ABOVE: Life of George Washington--The farmer. By Junius Brutus Stearns (Library of Congress).
As my newfound studies into the Revolution continue to expand, one subject that has caught my attention is the extraordinary life and legacy of George Washington. Most of my current reading has been done in preparation for my upcoming presentation on Mary Ball Washington for the VA Farm Bureau Women’s Convention, and for an article that I am writing for Patriots of the American Revolution magazine on Col. Washington and the VA Militia’s experiences in western Pennsylvania. Sources for these projects include Edward G. Lengel’s General George Washington and Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. Both of these titles are excellent and I am gaining a tremendous wealth of knowledge on our nation’s first commander-in-chief.
Over the years, the majority of my work has focused specifically on the social, political, and religious aspects of our collective history. That is to say NOT the military ones. I have zero expertise in battlefield tactics and leave that subject up to real military historians like Eric Wittenberg and Brooks Simpson. In lieu of manly weapons and strategy, I have chosen to tackle the equally explosive issue of race. Just as my book on Fredericksburg’s churches and PAR feature on Race and Remembrance at Monticello dealt with the complexities and contradictions of slavery, so too are my latest studies into the Founding Fathers. I have written extensively on Thomas Jefferson’s attitudes on the institution of human bondage and I am now examining Washington’s perspective.
I do not consider myself ready to draw any concrete conclusions (yet) on Washington’s struggles over race. That said, I have found the obvious similarities and differences between Jefferson’s and Washington’s racisms to be most intriguing. Both Virginia planters benefited greatly from the institution in their own private enterprise while accumulating and maintaining their family’s wealth on the backs of their slaves. Washington however, ended his life with a mindset that differed from Jefferson’s. The slaves that Washington owned in his own right came from several sources. He was left eleven slaves by his father's will; a portion of his half-brother Lawrence Washington's slaves, about a dozen in all, were willed to him after the death of Lawrence's infant daughter and his widow; and Washington purchased from time to time slaves for himself, mostly before the Revolution.
David Hackett Fischer recently published a piece on Washington titled Born to Lead which contained an excellent sidebar describing this aspect of Washington’s life. Titled The Unapologetic Patrician, it presents a critical portrait of a social snob who begrudgingly maintained slaves until his death:
“Washington grew up among many inequalities, and he accepted most of them. He was very conscious of social rank. A sociable man among his peers, he was at his ease with others of his class and often in their company. From 1768 to 1775, he entertained 2,000 people at Mount Vernon, mostly “people of rank,” as he called them. He deliberately kept others at a distance and advised his manager at Mount Vernon always to deal that way with inferiors. “To treat them civilly is no more than what all men are entitled to,” Washington wrote, “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.” Washington had been taught to treat people of every rank with civility and “condescension,” a word that has changed its meaning in the modern era. In Washington’s world, to condescend was to treat inferiors with decency and respect while maintaining a system of inequality.
His world was also a hierarchy of wealth, and Washington acquired a large share of it. When his brother died, he became the master of Mount Vernon at the age of 22, leasing it from his sister-in-law, then owning it outright. At 36, he married Martha Parke Custis, a very beautiful and gracious woman and one of the richest widows in Virginia. By skillful management and good luck, his property increased rapidly before the Revolution. Public service diminished his wealth, and he was forced to sell large tracts of land to pay the expenses of his presidency, but even with that burden, he built one of the largest family fortunes in America, with a net worth of more than a million dollars. In 1799, his and his wife’s estates included many thousands of acres and 331 slaves.
Part of his world was hierarchy and race. In his early years, Washington owned many slaves and actively bought and sold them. Before the Revolution, he shared the attitudes of his time and place and fully accepted slavery, but after 1775, his thoughts changed rapidly. He began to speak of slavery as a great evil, and by 1777, he wrote of his determination to “get clear” of it. After much thought and careful preparation, he emancipated all of his slaves in his will.” (Bold emphasis added.)
It appears that Washington’s conscience was deeply troubled in his later years. His determination to free his slaves was likely a way of easing the burden of guilt. Unlike Jefferson, Washington freed all of his slaves upon his (and his wife’s) death, making no distinction between them. Every one was granted liberty regardless of their age, position, or stature within the household. Jefferson only freed certain slaves when he passed away and many more were sold off by his heirs to cover the immense debt that he had incurred while building Monticello. One could even say that Jefferson relinquished his slaves because he had to, while Washington appears to have done so because he wanted to. Here is an excerpt from Washington’s will that frees his slaves and commends them for their service (Note: the < > denotes where text was illegible, but can be assumed):
<Ite>m Upon the decease <of> my wife, it is my Will & desire th<at> all the Slaves which I hold in <my> own right, shall receive their free<dom>. To emancipate them during <her> life, would, tho' earnestly wish<ed by> me, be attended with such insu<pera>ble difficulties on account of thei<r interm>ixture by Marriages with the <dow>er Negroes, as to excite the most pa<in>ful sensations, if not disagreeabl<e c>onsequences from the latter, while <both> descriptions are in the occupancy <of> the same Proprietor; it not being <in> my power, under the tenure by which <th>e Dower Negroes are held, to man<umi>t them. And whereas among <thos>e who will recieve freedom ac<cor>ding to this devise, there may b<e so>me, who from old age or bodily infi<rm>ities, and others who on account of <the>ir infancy, that will be unable to <su>pport themselves; it is m<y Will and de>sire that all who <come under the first> & second descrip<tion shall be comfor>tably cloathed & <fed by my heirs while> they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the ag<e> of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that th<is cla>use respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the <u>ncertain provision to be made by individuals. And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which ha<v>e befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, whic<h> shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test<im>ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War. <end>
A detailed listing of Washington’s slaves is also available online at The Papers of George Washington. More on this subject to come.