Lesson Plans

Colonial America & Revolution

George Washington: General, President, Slave Owner
Author: Cynthia Schwartz
School: E. Brooke Lee Middle
Grade Level: 8th
Time Estimated: 3 days (45 minute periods)

Enduring Understanding

George Washington was an important figure in our history. Looking around today, you can still see his face and name all around you. What made him so important? What contributions did he make to our country? George Washington did not start his career in the army as a general in The Revolutionary War, but that is where he made his mark as a great general and leader of the Patriot cause. Washington's surprise attack at Trenton, while not the final blow to the war, was a turning point in the war. It gave the colonial army hope that victory could be achieved. After the war, George Washington attended The Constitutional Convention and then became the first president of the US. As president he warned against political parties and becoming entangled in foreign affairs.

George Washington was a slave-owner. He was born into a family of means and therefore grew up with slaves and then owned slaves of his own. Many accounts of his treatment of his slaves say that he treated them fairly and better than most. Did this make owning slaves okay? In his will, he did free his slaves, but not until the death of his wife.


Students will demonstrate understanding of contributions made by George Washington by analyzing symbols and symbolism in primary source documents. Students will discuss and analyze views GW had on slavery by looking at excerpts from his will and other primary source documents including runaway slave ads. Students will demonstrate mastery of these objectives by discussing documents presented, relating primary sources to present day sources and concepts, answering questions and creating a poster that uses words and pictures that represent concepts taught.


Unit 8.1 "Democracy: Political System of the People, 1763-1783"


  • Overhead projector and markers for Day 1
  • Computer lab for Day 2
  • Rubric


    Day 1:

  • Activate prior knowledge.
  • Put up map of Trenton on overhead.
  • Can anyone tell me what state Trenton is in?
  • Put up a current US map.
  • What relation on the map is New Jersey from Maryland?
  • "What do you notice about this map?" "What do you think it was for?"
  • Note the date on the map. What kind of weather would you expect to have at this time of year? (Corroboration)
  • What do you notice in the map that confirms the time of year? (corroboration)
  • Do you think the weather conditions helped or hindered Washington’s plans? In what ways? (Contextualization)
  • Discuss "turning point" – relate to a great play in a football game that changes the flow of the game. Relate that to The Battle of Trenton.
  • Hand out copies of Washington Crossing Delaware picture.
  • Ask students to analyze what symbols or aspects of the picture stand out to them. Do they see anything in the picture that relates to what they saw on the map?
  • Follow-up: Have you ever tried really hard to do something and then an event happened to help you finally learn it? Or Has an event in your life ever made such an impact that it changed the way you saw yourself or others or changed the way you behaved?
  • Homework: Write a sentence or two about a turning point in your life.

    Day 2:

  • Review contributions George Washington made in war.
  • Take students to computer lab to view interactive version of Lansdowne Portrait.
  • I will have put re-written versions of what is written on the website in the hand-out folder on the computers. (The descriptions in the web-site are way above the reading levels of my students – this may or may not be necessary for your students)
  • Each student will choose a number and read my version of the information presented for that number.
  • Each student will have 2 minutes to share what they have learned with the class.
  • Discuss - Consider a portrait of yourself. What symbols would you include to represent yourself? Why?
  • Remaining time will be spent exploring the site.
  • Homework: Write two interesting facts you learned from your classmates presentations. (They will know about this before their classmates present so they can take notes)

    Day 3:

  • Hand out picture of George Washington holding Declaration while being attended to by a slave
  • Ask, "What do you notice about this picture?" "Does anything about this picture surprise you?" "How does this picture differ from the previous two we have looked at?" (Corroboration)
  • Lead discussion on George Washington and his role as slave owner.
  • Pass out copy of runaway slave ads from gwpapers website. Have students read along as I read aloud. Discuss their impression of the ads. What can you tell about slaves’ lives from reading these ads? Why would slaves feel the need to runaway?(Contextualization)
  • Pass out excerpts from will that shows his desire to free his slaves upon Martha’s death. These papers were written by George Washington, so what does this tell you about his feelings about being a slave owner? Do you think his feelings about slavery changed over his lifetime? (Sourcing)
  • Ask – "Do you think he should have freed his slaves immediately and not waited for his wife to die?" "What was his reasoning for waiting for Martha to die?" "Do you find that reason convincing? Why or why not?"
  • Homework: George Washington Search – find as many places named after George Washington or objects with his picture on it that you can.


Day 1: Write a sentence or two about a turning point in your life.

Day 2: Write two interesting facts you learned from your classmates presentations. (They will know about this before their classmates present so they can take notes)

Day 3: George Washington Search – find as many places named after George Washington or objects with his picture on it that you can.


My class is a self-contained Learning Center group so the entire lesson will be differentiated. If I had general education students in my class as well, I would let them read the information on the George Washington "lansdowne" portrait website themselves.


Make a montage of words and/or pictures that reflect who George Washington was and what he represented to this country. Include aspects from each of the three days lessons on George Washington. Be sure you can tell why info is on poster. You will have one week to complete this project.

Download the assignment rubric

References: Web

American Memory, Map Collections, Library of Congress

    Map of Trenton, New Jersey (1777). Keyword search for "Trenton."

PBS, Courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Collection

    Painting of Washington crossing the Delaware

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

    George Washington "Lansdowne" portrait

PBS, "Freedom: A History of US"

    Picture of Washington holding the Declaration of Independence while being attended to by a slave

The Papers of George Washington, University of Virginia

    Excerpts from George Washington’s will and runaway slave ads posted by George Washington. There is so much on this website that it is hard to just browse through and find something specific, but I eventually found some great stuff.


    I loved their Webisodes on the Revolutionary War. Easy to read with little icons showing a link to documents, sound bites or pictures and then more links to similar pictures or documents. Easy to navigate, great info for elementary or middle school students and teachers.

America's Library, Library of Congress

    One of the few websites that I could just type in something in their browser box and actually find what I wanted immediately. Perhaps it was sheer luck, but I found a great map and loved the little zoom tool.

References: Books & Media

The Reader's Companion to American History. Edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1991.

    Easy to use index to find info on just about every aspect of US History. Put into ABC order so had to skip around to many sections to get info on various aspects of George Washington.