George Washington and the Paradox of Slavery


With respect to the other species of property, concerning which you ask my opinion, I shall frankly declare to you 
that I do not like even to think much less talk of it....

George Washington to Alexander Spotswood, 1794.

Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon by Junius Brutus Stearns, oil on canvas, 1851How could the founding fathers who envisioned a nation where all men are created equal also hold other human beings in firm bondage and preserve the concept of slavery? This is a question that has plagued historians for decades. Through his will, George Washington provided not only for the emancipation of his slaves, but for their education so that they would be self-supporting as freed men and women. No other founding father, including Thomas Jefferson, would set his slaves free, much less provide for their education. How did Washington -- who did little to prevent prevent the spread of slavery or promote abolition while President -- come to this decision? 

During the Revolutionary War, Washington objected to the use of slaves and free blacks in the army. On November 12, 1775 he signed an order excluding blacks from serving in the army. Washington was forced to rethink his stance the army's recruiting policies failed to enlist enough men to serve in the army, particularly in light of the number of blacks who fled to the British army after Lord Dunmore's proclamation promising freedom in return for enlistment. After the war, Washington's stance on slavery continued to be inconsistent, expressing concern that slaves who enlisted in the Continental Army not be repossessed by their owners while at the same time hiring a agent to locate his own slaves who he thought may be in New York.

Washington's friend and comrade, the Marquis de Lafayette, was among those who openly debated the contradiction between liberty and slavery in the new nation. "I would have never drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery." He was appalled that slaves continued to be transported after the Revolution aboard ships flying the American flag. In February 1783, while writing to Washington to inform him that the preliminary treaty of peace had been signed on January 20, Lafayette also proposed a scheme whereby the two men would purchase an estate and free Washington's slaves, using them as tenants:

Now, my dear General, that you are going to enjoy some ease and quiet, permit me to propose a plan to you, which might become greatly beneficial to the black part of mankind. Let us unite in purchasing a small estate, where we may try the experiment to free the negroes, and use them only as tenants. Such an example as yours might render it a general practice; and if we succeed in America, I will cheerfully devote a part of my time to render the method fashionable in the West Indies. If it be a wild scheme, I had rather be mad this way, than to be thought wise in the other task.

Washington put off any immediate action, but it appears that he was interested in Lafayette's experiment. In 1785, Lafayette purchased 125,000 acres in Cayenne, a plantation that came with slaves. Lafayette did not immediately free his slaves, but did pay them for their work and provided some education. However, Lafayette's experiment only lasted a few years. In 1792, he was imprisoned and his property was confiscated and sold off by the Revolutionary government in France. 

During his presidency, Washington did little to advance the cause of abolition. He was aware of the fragility of the new republic and the potential for a dispute over slavery to destroy it. Historian Dorothy Twohig writes: "From Washington's occasional comments on slavery expressing his desire to see it disappear from the new American nation it is difficult to decipher how deep his sentiments ran. It is likely that he had come to disapprove of the institution on moral grounds and that he considered it a serious impediment to economic development. Although he did not make sufficient comments on the institution of slavery for us to be certain, it appears that his opposition dealt more with the immorality of one man holding ownership over another than with the cruelty and abuse to individuals that slavery might engender. But there is no indication in his correspondence that he advocated any immediate policy of abolition. Obsessed with order both in his personal life and in politics, he would hardly have contemplated saddling the fragile new nation with the enormous problems resulting from immediate abolition--the disruption in the labor market, the care of blacks too old or too sick to work."

Upon his return to Mount Vernon, Washington developed and improved his holdings on his plantations and slavery continued to be the primary source of labor. When his father died in 1743, Washington inherited ten slaves. By the time of his own death in 1799, there were 317 slaves working on his five plantations. Washington owned 164 outright; 153 came as part of his wife Martha's dower from her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. The remainder represent skilled slaves that Washington rented from nearby slaveholders. Washington's views on slavery were for the most part expressed privately. Although he was interested in the well-being of the slaves on his plantations, he was probably driven by concern for their economic contributions to the plantation. In 1792, Washington wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon: "It is foremost in my thoughts, to desire you will be particularly attentive to my Negros 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 draughthorse or Ox; neglecting them as much when they are unable to work; instead of comforting & nursing them when they lye on a sickbed."

While Washington showed signs of repentance for perpetuating slavery in the new republic, his decision to free his slaves through probate may have been made abruptly. In the nineteenth century, Benson Lossing published a letter from Martha Washington, original now lost, describing a dream Washington had of his impending death. It is believed that Washington composed his final will shortly thereafter. In it, Washington made a startling provision: 

Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho' earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter... 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 pretense 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 this clause 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....

Washington died five months after drafting his will. After his death, Martha grew fearful that the Mount Vernon slaves would kill her to hastened their emancipation. One year after his death, Martha Washington freed all of her husband's slaves. When she died in May 1802, Martha possessed only one slave in her own name, a mulatto named Elish who she bequeathed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and his heirs forever. 

SOURCES: Dorothy Twohig. "That Species of Property": Washington's Role in the Controversy Over Slavery. In George Washington Reconsidered, Don Higginbotham, ed., University Press of Virginia, 2001; Henry Wiencek. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standard for Grades K-4:

STANDARD 4: How democratic values came to be, and how they have been exemplified by people, events, and symbols. 

Standard 4C: The student understands historic figures who have exemplified values and principles of American democracy. 

K-4: Identify historical figures who believed in the fundamental democratic values such as justice, truth, equality, the rights of the individual, and responsibility for the common good, and explain their significance in their historical context and today. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 
K-4: Describe how historical figures in the United States and other parts of the world have advanced the rights of individuals and promoted the common good, and identify character traits such as persistence, problem solving, moral responsibility, and respect for others that made them successful. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Portrait, George Washington
    ARTIST: Charles Willson Peale
    SOURCE: The Papers of George Washington
    REPOSITORY: Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia
  2. DESCRIPTION: Portrait, Martha Washington
    ARTIST: Charles Wilson Peale
    SOURCE: The Papers of George Washington
    REPOSITORY: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Mount Vernon, Virginia.
  3. DESCRIPTION: Painting, Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon
    ARTIST: Brutus Stearns
    SOURCE: George Washington: A National Treasure
    REPOSITORY: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
  4. DESCRIPTION: Washington & family at Mount Vernon
    ARTIST: Alonzo Chappel
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Printed on border: "Entered according to act of congress AD 1868 by Johnson Fry, & Co. in the clerks office of the district court of the southern district of New York."
    REPOSITORY: New York Public Library
  5. DESCRIPTION: Fugitive slave advertisement for PERES, JACK, NEPTUNE, and CUPID by George Washington
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 20, 1761 in Maryland Gazette (Annapolis)
    NOTES: See also Lathan A. Windley, "Runaway Slave Advertisements of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson" The Journal of Negro History (Oct. 1978): 373-374. Ad reprinted in W.W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, January 1761-June 1767 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 65-68.
    SOURCE: Martha Washington: A Life
  6. DESCRIPTION: Census of slaves at Mount Vernon
    NOTES: Completed shortly before Washington's death
    SOURCE: The Papers of George Washington
    REPOSITORY: Mt. Vernon Ladies Association
  7. DESCRIPTION: The Will of George Washington 
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: Mount Vernon, July 9, 1799
    NOTES: Transcription also available.
    SOURCE: The Papers of George Washington
    REPOSITORY: Fairfax County Court House, Book H-1, pp. 1-23

Additional Media Resources

The Papers of George Washington

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

George Washington: A National Treasure

George Washington's Mount Vernon

Martha Washington: A Life. A collaborative project of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Center for History and New Media

Additional Instructional Resources

Learning about George Washington. From the George Washington Papers

George Washington: American Revolutionary. From A&E Classrooms.

George Washington: Founding Father. From A&E Classrooms.

Explorations: Indentured Servitude and Slavery. From Digital History.

George Washington: The Living Symbol

Daily Lives of Slaves - What Really Happened? From the UMBC Center for History Education.

Runaway Slaves: From the Revolution to the New Republic From the UMBC Center for History Education.

Freedom for All? The Contradictions of Slavery and Freedom in the Maryland Constitution From the UMBC Center for History Education.

Secondary Resources

Conroy, Sarah Booth. "The Founding Father and His Slaves" The Washington Post February 16 1998.

Hurrelbrinck, Nancy. "Freeing his slaves is one of Washington's greatest legacies." Inside UVa (January 2001): 8.

Pogue, Dennis J. "George Washington and the Politics of Slavery" Historic Alexandria Quarterly (Spring/Summer 2003): 1-10.

Twohig, Dorothy. "That Species of Property": Washington's Role in the Controversy Over Slavery. In George Washington Reconsidered, Don Higginbotham, ed., University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Wall, Charles C. "Notes on the Early History of Mount Vernon" The William and Mary Quarterly (Apr. 1945): 173-190.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
3200 George Washington Memorial Parkway
Mount Vernon, Virginia 22121

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.


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