main residence lived over the outbuildings where they worked or in log cabins. Such cabins were the standard slave accommodation at the outlying farms, providing a single room that ranged in size from 168 square feet (15.6 m2) to 246 square feet (22.9 m2) to house a family. The cabins were poorly constructed, daubed with mud for draft- and water-proofing, with dirt floors. Some cabins were built as duplexes; some single-unit cabins were small enough to be moved with carts. There are few sources which shed light on living conditions in these cabins, but one visitor in 1798 wrote, "husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot." Other sources suggest the interiors were smokey, dirty and dark, with only a shuttered opening for a window and the fireplace for illumination at night.
Washington provided slaves with a blanket each fall at most, which they used for their own bedding and which they were required to use to gather leaves for livestock bedding. Slaves at the outlying farms were issued with a basic set of clothing each year in which they slept and worked, leaving them to spend many months in garments that were worn, ripped and tattered. Domestic slaves at the main residence who came into regular contact with visitors were better clothed; butlers, waiters and body servants were dressed in a livery based on the three-piece suit of an 18th-century gentleman, and maids were provided with finer quality clothing than their counterparts in the fields.
Washington desired his slaves to be fed adequately but no more. Each slave was provided with a basic daily food ration of one US quart (0.95 l) or more of cornmeal, up to eight ounces (230 g) of herring and occasionally some meat, a diet that was adequate in terms of the calorie requirement for a young man engaged in moderately heavy agricultural labor but nutritionally deficient. The basic ration was supplemented by slaves' own efforts hunting and trapping game. They grew their own vegetables in small garden plots they were permitted to maintain in their own time, on which they also reared poultry.
Washington often tipped slaves on his visits to other estates, and it is likely that his own slaves were similarly rewarded by visitors to Mount Vernon. Slaves occasionally earned money through their normal work or for particular services rendered – for example, Washington rewarded three of his own slaves with cash for good service in 1775, a slave received a fee for the care of a mare that was being bred in 1798 and the chef Hercules profited well by selling slops from the presidential kitchen. Slaves also earned money from their own endeavors, by selling to Washington or at the market in Alexandria food they had caught or grown and small items they had made. They used the proceeds to purchase from Washington or the shops in Alexandria better clothing, housewares and extra provisions such as flour, pork, whiskey, tea, coffee and sugar.
Although the law did not recognize slave marriages, Washington did, and by 1799 some two-thirds of the adult slaves at Mount Vernon were married. To minimize time lost in getting to the workplace and thus increase productivity, slaves were accommodated at the farm on which they worked. Because of the unequal distribution of males and females across the five farms, slaves often found partners on different farms, and in their day to day lives husbands were routinely separated from their wives and children. Only thirty-six of the ninety-six married slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799 lived together, while thirty-eight had spouses who lived on separate farms and twenty-two had spouses who lived on other plantations. The evidence suggests couples that were separated did not regularly visit during the week, and doing so prompted complaints from Washington that slaves were too exhausted to work after such "night walking", leaving Saturday nights/Sundays and holidays as the main time such families could spend together. Despite the stress and anxiety caused by this indifference to family stability – on one occasion an overseer wrote that the separation of families "seems like death to them" – marriage was the foundation on which slaves established their own community, and longevity in these unions was not uncommon.
Large families that covered multiple generations, along with their attendant marriages, was part of a slave community-building process that transcended ownership. Washington's head carpenter Isaac, for example, lived with his wife Kitty, a dower-slave milkmaid, at Mansion House Farm. The couple had nine daughters ranging in age from six to twenty-seven in 1799, and the marriages of four of those daughters had extended the family to other farms within and outside the Mount Vernon estate and produced three grandchildren. Children were born into slavery, their ownership determined by the ownership of their mothers. The value attached to the birth of a slave child, if it was noted at all, is indicated in the weekly report of one overseer, which stated, "Increase 9 Lambs & 1 male child of Lynnas." New mothers received a new blanket and three to five weeks of light duties to recover. An infant remained with its mother at her place of work. Older children, the majority of whom lived in single-parent households in which the mother worked from dawn to dusk, performed small family chores but were otherwise left to play largely unsupervised until they reached an age when they could begin to be put to work for Washington, usually somewhere between eleven and fourteen years old. In 1799, nearly sixty percent of the slave population was under nineteen years old and nearly thirty-five percent under nine.
There is evidence that slaves passed on their African cultural values through telling stories, among them Joel Chandler Harris's tales of Br'er Rabbit which, with their origins in Africa and stories of a powerless individual triumphing through wit and intelligence over powerful authority, would have resonated with the slaves. African-born slaves brought with them some of the religious rituals of their ancestral home, and there is an undocumented tradition of voodoo being practiced at one of the Mount Vernon farms. Although the slave condition made it impossible to adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam, some slave names betray a Muslim cultural origin. Anglicans reached out to American-born slaves in Virginia, and some of the Mount Vernon slaves are known to have been christened before Washington acquired the estate. There is evidence in the historical record from 1797 that Mount Vernon slaves had contacts with Baptists, Methodists and Quakers. The three religions advocated abolition, raising hopes of freedom among the slaves, and the congregation of the Alexandria Baptist Church, founded in 1803, included slaves formerly owned by Washington.
In 1799 there were some twenty mulatto (mixed race) slaves at Mount Vernon. The probability of paternal relationships between slaves and hired white workers is indicated by some surnames: Betty and Tom Davis, probably the children of Thomas Davis, a white weaver at Mount Vernon in the 1760s; George Young, likely the son of a man of the same name who was a clerk at Mount Vernon in 1774; and Oney Judge and her sister Delphy, the daughters of Andrew Judge, an indentured tailor at Mount Vernon in the 1770s and 1780s. There is evidence to suggest that white overseers – working in close proximity to slaves under the same demanding master and physically and socially isolated from their own peer group, a situation that drove some to drink – indulged in carnal relations with their charges. Some white visitors to Mount Vernon seemed to have expected slave women to provide sexual favors. The living arrangements left some slave females alone and vulnerable, and the Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson writes that relationships "could have been the result of mutual attraction and affection, very real demonstrations of power and control, or even exercises in the manipulation of an authority figure."[b]
The frequent comments Washington made about "rogueries" and "old tricks" betray the level of resistance among the slaves against the system. The most common act of resistance was theft, so common that Washington made allowances for it as part of normal wastage. Food was stolen both to supplement rations and to sell, and Washington believed the selling of tools was another source of income for slaves. Because cloth and clothing were commonly stolen, Washington required seamstresses to show the results of their work and the leftover scraps before issuing them with more material. Sheep were washed before sheering to prevent the theft of wool, and storage areas were kept locked and keys left with trusted individuals. In 1792, Washington ordered the culling of slaves' dogs he believed were being used in a spate of livestock theft and ruled that slaves who nevertheless kept dogs without authorization were to be "severely punished" and their dogs hanged.
Another means by which slaves resisted, one that was virtually impossible to prove, was feigning illness. Over the years Washington became increasingly skeptical about absenteeism due to sickness among his slaves and concerned about the diligence or ability of his overseers in recognizing genuine cases. Between 1792 and 1794, while Washington was away from Mount Vernon as President, the number of days lost to sickness increased tenfold compared to 1786, when he was resident at Mount Vernon and able to control the situation personally. In one case, Washington suspected a slave of frequently avoiding work over a period of decades through acts of deliberate self harm.
Slaves asserted some independence and frustrated Washington by the pace and quality of their work. In 1760, Washington noted that four of his carpenters quadrupled their output of timber under his personal supervision. Thirty-five years later, he described his carpenters as an "idle...set of rascals" who would take a month or more to complete at Mount Vernon work that was being done in two or three days in Philadelphia. The output of seamstresses dropped off when Martha was away, and spinners found they could slacken by playing the overseers off against Martha. Tools were regularly lost or damaged, thus stopping work, and Washington despaired of employing innovations that might improve efficiency because he believed the slaves were too clumsy to operate the new machinery involved.
The most emphatic act of resistance was to run away, and between 1760 and 1799 at least forty-seven slaves under Washington's control did so. Seventeen of these, fourteen men and three women, escaped to a British warship that anchored in the Potomac near Mount Vernon in 1781. In general, the best chance of success lay with second- or third-generation African-American slaves who had good English, possessed skills that would allow them to support themselves as free people and were in close enough contact with their masters to receive special privileges. Thus it was that Judge, an especially talented seamstress, and Hercules escaped in 1796 and 1797 respectively and eluded recapture. Washington took seriously the recapture of fugitives, and in three cases an escaped slave was sold off in the West Indies after recapture, effectively a death sentence in the severe conditions slaves had to endure there.
George Washington's Mount Vernon
Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage discipline and productivity in his slaves. In one case he suggested "admonition and advice" would be more effective than "further correction", and he occasionally appealed to a slave's sense of pride to encourage better performance. Rewards in the form of better blankets and clothing fabric were given to the "most deserving", and there are examples of cash payments being awarded for good behavior. He opposed the use of the lash in principle, but saw the practice as a necessary evil and sanctioned its occasional use, generally as a last resort, on both male and female slaves if they did not "do their duty by fair means." There are accounts of carpenters being whipped in 1758 when the overseer "could see a fault", of a slave called Jemmy being whipped for stealing corn and escaping in 1773 and of a seamstress called Charlotte being whipped in 1793 by an overseer "determined to lower Spirit or skin her Back" for impudence and refusing to work.
Washington regarded the "passion" with which one of his overseers administered floggings to be counter-productive, and Charlotte's protest that she had not been whipped in fourteen years indicates the frequency with which physical punishment was used. Whippings were administered by overseers after review, a system Washington required to ensure slaves were spared capricious and extreme punishment. Washington did not himself flog slaves, but he did on occasion lash out in a flash of temper when they failed to perform as he expected.[c] Contemporaries generally described Washington as having a calm demeanor, but there are several reports from those who knew him privately that talk of his temper. One wrote that "in private and particularly with his servants, its violence sometimes broke out." Another reported that Washington's servants "seemed to watch his eye and to anticipate his every wish; hence a look was equivalent to a command." Threats of demotion to fieldwork, corporal punishment and being shipped to the West Indies were part of the system by which he controlled his slaves.
Washington's early views on slavery were no different from any Virginia planter of the time. He demonstrated no moral qualms about the institution and referred to his slaves as "a Species of Property." The economics of slavery prompted the first doubts in Washington about the institution, marking the beginning of a slow evolution in his attitude towards it. By 1766, he had transitioned his business from the labor-intensive planting of tobacco to the less demanding farming of grain crops. His slaves were employed on a greater variety of tasks that needed more skills than tobacco planting required of them; as well as the cultivation of grains and vegetables, they were employed in cattle herding, spinning, weaving and carpentry. The transition left Washington with a surfeit of slaves and revealed to him the inefficiencies of the slave labor system.
There is little evidence that Washington seriously questioned the ethics of slavery before the Revolution. In the 1760s he often participated in tavern lotteries, events in which defaulters' debts were settled by raffling off their assets to a high-spirited crowd. In 1769, Washington co-managed one such lottery in which fifty-five slaves were sold, among them six families and five females with children. The more valuable married males were raffled together with their wives and children; less valuable slaves were separated from their families into different lots. Robin and Bella, for example, were raffled together as husband and wife while their children, twelve-year-old Sukey and seven-year-old Betty, were listed in a separate lot. Only chance dictated whether the family would remain together, and with 1,840 tickets on sale the odds were not good.
The historian Henry Wiencek concludes that the repugnance Washington felt at this cruelty in which he had participated prompted his decision not to break up slave families by sale or purchase, and marks the beginning of a transformation in Washington's thinking about the morality of slavery. Wiencek writes that in 1775 Washington took more slaves than he needed rather than break up the family of a slave he had agreed to accept in payment of a debt. The historians Philip D. Morgan and Peter Henriques[d] are skeptical of Wiencek's conclusion and believe there is no evidence of any change in Washington's moral thinking at this stage. Morgan writes that in 1772, Washington was "all business" and "might have been buying livestock" in purchasing more slaves who were to be, in Washington's words, "strait Limb'd, & in every respect strong & likely, with good Teeth & good Countenance." Morgan gives a different account of the 1775 purchase, writing that Washington resold the slave because of the slave's resistance to being separated from family and that the decision to do so was "no more than the conventional piety of large Virginia planters who usually said they did not want to break up slave families – and often did it anyway."
During the crisis leading up to the Revolution, Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses when it raised a petition in 1772 condemning the transatlantic slave trade on moral grounds, and a key participant in agreeing the 1774 Fairfax Resolves that did the same. The first indication that such sentiment had found its way into Washington's own slave dealings as a farmer appears in correspondence of 1778 and 1779 with Lund Washington, who managed Mount Vernon in Washington's absence. In the exchange of letters, a conflicted Washington expressed a desire "to get quit of Negroes", but made clear his reluctance to sell them at a public venue and his wish that "husband and wife, and Parents and children are not separated from each other."
Washington's determination not to separate families became a major complication in his deliberations on the sale, purchase and, in due course, emancipation of his own slaves. His restrictions put Lund in a difficult position with two female slaves he had already all but sold in 1778, and Lund's irritation was evident in his request to Washington for clear instructions. Despite Washington's reluctance to break up families, there is little evidence that moral considerations played any part in his thinking at this stage. He sought to liberate himself from an economically unviable system, not to liberate his slaves. They were still a property from which he expected to profit. During a period of severe wartime depreciation, the question was not whether to sell his slaves, but when, where and how best to sell them. Lund sold nine slaves, including the two females, in January 1779.
When Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, he initially refused to accept any blacks, free or slave, into the ranks. He reversed his position on the recruitment of free blacks when the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation in November 1775 offering freedom to rebel-owned slaves who enlisted in the British forces. Three years later and facing acute manpower shortages, Washington approved a Rhode Island initiative to raise a battalion of African Americans.
Washington gave a cautious response to a 1779 proposal from his young aide John Laurens for the recruitment of 3,000 South Carolinian slaves who would be rewarded with emancipation. He was concerned that such a move would prompt the British to do the same, leading to an arms race in which the Americans would be at a disadvantage, and that it would promote discontent among those who remained enslaved.[e] During the war, some 5,000 blacks served in a Continental Army that was more integrated than any American force before the Vietnam War, and another 1,000 served on American warships. They represented less than three percent of all American forces mobilized, though in 1778 they provided between six and thirteen percent of the Continental Army.
Washington's actions at the war's end reveal little in the way of antislavery inclinations. He was anxious to recover his own slaves and refused to consider compensation for the upwards of 80,000 slaves evacuated by the British, insisting without success that the British return them to their owners. Before resigning his commission in 1783, Washington took the opportunity to give his opinion on the opportunities and challenges that faced the new nation in his Circular to the States, in which he made not one mention of slavery.
Emancipation became a major issue in Virginia after liberalization of the manumission law in 1782. Inspired by the rhetoric that had driven the revolution, it became popular to free slaves. The free black population in Virginia rose from some 3,000 to more than 20,000 between 1780 and 1800, when the proslavery interest re-asserted itself. The historian Kenneth Morgan writes, "..the revolutionary war was the crucial turning-point in [Washington's] thinking about slavery. After 1783...he began to express inner tensions about the problem of slavery more frequently, though always in private..." Although Philip Morgan identifies a number of turning points and believes no single one was pivotal,[f] most historians agree the Revolution was central to the evolution of Washington's attitudes on slavery. It is likely that revolutionary rhetoric about the rights of men,[g] the close contact with young antislavery officers who served with Washington – such as Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton – and the influence of northern colleagues were contributory factors in that process.[h]
Washington was drawn into the postwar abolitionist discourse through his contacts with antislavery friends, their transatlantic network of leading abolitionists and the literature produced by the antislavery movement, though he was reluctant to volunteer his own opinion on the matter and generally did so only when the subject was first raised with him. At his death, Washington's extensive library included at least seventeen publications on slavery. Six of them were collated into an expensively bound volume titled Tracts on Slavery, indicating that he attached some importance to that selection. Five of the six were published in or after 1788.[i] All six shared common themes that slaves first had to be educated about the obligations of liberty before they could be emancipated, a belief Washington is reported to have expressed himself in 1798, and that abolition should be realized by a gradual legislative process, an idea that began to appear in Washington's correspondence during the Confederation period.
Washington was not impressed by what Dorothy Twohig – a former editor-in-chief of The Washington Papers – described as the "imperious demands" and "evangelical piety" of Quaker efforts to advance abolition, and in 1786 he complained about their "tamper[ing] with & seduc[ing]" slaves who "are happy & content to remain with their present masters." Only the most radical of abolitionists called for immediate emancipation. The disruption to the labor market and the care of the elderly and infirm would have created enormous problems. Large numbers of unemployed poor, of whatever color, was a cause for concern in 18th-century America, to the extent that expulsion and foreign resettlement was often part of the discourse on emancipation. A sudden end to slavery would also have caused a significant financial loss to slaveowners whose human property represented a valuable asset. Gradual emancipation was seen as a way of mitigating against such a loss and reducing opposition from those with a financial self-interest in maintaining slavery.
In 1783, Lafayette proposed a joint venture to establish an experimental settlement for freed slaves which, with Washington's example, "might render it a general practise," but Washington demurred. As Lafayette forged ahead with his plan, Washington offered encouragement but expressed concern in 1786 about "much inconvenience and mischief" an abrupt emancipation might generate, and he gave no tangible support to the idea.[j] Washington privately expressed support for emancipation to prominent Methodists Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury in 1785, but declined to sign their petition. Although he spoke to other leading Virginians about his sentiments and promised to write in support if the petition was considered in the Virginia Assembly, nothing further came of it.
Philip Morgan identifies Washington's driving ambition for fame and public respect as a man of honor as an important influence on Washington's thinking; in December 1785, the Quaker and fellow Virginian Robert Pleasants "[hit] Washington where it hurt most", Morgan writes, when he told Washington that to remain a slaveholder would forever tarnish his reputation.[k] In correspondence the next year, Washington expressed his "great repugnance" at buying slaves, stated that he would not buy any more "unless some peculiar circumstances should compel me to it" and made clear his desire to see the institution of slavery ended by a gradual legislative process.
Washington did not let principle interfere with business; he still needed labor to work his farms, and there was little alternative to slavery. Hired labor south of Pennsylvania was scarce and expensive, and the Revolution had cut off the supply of indentured servants and convict labor from Great Britain. Washington significantly reduced his slave purchases after the war, though it is not clear whether this was a moral or practical decision; he repeatedly stated that his inventory and its potential progeny were adequate for his current and foreseeable needs. Nevertheless, he negotiated with John Mercer to accept six slaves in payment of a debt in 1786 and expressed to Henry Lee a desire to purchase a bricklayer the next.[l] In 1788, Washington acquired thirty-three slaves from the estate of Bartholomew Dandridge in settlement of a debt and left them with Dandridge's widow on her estate at Pamocra, New Kent County, Virginia. Later the same year, he declined a suggestion from the leading French abolitionist Jacques Brissot to form and become president of an abolitionist society in Virginia, stating that although he was in favor of such a society and would support it, the time was not yet right to confront the issue.
Statement attributed to George Washington that appears in the notebook of David Humphreys, c.1788/1789
Another complication for Washington's personal position on slavery was the political ramifications of emancipation. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, during which it became obvious just how explosive the issue was and how willing the antislavery faction was to sacrifice abolition on the altar of national unity under a strong federal government. The support of the southern states for the new constitution was secured by granting them concessions that protected slavery, including the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause, plus clauses that guaranteed the transatlantic slave trade for at least twenty years and federal aid for the suppression of any slave rebellion.
Washington's preeminent position ensured that any actions he took with regard to his own slaves would become a statement in a national debate about slavery that threatened to divide the country. Wiencek suggests Washington considered making precisely such a statement on taking up the presidency in 1789. A passage in the notebook of Washington's biographer David Humphreys[m] dated to late 1788 or early 1789 recorded a statement that presaged Washington's emancipation of his slaves in his will a decade later. Wiencek argues the passage was a draft for a public announcement Washington was considering in which he would declare the emancipation of some of his slaves. It marks, Wiencek believes, a moral epiphany in Washington's thinking, the moment he decided not only to emancipate his slaves but also to use the occasion to set the example Lafayette had urged in 1783. Other historians dispute Wiencek's conclusion; Henriques and Joseph Ellis concur with Philip Morgan's opinion that Washington experienced no epiphanies in a "long and hard-headed struggle" in which there was no single turning point. Morgan argues that Humphreys' passage is the "private expression of remorse" from a man unable to extricate himself from the "tangled web" of "mutual dependency" on slavery, and that Washington believed public comment on such a divisive subject was best avoided for the sake of national unity.[n]
Washington took up the presidency at a time when revolutionary sentiment against slavery was giving way to a resurgence of proslavery interests. No state considered making slavery an issue during the ratification of the new constitution, southern states reinforced their slavery legislation and prominent antislavery figures were muted about the issue in public. Washington understood there was little widespread organized support for abolition. He had a keen sense both of the fragility of the fledgling Republic and of his place as a unifying figure, and he was determined not to endanger either by confronting an issue as divisive and entrenched as slavery. He presided over an administration that passed a resolution in 1790 affirming states' rights to regulate treatment of slaves and legislate on slavery free of congressional interference, provided material and financial support in French efforts to suppress the Saint Domingue slave revolt in 1791 and implemented the proslavery Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Washington never spoke publicly on the issue of slavery during his eight years as president, nor did he respond to, much less act upon, any of the antislavery petitions he received. He described a 1790 Quaker petition to Congress urging an immediate end to the slave trade as "an illjudged piece of business" that "occasioned a great waste of time." The issue of slavery was not mentioned in either his last address to Congress or his Farewell Address.
Late in his presidency, Washington told his Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph, that in the event of a confrontation between the antislavery North and proslavery South, he had "made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern." In 1798, he imagined just such a conflict when he said, "I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union." But there is no indication Washington ever favored an immediate end to slavery. His abolitionist aspirations for the nation were confined to the hope that slavery would disappear naturally over time with the prohibition of slave imports in 1808, the earliest date such legislation could be passed as agreed at the Constitutional Convention.
In addition to political caution, economic imperatives remained an important consideration with regard to Washington's personal position as a slaveholder and his efforts to free himself from his dependency on slavery. He was one of the largest debtors in Virginia at the end of the war, and by 1787 the business at Mount Vernon had failed to make a profit for more than a decade. Persistently poor crop yields due to pestilence and poor weather, the cost of renovations at his Mount Vernon residence, the expense of entertaining a constant stream of visitors, the failure of Lund to collect rent from Washington's tenant farmers and wartime depreciation all helped to make Washington cash poor.
George Washington to Robert Lewis, August 17, 1799
The overheads of maintaining a surfeit of slaves, including the care of the young and elderly, made a substantial contribution to his financial difficulties. In 1786, the ratio of productive to non-productive slaves was approaching 1:1, and the c. 7,300-acre (3,000 ha) Mount Vernon estate was being operated with 122 working slaves. Although the productive/non-productive ratio had improved by 1799 to around 2:1, the estate had grown by only 10 percent to some 8,000-acre (3,200 ha) while the working slave population had grown by 65 percent to 201. It was a trend that threatened to bankrupt Washington. The slaves Washington had bought early in the development of his business were beyond their prime and nearly impossible to sell, and from 1782 Virginia law made slaveowners liable for the financial support of slaves they freed who were too young, too old or otherwise incapable of working.
During his second term, Washington began planning for a retirement that would provide him "tranquillity with a certain income." In December 1793, he sought the aid of the British agriculturalist Arthur Young in finding farmers to whom he would lease all but one of his farms, on which his slaves would then be employed as laborers. The next year, he instructed his secretary Tobias Lear to sell his western lands, ostensibly to consolidate his operations and put his financial affairs in order. Washington concluded his instructions with a private passage in which he expressed his repugnance at owning slaves and declared the principle reason for selling the land was to raise the finances that would allow him to liberate them. It is the first clear indication that Washington's thinking had shifted from selling his slaves to freeing them. In November the same year, Washington demonstrated in a letter to his friend and neighbor Alexander Spotswood that the reluctance to sell slaves at a public venue, first seen in his letter to Lund Washington in 1778, had become an emphatic principle against "selling Negroes, as you would Cattle in the market..."
In 1795 and 1796, Washington devised a complicated plan that involved renting out his western lands to tenant farmers to whom he would lease his own slaves, and a similar scheme to lease the dower slaves he controlled to Dr. David Stuart for work on Stuart's Eastern Shore plantation. This plan would have involved breaking up slave families, but it was designed with an end goal of raising enough finances to fund their eventual emancipation (a detail Washington kept secret) and prevent the Custis heirs from permanently splitting up families by sale.[o] None of these schemes could be realized because of his failure to sell or rent land at the right prices, the refusal of the Custis heirs to agree to them and his own reluctance to separate families. Wiencek speculates that, because Washington gave such serious consideration to freeing his slaves knowing full well the political ramifications that would follow, one of his goals was to make a public statement that would sway opinion towards abolition. Philip Morgan argues that Washington freeing his slaves while President in 1794 or 1796 would have had no profound effect, and would have been greeted with public silence and private derision by white southerners.
As Washington subordinated his desire for emancipation to his efforts to secure financial independence, he took care to retain his slaves. In 1791, he arranged for those who served in his personal retinue while he was President in Philadelphia to be rotated out of the state before they became eligible for emancipation after six months residence per Pennsylvanian law. Not only would Washington have been deprived of their services if they were freed, most of the slaves he took with him to Philadelphia were dower slaves, which meant that he would have had to compensate the Custis estate for the loss. Because of his concerns for his public image and that the prospect of emancipation would generate discontent among the slaves before they became eligible for emancipation, he instructed that they be shuffled back to Mount Vernon "under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public."
Washington spared no expense in efforts to recover Hercules and Judge when they absconded. In Judge's case, Washington persisted for three years. He tried to persuade her to return when his agent eventually tracked her to New Hampshire, but refused to promise her her freedom after his death; "However well disposed I might be to a gradual emancipation," he said, "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 or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference." Both Hercules and Judge eluded capture. Washington's search for a new chef to replace Hercules in 1797 is the last known instance in which he considered buying a slave, despite his resolve "never to become the Master of another Slave by purchase", though in the end he chose to hire a white chef.
In July 1799, five months before his death, Washington wrote his will, in which he stipulated that his slaves should be freed. In the months that followed, he considered a plan that betrayed a continuing prioritisation of profit above his concerns about the institution of slavery. The plan involved repossessing tenancies in Berkeley and Frederick Counties and transferring half of his Mount Vernon slaves to work them. It would, Washington hoped, "yield more nett profit" which might "benefit myself and not render the [slaves'] condition worse", despite the disruption such relocation would have had on the slave families. The plan died with Washington on December 14, 1799.[p]
Washington's slaves were the subjects of the longest provisions in the twenty-nine-page will, taking three pages in which his instructions were more forceful than in the rest of the document. His valet, William Lee, was freed immediately and his remaining 123 slaves were to be emancipated on the death of Martha. The deferral was intended to postpone the pain of separation that would occur when his slaves were freed but their spouses among the dower slaves remained in bondage, a situation which affected twenty couples and their children. It is possible Washington hoped Martha and her heirs who would inherit the dower slaves would solve this problem by following his example and emancipating them. Those too old or infirm to work were to be supported by his estate, as mandated by state law. Washington went beyond the legal requirement to support and maintain younger slaves until adulthood, stipulating that those children whose education could not be undertaken by parents were to be taught reading, writing and a useful trade by their masters and then be freed at the age of twenty-five. Including the Dandridge slaves, which were emancipated under similar terms, more than 160 slaves were freed. Washington was particularly pointed in forbidding the sale or transportation of any of his slaves out of Virginia before their emancipation.
Any hopes Washington may have had that his example and prestige would influence the thinking of others, including his own family, proved to be unfounded. His action was ignored by southern slaveholders, and slavery continued at Mount Vernon. Already from 1795, dower slaves were being transferred to Martha's three granddaughters as the Custis heirs married. Martha felt threatened by the fact that she was surrounded with slaves whose freedom depended on her death and freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801.[q]
The able-bodied slaves were cut loose and left to support themselves and their families. Within a few months, almost all of Washington's former slaves had left Mount Vernon, leaving 121 adult and working-age children still working the estate. Five freedwomen were listed as remaining: an unmarried mother of two children; two women, one of them with three children, married to Washington slaves too old to work; and two women who were married to dower slaves. William Lee remained at Mount Vernon, where he worked as a shoemaker. After Martha's death on May 22, 1802, most of the remaining dower slaves passed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, to whom she bequeathed the only slave she held in her own name.
There are few records of how the newly freed slaves fared. Custis later wrote that "although many of them, with a view to their liberation, had been instructed in mechanic trades, yet they succeeded very badly as freemen; so true is the axiom, 'that the hour which makes man a slave, takes half his worth away'." The son-in-law of Custis's sister wrote in 1853 that the descendants of those who remained slaves, many of them now in his possession, had been "prosperous, contented and happy," while those who had been freed had led a life of "vice, dissipation and idleness" and had, in their "sickness, age and poverty", become a burden to his in-laws. Such reports were colored by the innate racism of the well-educated, upper-class authors and ignored the social and legal impediments that prejudiced the chances of prosperity for former slaves, which included laws that made it illegal to teach freedpeople to read and write and, in 1806, required newly freed slaves to leave the state.
There is evidence that some of Washington's former slaves were able to buy land, support their families and prosper as free people. By 1812, Free Town in Truro Parish, the earliest known free black settlement in Fairfax County, contained seven households of former Washington slaves. By the mid 1800s, a son of Washington's carpenter Davy Jones and two grandsons of his postilion Joe Richardson had each bought land in Virginia. Francis Lee, younger brother of William, was well known and respected enough to have his obituary printed in the Alexandria Gazette on his death at Mount Vernon in 1821. Sambo Anderson – who hunted game, as he had while Washington's slave, and prospered for a while by selling it to the most respectable families in Alexandria – was similarly noted by the gazette when he died near Mount Vernon in 1845. Research published in 2019 has concluded that Hercules worked as a cook in New York, where he died on May 15, 1812.
A decade after Washington's death, the Pennsylvanian jurist Richard Peters wrote that Washington's servants "were devoted to him; and especially those more immediately about his person. The survivors of them still venerate and adore his memory." In his old age, Anderson said he was "a much happier man when he was a slave than he had ever been since," because he then "had a good kind master to look after all my wants, but now I have no one to care for me." When Judge was interviewed in the 1840s, she expressed considerable bitterness, not at the way she he had been treated as a slave, but at the fact that she had been enslaved. When asked, having experienced the hardships of being a freewoman and having outlived both husband and children, whether she regretted her escape, she replied, "No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by [that] means."
Washington's will was both private testament and public statement on the institution. It was published widely – in newspapers nationwide, as a pamphlet which, in 1800 alone, extended to thirteen separate editions, and included in other works – and became part of the nationalist narrative. In the eulogies of the antislavery faction, the inconvenient fact of Washington's slaveholding was downplayed in favor of his final act of emancipation. Washington "disdained to hold his fellow-creatures in abject domestic servitude," wrote the Massachusetts Federalist Timothy Bigelow before calling on "fellow-citizens in the South" to emulate Washington's example. In this narrative, Washington was a proto-abolitionist who, having added the freedom of his slaves to the freedom from British slavery he had won for the nation, would be mobilized to serve the antislavery cause.
An alternative narrative more in line with proslavery sentiments embraced rather than excised Washington's ownership of slaves. Washington was cast as a paternal figure, the benevolent father not only of his country but also of a family of slaves bound to him by affection rather than coercion. In this narrative, slaves idolized Washington and wept at his deathbed, and in an 1807 biography, Aaron Bancroft wrote, "In domestick [sic] and private life, he blended the authority of the master with the care and kindness of the guardian and friend." The competing narratives allowed both North and South to claim Washington as the father of their countries during the American Civil War that ended slavery more than half a century after his death.
In 1929, a plaque was embedded in the ground at Mount Vernon less than 50 yards (45 m) from the crypt housing the remains of Washington and Martha, marking a plot neglected by both groundsmen and tourist guides where slaves had been buried in unmarked graves. The inscription read, "In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the Washington family, buried at Mount Vernon from 1760 to 1860. Their unidentified graves surround this spot." The site remained untended and ignored in the visitor literature until the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association erected a more prominent monument surrounded with plantings and inscribed, "In memory of the Afro Americans who served as slaves at Mount Vernon this monument marking their burial ground dedicated September 21, 1983." In 1985, a ground-penetrating radar survey identified sixty-six possible burials. As of late 2017, an archaeological project begun in 2014 has identified, without disturbing the contents, sixty-three burial plots in addition to seven plots known before the project began.