"The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret":
George Washington and Slavery
By Peter R. Henriques
Copyrighted and not to be used without permission
Revised July 25, 2001
Acknowledgements: This talk draws heavily on the work of the following scholars who are likely to see some of the ideas - and occasionally some of their words - in it. If footnotes were included, there would be many indeed.
John Ferling, James Flexner, Norma Granley, Frank Grizzard, Fritz Hirschfeld, Jeanne Lee, Ken Morgan, Phil Morgan, John Riley, Mary Thompson, and Dorothy Twohig.
Note: If the talk is too long, it can be shortened and still hold together by omitting the vignettes of GW's house slaves.
Might add to speech. In Virginia, "family" was fundamentally a sphere of authority, in which everyone was placed under a patriarch's protection.
George Washington and slavery is a potentially explosive topic. To some on the right wing of the political spectrum focusing on the topic indicates the speaker is probably about to make another foray in the effort to denigrate and bring down one of America's great heroes. To some on the left wing of the political spectrum anything less than a strong denunciation of Washington for owning slaves demonstrates the speaker's moral obtuseness and lack of racial sensitivity.
It is an undeniable fact - and America's greatest tragedy - that as she proclaimed to the world that all men are created equal and entitled to liberty - she at the same time held 1/5 of her population in lifelong slavery. George Washington led America to freedom while at the same time personally owning hundreds of slaves. In recent years, a virulent form of popular history has emerged, one that combines genuine moral outrage, a smug condescension, and more than a little dramatic license to arraign the dead white males who fathered the nation." Fairly recently, a New Orleans school named after GW changed its name because of a new edict declaring that no New Orleans schools could be named after slaveholders. The Father of Our Country was deemed unworthy to have a local school named after him.
In his novel, The Human Stain, Philip Roth notes that one of "America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure. . ." is to indulge in the "ecstasy of sanctimony." [You feel good by being morally superior - whether from the right [against Clinton, abortion] or the left [environment, poor, racism, etc.]
While indulging in the "ecstasy of sanctimony" may be more prevalent today, it is certainly not new. After the war a Quaker leader [Robert Pleasants] wrote Washington asking him how could he "keep a number of People in absolute Slavery, who were by nature equally entitled to freedom as himself." He added, "O Remember, I beseech thee that 'God will not be mocked.'" In 1788, a Massachusetts Gazette reported, "He wielded the sword in defense of American liberty, yet at the same time was, and is to this day, living upon the labours of several hundreds of miserable Africans." As President, Washington received a letter which read in part, "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 indelible a blot." Indeed, the author argued that GW was "more culpable than the callow-hearted planter" because he 'persevered in a system which his conscience told him was wrong.' The fiery 19th century abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who saw things as either good or evil, confidently assured his listeners that even as he spoke, George Washington was writhing in the flames of eternal damnation, his just desert for the sin of slaveholding. In Garrison's view, nothing else he did could eradicate the fact that he was a "man stealer" and thus deserving of hell.
My purpose today is neither to condemn nor to praise George Washington on his handling of the issue of slavery, but try to shed some light on how he acted and why he acted as he did. The story is more complex and revealing than one might expect. In examining it, we get a better glimpse of the man behind the myth, and incidentally are introduced to some of the men and women who labored for him. Suddenly, they are no longer simply faceless numbers but real people facing their own difficult dilemma. George Washington emerges not as a cardboard hero [or villain] but as a conflicted man who increasingly came to abhor slavery and yet found himself in the midst of a dilemma that seemed to have no satisfactory solution either for himself or for the nation he loved. At the heart of the dilemma was the inherent contradiction of treating a person as property. This core contradiction of slavery - of treating persons as things - accounted for much of the complexity in Washington's relations with his slaves and ultimately led him to confess it was "the only unavoidable subject of regret." Examining Washington's approach to slavery "reveals the unresolvable problems of race relations in the era of the American Revolution and the birth of the republic." The story is, in the final analysis, a tragic one, as is the long history of racial injustice, but it is also a story of growth with rays of light and hope.
In my discussion, I would like to focus on three main aspects:
What kind of slaveholder was George Washington? To what degree was he a racist and how did he compare to the age in which he lived? And, finally, if GW's opposition to slavery increased over time, why didn't he do more than he did to publicly attack the institution?
Slavery was an intricate part of George Washington's entire life. It must be remembered that Washington, like other Virginia planters, continued to live with slavery - and off of slavery. He became a slave owner at the age of 11 when he inherited about 10 or 11 slaves as a result of his father's untimely death in 1743. During the remainder of his life, he owned increasingly larger numbers of slaves, and by the time of his own death in 1799 there were approximately 316 slaves at Mount Vernon.
George Washington was born, reared, and lived in Virginia, a place were fully 40% of the population were slaves for life, and where slavery was an intricate and crucial aspect of the plantation economy and social system. So crucial was slavery to life of the wellborn in Virginia that a visitor in 1751 noted, it "is morally impossible" to live in Virginia without slaves. Virginia was a hierarchical society where it was widely accepted that some men were born and reared to rule and others to be ruled. "A deep respect for hierarchy infused the very marrow of the early modern British American world, and at its core lay the authority of the father-figure in his household." While it may be trite, it is nevertheless true. George Washington was a "man of his time," and we cannot lift him out of his century. My colleague at GMU, the African-American Pulitzer Prize winner, Roger Wilkins, in his new book, Jefferson's Pillow, while barely containing his rage at the evils of slavery, is scholar enough to note, "Surely I cannot on the one hand argue that cultural forces can injure [blacks] and on the other refuse to recognize and make allowances for just such cultural injuries in the lives of the founders."
George Washington, like other men of his time, was deeply influenced - and to some degree damaged - by the slave culture in which he was reared. It was a time when common soldiers were flogged routinely, children could be hanged, and gentlemen put into prison for debt. The Slave Code current in Washington's youth declared that "if any slave shall happen to die [as a result] of his or her correction, by his or her owner, no person shall undergo any prosecution for the same." Blacks were virtually universally viewed as degraded human beings. Approximately 99% of the blacks living in Virginia prior to the American Revolution were slaves.
During the pre-Revolutionary years, Washington's views toward slavery were [as far as the record reveals] conventional, reflecting those of a typical Virginia planter of his time. He undoubtedly shared the "engrained sense of racial superiority" so common among white Virginians and did not emotionally identify with the slaves' plight. There is an extant letter from Washington  that leaves a flavor of the nature of the institution and his rather routine acceptance of it.
"Sir: 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 of best Rum, one barrel of Lymes if good and cheap, and the residue, much or little in good ole spirits That this Fellow is both a rogue and a Runaway I shall not pretend to deny. But . . . he is exceedingly healthy, strong and good at the Hoe which gives me reason to hope he may, with your good management sell well (if kept clean and trim'd up a little when offered for sale [I] must beg the favor of you (lest he should attempt his escape) to keep him hand-cuffed till you get to Sea."
Fortunately, this is only transaction of this kind to be recorded in GW's correspondence, and there are many other later entries and incidents that reveal a more humane and caring master. The story is complicated because GW's views about MV and his slaves was an uneasy mixture of commercial and paternalistic attitudes. These aspects were often in conflict with one another and led to inconsistent action. Indeed, Washington's erratic mixture of sternness and indulgence inevitably created a certain amount of chaos in plantation management.
Washington tended to view slavery as a commercial enterprise. It was simply an integral part of his desire to make profits from tobacco and grain cultivation and keep debts to a minimum. In this sense, MV slaves were his chattels, his human property. The language he used in buying them might be applicable to livestock. He wished "all of them to be strait limbed, & in every respect strong and healthy with good Teeth." As the historian John Ferling notes in his often perceptive but essentially critical study of GW, "He was not moved to express hatred or love or empathy for his chattel. They were simply business propositions, and his comments regarding these unfortunate people were recorded with about as much passion as were his remarks on wheat rust or the efficacy of a new fertilizer."
GW unquestionably assumed that his slaves would "be at their work, as soon as it was light, [and] work till it was dark." Each bondsman "must be made to do a sufficient day's work." GW's goal for his bondsmen and women was explicit: "that every laborer (male and female) does as much in 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health or constitution, will allow." Or again: "It has always been my aim to feed & cloath them well, & be careful of them in sickness - in return, I expect such labour as they ought[!] to render." [Note the choice of the word, "Ought"] However unfair and unreasonable it might seem to us [after all the slaves don't have any choice in the arrangement], it can help us understand GW's position if we realize that he thought that he had entered into a type of "patriarchal contract" in which his slaves owed him service in return for care. Reciprocal obligations & duties between master and servant were the essence of patriarchalism that GW accepted. GW saw himself as the provider - he would protect and care for his dependents. He would give them "everything that is proper for them" and prevent "as far as vigilance can - all irregularities and improper conduct."
Washington often thought he, not his servants, suffered from the arrangement. Following a fire, Washington wrote what I think is a very revealing letter 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 is GW, not his servants, who "sustain injury" from the system of slavery. Thinking in these terms, he was eager to get as much back for his investment as possible. When in Philadelphia, he learned that the sewing women at Mount Vernon produced nine shirts each week when Martha supervised them and only six in her absence, Washington had his manager warn them "that what has been done, shall be done by fair or foul means" or he would send them off to be common laborers on his outlying farms (Hirschfeld, p. 63).
He lamented, "Lost labour can never be regained," and overseers were urged to be constantly vigilant and to always remember that the slaves were working for GW. In his words, "I expect to reap the benefit of the labour myself." [He complained that Peter who was responsible for riding around the plantation to check on the stock was usually engaged "in pursuits of other objects more advancive of his own pleasure than my benefit." Again the interesting point is that GW can complain about this while most of us would sympathize with Peter's actions.]
Washington, however, to his constant and growing frustration, found it was not easy in fact to reap the benefits of their labor. Indeed, he increasingly viewed the system of slave labor as inherently inefficient. He noted, "Every place where I have been there are many workmen, and little work." [It might be mentioned in passing that GW was a hard man to work for and he makes constant complaints about the quality of his laborers - white as well as black] He had lots of complaints. Slaves feigned illness, destroyed equipment, were often idle and regularly stole his corn, meat, apples, and liquor. GW lamented that unless watched the slaves would get 2 glasses of wine for every one served in the mansion. Everything not nailed down was in danger of being stolen. And how could it be nailed down when even the nails were disappearing? "I cannot conceive how it is possible for 6,000 12 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." [from Jean Lee]
GW tried hard to thwart the robberies. Overseers were to visit slave quarters at unexpected times, lie in wait along the roads to catch anyone making off with goods from the plantation, and turn in broken and worn tools and utensils before receiving replacements. Nails were to be rationed, and comparison made between the number issued to carpenters and the number actually hammered into beams and planks. All of the sheep from the 5 plantations were to be brought together into one herd and watched constantly. They were to be sheared before they were washed. "Otherwise," he woried, "I shall have a larger part of the Wool stolen if washed after it is sheared." At one point GW even ordered that most of the dogs belonging to slaves at MV be shot because they served as sentinels for night raids on plantation stores. He further ordered, "if any Negro [still] presumes under any pretense whatsoever, to preserve, or bring one into the family. . . he shall be severely punished, and the dog hanged."
In his effort to achieve a disciplined work force, Washington occasionally resorted to corporal punishment, although there is no record that he personally ever administered it. There is, however, the testimony of the perceptive wife of the British ambassador, Henrietta Liston. Acknowledging GW's consistent control of his passions on public occasions, she noted that "in private and particularly with his Servants, its violence sometimes broke out." Another visitor was shocked at the way the President spoke to his slaves - "as differently as if he had been quite another man, or had been in anger." One of GW's former slaves much later recalled that GW was "exact and strict" and might complain "in language of severity." GW justified the occasional severity. In his words, "if the Negros will not do their duty by fair means, they must be compelled to do it." Or again, "must have by fair means or by coercion (the first is vastly more agreeable to me) [Here is another example of the "patriarchal contract" GW had entered] When confronted by a particularly recalcitrant bondsman he simply directed his manager to "give him a good whippin". Occasionally, female slaves felt the whip as well. He wrote his manager, "Your treatment of Charlotte 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." His directions regarding one runaway perhaps represents his attitude in general: "Let Abram get his deserts when taken, by way of example; but do not trust to [Hyland] Crow to administer it as he is swayed more by passion than judgment in all his corrections." Or again, "As for Waggoner Jack, try further correction accompanied by admonition and advice." [Admonition and advice along with close supervision was Washington's mantra] Apparently, in this case it did not work, for GW later wrote his plantation manager to warn a young slave named Ben that if he did not shape up, "I will ship him off as I did Waggoner Jack for the West Indies where he will have no opportunity to play such pranks." In a final example, he had his manager tell Muclus, "if his pride [!] is not a sufficient stimulus to excite him to industry, & admonition has no effect on him, that I have directed you to have him severely punished and placed under one of the Overseers as a common hoe negro." Interestingly, GW recognized that with a few of his servants, whipping was counter-productive. About Will French he noted, "Harsh treatment will not do with him. You had better therefore let him piddle, and in this way (thought I believe little trust is to be placed in him) get what you can out of him."
There is some dispute about the living conditions of the slaves at Mount Vernon as the evidence and testimony are in conflict. Certainly, they did not live well. One visitor to Mount Vernon [a Polish nobleman] was shocked by the living quarters of Washington's slaves referring to them as "huts," adding "for one can not 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, some utensils for cooking." GW himself seemed to acknowledge their very rudimentary condition, for when he later sought Europeans to work Mount Vernon's fields, he admitted that the slave quarters at MV "might not be thought good enough for the workmen or day laborers" of England. Clothing and blankets were carefully rationed. A woman would receive an extra blanket if she had a child, but if the child died, the woman would not get a new blanket for herself but was to use the one given to her child. On clothing for the children, another French nobleman declared, the Negro quarters "swarm with pickaninnies in rags that our beggars would scorn to wear." [This might be from 19th century] The slaves' rations, consisting chiefly of maize, herring, and occasionally salt meat, must have been at least on occasion rather meager, for GW's slaves at least once took the extraordinary step of petitioning their master, claiming they received an inadequate supply of food.
Perhaps the above description is a bit too harsh. [Limited and conflicting testimony makes it difficult to assess the situation with confidence.] Certainly, others wrote in a more positive light, and GW had a reputation as a comparatively humane and kind master. One French visitor noted that the "slaves were well fed, well clothed, and required to do only a moderate amount of work" while another Frenchmen observed the approximately 50 slaves on River Farm quarters were "warmly lodged chiefly in houses of their own building." The Polish visitor who criticized the poor housing still noted the gardens and chickens and averred that Washington treated his slaves "far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia. Most of those gentlemen give to their Blacks only bread water and blows." If a part of Washington disliked spending money on things like clothes, blankets, medicine, and food, [and he was characteristically careful of how he spent money in all aspects of his life], strong paternalistic elements also influenced his outlook and actions.
While Washington never referred to his slaves as his children, he did refer to them as part of his family. [And virtually never as slaves - they were usually my servants or my Negroes or my people or my black labourers] Washington recognized that slaves experienced the same range of emotions as the unenslaved and attempted to make accommodations where possible. Whatever their legal status as human chattel, Washington knew they were human beings. He recognized the validity of slave marriages and became increasingly concerned for slave families and their personal relationships and in his dislike of splitting up slaves who had established such personal and familial ties. [In his words, "To disperse families I have an utter aversion." Or again, "It is against my inclination to hurt the feelings of those unhappy people by a separation of man and wife, or of families."] In short, Washington realized a paternalistic relationship involved mutual obligations.
Throughout his adult years, George Washington was always very concerned with his reputation as a man of honor and fairness and how people viewed him. His orders to his farm managers make apparent that he was eager to avoid any legitimate criticism of his conduct as a master. In writing to one plantation manager, he was crystal clear: "In the most explicit language I desire they may have plenty; for I will not ... lye under the imputation of starving my negros and thereby driving them to the necessity of thieving to supply the deficiency." [GW said he would give more, but if he did so, they would sell it, not consume it]
Dennis Pogue, MV's archaeologist has studied the remains found in the slave quarters and concludes, "Taken together, the archaeological evidence of the slave life at MV suggests a possibly less-controlled existence than indicated by the usual stereotypical view of slavery. The diet was more diverse, and therefore probably more healthful, than previously believed. Bones of such wild fowl as quail, duck, goose and turkey, such wild animals as deer, squirrel, rabbit, and opossum and such non-schooling fish as pickerel, gar & bluegill were recovered. The slaves were able to hunt [at least some were], fish, raise poultry and tend gardens to supplement their food allotment." It might surprise modern readers to learn that GW allowed some his slaves to own firearms - and even provided ammunition for them [undoubtedly to hunt game for his table.]
Washington was also sensitive on the issue of working slaves when they were ill. He insisted, "I never wish my people to work when they are really sick." Writing his manager, he stated, "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 draft horse or ox, neglecting them as much when they are unable to work instead of comforting and nursing them when they lie upon a sickbed."
The stereotypical image of slaves moving in lock step to bellowed commands does not apply to Mount Vernon. Throughout his life Washington remained particularly thinned skinned and sensitive to criticism - even to criticisms made by his African-American slaves. It led him to act in ways one might not expect the Lord of the plantation to act. For example, he wanted certain things given to the slaves because he did not want his feelings "hurt" by slave complaints which he admitted would make him "uneasy." During 1787, his need for a bricklayer made him buy Neptune only to find that "he seems to a great deal disconcerted on account of a wife which he says he has .This also embarrasses me, as I am unwilling to hurt the feelings of anyone." While others were discontinuing the practice of providing rum at certain times, GW declared, as his "people have always been accustomed to it, a hogshead of rum must be purchased." He commented that his people were still at the races - as if there is not much he could do about it. [Note implications of reciprocal obligations] There are examples of the blacks successfully resisting pressure to move their houses on the outlying farms, and they persuaded GW, against his desire, to raise more corn because as GW put it, they "cannot do without it." Once low on sweet potatoes, GW purchased some from his slaves. One former slave, a carpenter by the name of Sambo, [who had deserted to the British in 1781 but was recaptured after Yorktown in Philadelphia] recalled that while GW was his master, he would still not borrow Sambo's small boat without asking permission and would always put it back exactly in the spot from which he borrowed it even if the President had to drag it 20 yards due to a change of tide. Such vignettes reveal the complexity and ambiguity of relations between GW and his bondsmen. They were people and as such an accommodation of some sort must be reached.
Washington recognized the power of the slaves to influence the whites around them. He complained about an early farm manager [Anthony Whiting] who "finding it troublesome to instruct the Negros, and to compel them to the practice of his modes, . . . slided into theirs." He wanted to keep poor whites "as separate, and as distinct as possible from the Negroes, who want no encouragement to mix with, and become too familiar (for no good purpose) with these kinds of people." He warned Sally Green, the daughter of one of GW's long-time white servants, not to open a store if she wanted continuing support from him as he feared it "would be no more than a receptacle for stolen produce, by the Negros."
The Master of Mount Vernon worked closely with his slaves and knew them well -at least at a surface level. When a group of four slaves escaped from Mount Vernon in 1761, he provided the newspaper with surprisingly detailed information about the fugitives, noting such things as scars, clothing, speech patterns, etc. He was particularly close to some of the house slaves, most of who were mulattos. Briefly introducing a few of them: William "Billy" Lee; Ona Judge; Hercules; and Christopher Sheels may help illustrate how complex the relationship might be between master and slave. While sometimes showing Washington in a less than favorable light, it allows us to see his black servants as individuals whose desires sometimes led to conflict with their Master.
Billy Lee (or Will as he also was commonly called) was without a doubt the most famous slave of the eighteenth century. Washington acquired Billy, then a teenager, in 1768. Billy and his new owner soon became inseparable, with the young slave accompanying Washington on his many forays across the Virginia countryside for pleasure, foxhunting, or business trips to Alexandria, Fredericksburg, and Williamsburg. He followed Washington throughout the American Revolution as his personal valet, and his skill as a daring horseman equaled his renowned Master's expertise. [GWPC left a stirring account of Will's fearlessness and daring as a horseman] It is clear that Washington became extremely fond of Billy who he listed first on his 1786 inventory of slaves and described him with the fancy title, "Val de Chambre." Examples abound.
When injury made it impossible for Billy to properly attend to him, the President could not deny his request to come to Philadelphia anyway. As Washington's personal secretary, Tobias Lear, expressed it, "if he [Billy] is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him, tho he will be troublesome. He has been an old and faithful servant." Earlier, in 1784 Washington appealed to Clement Biddle, his purchasing agent in Philadelphia, to arrange to have Lee's wife, Margaret Thomas Lee, sent to Virginia: "The Mulatto fellow William who has been with me all the War is attached (married he says) to one of his own colour a free woman, who, during the War was also of my family??She has been in an infirm state of health for sometime, and I had conceived that the connection between them had ceased??but I am mistaken??they are both applying to me to get her here, and tho' I never wished to see her more, yet I cannot refuse his request (if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long & followed my fortunes through the War with fidility." When Washington died, he remembered Billy in his last will and testament, giving him the choice of his immediate freedom or remaining at Mount Vernon. In either case, he was to have an annuity of thirty dollars [a sizeable gift] independent of his food and clothes, "as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War."
A gloomier picture emerges from the story of Oney [Ona] Judge who ran away at age 22 in the 1790's. She had attended Martha Washington since the age of 10, was the daughter of seamstress Betty, and had herself become a "Perfect Mistress of her needle." She fled in 1796 from Philadelphia, then to NYC where she took sail for Portsmouth, NH. GW protracted negotiations to retrieve her [extending even to the year of his death] do not reflect well on him. Referring to her as a "mulatto girl" when she was a young adult [later in an article published in the mid-19th century she was described as "nearly white" and "very much freckled" who "might easily pass for a white woman"]. GW spoke of Ona's "ingratitude," of her leaving "without the least provocation," of her being treated more "like a child than a servant," of her being duped by a Frenchman - the classic rationalizations of an aggrieved master. [GW wrote about the best way to get her back "If inquiries are made openly, her seducer (for she is simple and inoffensive herself) would take alarm and adopt measures (if he has not tired of her) to secrete or remove her."] Ona responded eloquently that she had left of her own free will and from "a thirst for compleat freedom." She expressed affection for the Washington family and said that she might return to Virginia if she was guaranteed her freedom, but that she "should rather suffer death than return to Slavery." GW rejected her proposed bargain: granting her freedom would only "discontent her fellow servants" and reward bad behavior, setting a "dangerous precedent." He wanted her put on board a vessel for Virginia, forcibly if necessary, but surreptitiously so as not to incite mob action. Ever attentive to his reputation, GW wished above all to avoid public embarrassment. Ona had her own plans. Apparently warned by the Governor of New Hampshire, she avoided capture, married a free mulatto, and settled down to life in NH. Later she wrote about her escape, the only 18th century Virginia runaway slave who has left her own account of her actions. At that point in her life a devout Christian, Ona declared she had "never received the least mental or moral instruction" while at Mount Vernon, and the stories of GW's piety and prayers, in so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, had no foundation in fact.
Hercules, GW's cook, was a very strong and highly respected perfectionist who accompanied GW to both NYC and Philadelphia. Affectionately nicknamed Harkless, he was allowed to sell "slops" from the presidential kitchen to earn extra money. Apparently, he used the money to purchase fine clothes. He is described as wearing white linen, black silk breeches and waistcoat, highly polished shoes with large buckles, a blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a watch fob and chain, cocked hat, and gold-headed cane[?]" Hercules absconded in March 1797 rather than go back to Virginia at the end of Washington's presidency. GW tried to reclaim him but, as in the case of Ona, he did not want a scene that might damage his reputation. He gave grudging recognition to the chef's cleverness by warning those seeking to apprehend him that they must do it by stealth "for if Herculas was to get the least hint of the design he would elude all your vigilance." After Hercules escaped, GW admitted he would have to break his vow and buy another slave as he must have a cook. Hercules was never recaptured. Later, a visitor to Mount Vernon conversed with Hercules' six-year-old daughter, Was she not upset at not seeing her father again? Back shot the reply: "oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."
Finally, there is the relationship with Christopher Sheels who attended Washington in his final illness and received Washington's last recorded order to one of his servants when the President, despite his own intense suffering, aware that Christopher had been standing by his bed for hours, asked him to sit down. Limited as the information is, the extant record on the relationship between Christopher and Washington again indicates just how complex and convoluted the issue of slavery was. At the time of Washington's death, Christopher was still a young man, born in 1775 or 1776, son of Alce [Alice], a spinner, and the grandson of Doll, the first cook for Mount Vernon. In time, Christopher replaced "Billy" Lee as GW's personal body servant. Two very different surviving vignettes indicate the complicated relationship between Washington and Christopher.
The first involved an attack on Christopher by a rabid dog in 1797. Washington's concern was great enough that he might have allowed himself to be a victim of medical quackery. There was a "hex-doctor" in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, "celebrated for curing persons bitten by mad animals." Washington not only allowed Christopher to travel all the way to Pennsylvania for treatment but also entrusted him with twenty-five dollars, a very significant amount of money in the 18th century, to cover his possible expenses. In his accompanying letter to the physician, Washington expressed his desire to have Christopher cured. "For besides the call of Humanity, I am particularly anxious for His cure, He being my own Body servant." For whatever reason or reasons, Christopher returned to Mount Vernon cured and declared he no longer feared being bitten by a rabid dog in the future. Interestingly, Washington later noted in his ledger that Christopher returned twelve dollars to him.
Another, darker side of their relationship is indicated in an incident only months before GW's death. Christopher plotted to run away from Mount Vernon. What triggered his decision to flee in 1799 when he had a perfect chance to flee with money in his pocket in 1797 and did not is unknown. Almost certainly his recent marriage to a slave woman from a neighboring plantation was pivotal as she was planning to flee with him. Perhaps the recent marriage of his mother to Charles, a free black man, also influenced him. At any rate, a chance discovery foiled the plot. A note discussing the plan was inadvertently dropped, Washington discovered it, learned of the cabal, and squelched it. (Interestingly, the presence of the note indicates that Christopher - as was the case with many of GW's house servants - was literate). Unfortunately, the surviving record leaves no hint of what Washington felt upon learning that his personal servant, on whom he had spent considerable money, wanted to run away. [Although we can speculate on the basis of his known response to Ona's flight.] What exchange, if any, occurred between the two men over the planned escape is lost to history. It is, however, perhaps significant that even after learning of the plan to escape, George Washington still kept Christopher as his personal servant, and Christopher was at his post on December 14th.
[Could mention two other female slaves, Caroline and Charlotte, who were with him at his death to show the different relationship GW had. In his listing of his slaves, GW lists Caroline's husband by first and last name [Peter Hardman], and lists her 5 children by both name and age. No husband is listed for Charlotte, whose whipping had been approved by GW nor are the ages given for her three children.] Probably better only in discussion.
What was GW's attitude towards his slaves and blacks in general? Was he a racist? In some ways this is too modern a question and hard to apply to George Washington's views.
There can be no denying that GW's observations on slavery and those held in bondage contain many unfortunate comments from a modern perspective. "Blacks were ignorant and shiftless; they were careless, deceitful, and liable to act without any qualms of conscience." Describing Betty, GW lamented that "a more lazy, deceitful & impudent huzzy" cannot be found in the United States. On his black carpenters, he declared "there is not to be found so idle set of Rascals." He recommended keys be left with a white servant because "I know of no black person about the house [who] is to be trusted." GW, an elitist by temperament and upbringing, did have an "engrained sense of racial superiority," and did not identify with their plight. As a group, the slaves seemed different than whites. In a conversation with British actor, John Bernard, Washington came close to explicitly racist language in justifying fighting for freedom while maintaining slavery: "This may seem a contradiction, but it is neither a crime nor an absurdity. 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, the gift would insure its abuse."
There are, however, in the vast record of his correspondence no explicit statements by Washington that blacks were innately inferior to whites. Even in GW's rather negative quote to the actor Bernard, GW did not doubt that the mind of the slave could be educated to receive the gift of freedom - just as he believed whites could lose the gift. Earlier, he had warned that if the Americans did not resist British tyranny they would become "as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." In other words, whites and blacks could both become equally abject slaves or be able to enjoy liberty. As Joseph Ellis notes, GW "tended to regard the condition of the black population as a product of nurture rather than nature - that is he saw slavery as the culprit, preventing the diligence and responsibility that would emerge gradually and naturally after emancipation." Speaking of blacks in general he asserted since they have "no ambition to establish a good name, they are too regardless of a bad one." The point - slaves had no opportunity to win respect and earn good reputation - hence their lack of "ambition" and the inferior quality of their work.
When the black poetess, Phillis Wheatley sent General Washington a flattering poem, Washington responded, thanking her for the "elegant Lines," adding that he was undeserving of such praise. He added he would "be happy to see a person so favourd by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations." [She did meet him later at his headquarters]
After some initial hesitation, GW backed the use of black troops in the American army and came to recognize their utility for the American cause and may well have been impressed and moved by their courage and dedication. He used black overseers on his plantation farms, and for a brief time in the 1780's all 5 overseers at his Mount Vernon farms were black. Davy, for instance, a mulatto slave trained as a cooper, managed Washington's Muddy Hole farm for many years. Washington considered him a capable overseer. He wrote, "Davy carries on his business as well as the white overseers, and with more quietness than many." Although he distrusted Davy's honesty regarding livestock, he was willing to overlook that shortcoming because of Davy's other contributions. For his efforts as overseer, Davy was rewarded with special quarters, two or three hogs at killing time, and other privileges.
When he was in need of good workmen, Washington made clear he believed they could be of any race or religion. "I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner and Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) and you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. . . If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of an Sect, or they may be Athiests."
In 1768, GW hired 4 whites to assist his 4 black cradlers [wheat mowers] and the following year he considered hiring as few white cradlers as possible & instead confining hired white labor to the task of raking & binding - i.e. he countenanced placing whites in subservient positions to a set of specialized black mowers. [Morgan]
We might wish that GW had been more sympathetic to the plight of his bondsmen and bondswomen, [He seemed to accept the myth that many slaves were happy and content]; that he might have better understood why they were often idle and why they regularly engaged in theft; that he had better understood that no matter how well they were treated, they were justified in running away. Nevertheless, it is still important to remember the times in which he lived and the way that he had been brought up. I think it is noteworthy that he never explicitly argued in favor of innate black inferiority, demonstrated little "Negrophobia," and never succumbed to favoring large-scale colonization of blacks overseas.
Influenced by the rhetoric of the American Revolution and constant contact with anti-slavery men from the northern colonies and states, George Washington became increasingly critical of the institution of slavery. Tracing the details of his changing views and the reasons for it may not be possible, but there can be no denying the change. He became increasingly eager to see slavery put on the path toward ultimate extinction, although he cautioned, "Time, education, and patience were needed" in the struggle.
A careful perusal of his post-war and presidential correspondence produces many such examples. Let me share with you a few of them.
"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 this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees."
After Lafayette purchased in 1786 a plantation in Cayenne to carry out his scheme of emancipating slaves, Washington praised the Frenchman: "Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country," he wrote, "but I dispair of seeing it. . . . To set the slaves 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, effected."
"I wish from my soul that the legislature of this state could see the policy of a gradual abolition of slavery. It would prevent much mischief."
" No man desires more heartily than I do [the end of slavery]. Not only do I pray for it 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." [And by the way, GW made clear that if slavery caused a break up of the union, he would cast his lot with the North!]
"The unfortunate condition of the persons whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the Adults among them as easy & comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit; and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator."
These quotes, and others that could be given, while heartfelt, must be understood in context or one might reasonably conclude that the first President was an abolitionist. It is important to note that virtually all of GW's anti-slavery quotes were expressed in private correspondence or conversation. During his lifetime, the General never took a public stance against slavery or called for its end. If his growing opposition to slavery was genuine and internalized, why did he not take a more public stand against it and use his unparalleled prestige in the cause of human freedom? This was a calculated decision by the President. It was a matter of priorities. A critic might write, "the only true policy is justice; and he who regards the consequences of an act rather than the justice of it gives no very exalted proof of the greatness of his character," but George Washington knew it was not that simple. In Roger Wilkins words,
He was "politically shackled by the grating chain [racism and slavery] that snaked through the new republic and diminished every life it touched."
The President made the creation and unity of the new nation a more important priority than attacking slavery. To be honest, in his mind there was no contest. While he was convinced slavery must eventually be eradicated, he was convinced that an early attack upon it would undermine and destroy his beloved union before it could be properly established. While we can't run the film through to see what would have happened if a major effort had been mounted against slavery by Washington and other leaders in the early years of the republic, virtually all of the founders - and most historians - agree it would have led to the breakup of the union. Joseph Ellis in his new book, Founding Brothers, makes clear that NO ONE in authority in the new federal government was thinking about doing that and believed an effort to do so seemed diametrically opposed to remaining a united nation. George Washington was a "rock-ribbed realist." The establishment of a permanent union under the new Constitution was extremely challenging and difficult but possible. He well understood the remarkably profound affection his countrymen held for him was crucial to attaining that goal. To dissipate that affection on a quixotic crusade attacking slavery held no appeal for the Master of Mount Vernon. Nevertheless, Washington also recognized his ownership of slaves posed a potential threat to his honor and to his historical reputation, matters of the utmost importance to him.
Washington faced this issue head on in his final statement on slavery in his remarkable last will and testament that he wrote completely by himself during the summer before his death. Very significantly, in what was essentially his last act, he freed all of his personal slaves in his will (by law, he could not free those belonging to his wife and the Custis estate). Additionally, he provided for their education as well as declaring those old slaves and children without parents "be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs." [The estate made the last payment in the early 1830's for a coffin]. Pushing education for his former slaves when it was frowned upon sent a strong statement to his countrymen, present and future. To stress the importance he placed on his decision, which he put near the beginning of his long will, immediately after making provisions for his beloved wife, the President particularly enjoined his executors "to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled."
Critics note that Washington only freed his slaves at his death, and even then postponed the emancipation until after his wife's death.
Personally, I think it is true that GW's solution was not really a very good one but his options were severely limited. Since his slaves had intermarried with the Custis slaves, he postponed the date of their emancipation until after Martha died. He did so to avoid what he called "the most painful sensations" - i.e. some family members would be free and others would not. [By law Martha could not free the Custis slaves even if she wished to. They were for her use during her lifetime, but were to be passed on to the Custis heirs upon her death.] Of course, this delay was strictly for Martha's benefit. Those "painful sensations" would happen eventually when the emancipation of GW's slaves was effected. Martha would simply not have to witness them. Nevertheless, Martha, apparently fearful of her own life, freed Washington's slaves before her death. Abigail Adams wrote that Martha told her that "she did not feel as tho her Life were safe in their hands."
It is I think both interesting and revealing that a man as thoughtful and careful as GW came up with a solution about freeing his slaves that his wife ultimately came to believe endangered her life! This once again simply points out slavery's corroding characteristics. The reason GW's solution was not very good is because there simply was no good solution available, try as he might to find it. "For those who are tempted to criticize GW for not initiating an emancipation policy for the entire nation, it is instructive to see that he could not even effectively free 124 men, women, and children on his own plantation in northern Virginia." [John Riley]The institution of slavery was more than a match for any individual, even an individual as capable as GW.
When, Thurgood Marshall, America's first black Supreme Court justice, was asked how he wished to be remembered, he said, "He did the best he could with what he had." One might argue that George Washington did the best he could considering the circumstances in which he found himself. Of all of the founding fathers, only George Washington actually freed his slaves. In the words of one scholar, "it was the last and greatest debt he owed to his honor." Not only did he free them, but he also rejected explicit racist language concerning innate inferiority of blacks and did not dismiss the idea of free blacks living in the United States in harmony with whites. Interestingly, his views were in contrast to Thomas Jefferson on all three points. A fourth point of contrast might be mentioned. "There has never been a credible tale of George Washington taking advantage of a slave sexually."
And if Washington did not use his great prestige to publicly attack the institution of slavery, he used that same prestige to firmly establish a permanent union for the United States based on a government dedicated to human freedom. He was not able to complete everything he might have wished to do, but he left us a united nation and the tools to do so. Given the real world situation he faced and the crippling impact of slavery and racism on individuals as well as nations, George Washington's example of at least partially outgrowing the racist society that produced him can still inspire and encourage.
Thank you very much.