GEORGE WASHINGTON’S SLAVES
He inherited his first humans when his father died. Ten slaves. He was eleven. That was in 1743.
And he wasn’t living in Mt. Vernon then. That would come later. Mt. Vernon was his stepbrother’s place. He was living with his mother near Fredericksburg, near the geographic fall line, and closer to his father’s failed iron operation.
But let’s jump to the central theme of this discussion and state the obvious, even if we don’t want to say it. That our beautiful, revolutionary, still functioning Constitution would not have been agreed upon, and our nation not founded, without the accommodations of states that demanded human bondage.
The contradiction. At our beginning. When we declared that, “all men are created equal.” Maybe the most important words we’ve ever written. Words that will not go away. Words that we are still fighting for today.
It took courage to get us started, for surely slavery is a sin, maybe the biggest, and bringing forth a cascade of more horror in its continued existence. The corrective force was the Civil War, repercussions of which we still feel, of course. So let’s look to George Washington and his part in the institution. A man who owned humans, yet set the stage for their freedom, even if he could not do it while he was still living!
Washington bought humans and sold them on some occasions. In 1781, he owned around 125 enslaved humans, including about 50 women, working his farms at Mt. Vernon. His wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, held more slaves as part of her life estate property from the death of her first husband. “Dower Slaves,” they were called then.
In April 1781, fourteen men and three women slaves escaped from Mt. Vernon to a British warship, the HMS Savage, which had sailed up the Potomac River toward the end of the American Revolution. The British had promised freedom to all slaves who would join in resisting the rebels. Seven of those escaped humans, Frank [older], Frederick [aged 45 and, “Overseer and valuable”], Gunner , Sambo , Lucy , Esther , and Thomas , were later recaptured and restored to Washington by force.
The British ship was a sloop of war mounting sixteen six-pound cannons. It was part of a British squadron sent into Chesapeake Bay to block the movement south of American troops led by the Marquis de Lafayette [23 years old and already a Major General in the American forces!] from engaging British General [and former American officer] Benedict Arnold raiding in the Virginia countryside. British General Lord Cornwallis would soon bring his army north from the Carolinas in support. Bad move. Washington would surround him at Yorktown, Virginia and force the surrender of his 10,000-man army on October 19, 1781.
The HMS Savage, under threat of fire, had collected provisions from Mt. Vernon. Washington later exclaimed that he would rather have had Mt. Vernon burnt down than to supply the British.
But on September 6, 1781, the HMS Savage, itself, was taken in a sea battle by the American privateer “Congress,” commanded by Captain George Geddes. Geddes was instrumental in returning runaway slaves to Washington. And seven of Washington’s slaves were still on the ship he captured [The HMS Savage was recaptured by the British one week later].
When Washington died at age 67 in 1799, there were 317 slaves at Mt. Vernon, of which 123 were owned by him. Along with the dower slaves of his wife, they tended to his five plantations, totaling around 3,750 acres.
In total, Washington owned over 50,000 acres of land, speculatively accumulated in different places, including Kentucky. He was drawn to the Kentucky land that he purchased by John Filson’s 1784 map, which was published in his book, “The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke.” Shown on that map in Western Kentucky, Filson had noted an “Abundance of Iron Ore” along “Rough Cr.” Washington was a true land speculator. He bought 5,000 acres at the “Falls of Rough,” sight unseen. Land, in fact, upon which his feet would never be greeted.
Washington was urged by supporters, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, to free his slaves as an example to the nation. That he didn’t, or couldn’t do so, is a telling reflection of a tortured moral and economic relationship regarding slavery in the country. Others, such as Benjamin Franklin, freed their slaves during their lifetimes. And certainly Washington thought that “gradual emancipation” would be desirable.
In 1782, Virginia law allowed the freeing of slaves if the owner provided for them [if not, the state could convert the owners’ assets to do so]. And Pennsylvania had passed the “Gradual Abolition Act” in 1780, to be followed by the other northern states in similar fashion. People enslaved after 1780 were to be freed at a certain age, and slaves brought into Pennsylvania were subject to emancipation after six months.
Such was the dilemma of Washington when he moved to Philadelphia as President of our new nation. The location where Congress met for its first ten years. The stories, and eventual escape, of two of his slaves, Hercules [his longtime chef] and Ona Judge [“light Mulatto girl, much freckled”] say much about Washington as an owner of human chattel. As does the life of Martha’s slave, Ann Dandridge, who bore the name of her father.
Washington was interested in getting his slaves back, even advertising in the newspaper. And it was George Washington who signed into law “The Fugitive Slave Act” in 1793, based on Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3, of the United States Constitution that stated:
“No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall … be discharged … but shall be delivered up…”
After the Civil War, this section would be rendered moot by the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.
So did George Washington free his slaves? Well, that is a complicated issue too. Most of Mt. Vernon’s slaves were owned by his wife, Martha. But not really. She only had a “life estate” in their use and profit. And many of his slaves had married into families with her slaves. He could free his slaves, but not hers. So what to do?
Nothing, it seems, during his lifetime. But he did do something at his death, after which he wouldn’t be around to sort out the mess. He freed them. Sort of. They would be free only after his wife died. And that didn’t make her feel particularly safe. So in 1801, she freed them herself. His slaves, not hers. At her death, the 153 dower slaves were distributed to her heirs.
George Washington did free one slave immediately upon his death. William “Billy” Lee was his manservant throughout the Revolutionary War. The man who dressed him and often rode with him in the field of battle. Had such a man not become a close friend? A confidante? Almost an Aide-de-Camp? What discussions must have passed between them both! For 20 years, the man closest to our first President. Perhaps Washington learned from Billy Lee the importance of being free!
William Lee was immediately freed by action of his will, although Washington allowed Lee to remain at Mt. Vernon if he wanted to stay. Either way, he was to be given a $30 annual annuity, “…as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” Maybe Washington’s attachment to Lee indicated that Lee was one of his truest friends.
Billy Lee, crippled, chose to remain at Mt. Vernon. He died in 1810 at the age of 60, a celebrated figure to its many visitors!