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Conversations with America Owning Africans

Updated on April 20, 2011

Owning Africans: Slavery and George Washington

I spent much of my childhood in the Old Dominion--the Commonwealth of Virginia.  My father was in the Army, a strange match of 60s liberal to the Establishment, and my mother was, if anything, more radical than my father.  She approached the Lincoln Memorial as a holy site and was the first to point out to me how small the lettering for Martin Luther King Boulevard was compared to the signs for roads named after Jefferson, Washington, and Madison.  My first conflict with a schoolteacher, of which through the years there were many, was over the slave poet Phyllis Wheatley.  We were told that her master was a good, kind man.  That seemed nonsense to me, as a good, kind man would have freed her and promoted her life in other ways, not kept her in bondage congratulating himself for her creativity.  When I pointed this out to my first grade teacher, she was, to say the least, displeased with me and quickly noted that I was rebellious and disrespectful.  I probably was, but she did not answer my question: How could a slaveowner be a good man?  Over twenty years later I read in an Alice Walker essay that Phyllis Wheatley died of malnutrition, free with her children.  This is to me a further failure of her kind master.

Recently I began reading a book of essays on the Founding Fathers, Revolutionary Characters: what made the Founders different by Gordon S. Wood1.  The first of the Fathers addressed is George Washington.  Wood notes that Washington was the only Founder to free his slaves, and that he did so out of a firm, moral belief that slavery was irreconcilable with a free republic.  In an echo of my first grade teacher, Wood writes: "Although he [Washington] was a good master, constantly concerned with the health and welfare of his slaves, he did not agonize over his holding human beings in bondage"2.  All I could think of, once again based on my past in Virginia, were the slave quarters at Mount Vernon.  I first viewed them when I was six or seven years old, and they horrified me.  They were to me then, and remain to me now, a man-made hell for men, women, and children. 

I recognize now that my childhood response to the question of 'good masters' was simplistic.  It had to be; I was six years old.  However, the substance of that response is as much a part of me now as it was then, and that naiveté regarding human nature is probably a strong element of my personality.  I have long studied the Holocaust, and yet the depravity of man never fails to shock me, and I fear the day it no longer does I will have become less human myself.

The slavery of the New World and the Caribbean was different from the slavery of Africa and Old Europe.  Historically, slavery has been a common economic solution to the problems of labor-intensive industry and agriculture.  Slaves have been owned as status markers, as soldiers, and as laborers.  The degree of separation between owner and slave differs among different societies.  Among the slave-owning Native American tribes, the Seminole had a strikingly different relationship to their slaves in comparison to the relationship between the Choctaw and their slaves, the latter bearing a close similarity to the relationship between white Southern slave-owners and their captive laborers3.  Slavery in some societies is a life-long condition at the master's will, while in others it is a period of absolute indenture followed by a return to the free condition.  Famously in Europe, Slavs were enslaved, and the condition was made eponymous with them.  Slavery was a misfortune, but it was not linked to one's color, nor was it racially specific.

In the New World, slavery rapidly became racialized.  Blacks were assumed to be slaves unless they could prove otherwise.  In a significant departure from English legal norms, slavery descended through the mother, not the father, thus making any child of a slave woman a slave.  In England, children legally belonged to their father.  In the interests of the institution of slavery, children were made into the belongings of their mothers, and then into the possessions of the men who owned their mothers.  This legal accommodation also allowed slave-owners to mask the inconvenient reality that they could, and did, own their own children, fathered upon willing or unwilling slave women.  Really, all children of such assignations must be considered children of rape, as a slave woman could not refuse the sexual advances of a white owner, so that coercion was always a factor in consent through the conditions that limited the woman's realistic options.  Some women may have been able to turn their liaisons to good use, but this does not obviate the guilt of their owners.  Constant white-black liaisons produced the African-American population in all its variant hues, including some that are pale enough to never have to confess to African ancestors, and indeed to forget them.

The Founding Fathers, then, knew that slavery was wrong.  They were sure it imperiled the Republic.  Many, like Jefferson, were equally certain that slavery would disappear in the future.  However, in their present they were not up to the challenge of discarding slavery.  We can examine George Washington's case to discover what prevented them from acting in a manner that accorded with the republic's claims.

George Washington was a successful planter, in a way that Jefferson was not.  He was a good administrator; he paid attention to investment, profit, and the details of his plantation-business.  The success of his plantation depended upon the labor of slaves, many of whom were not his, but his wife's.  He imported more slaves than he began with from the West Indies and Africa.  According to Wood, Washington had more than a hundred slaves at Mount Vernon by 1774, and his criticism of slavery as an institution focused on the inefficiency and laziness of slave labor rather than its morality.  In 1774, the Fairfax Resolves, which Washington endorsed, recommended that the importation of slaves cease. "Many Virginians wanted to end the slave trade because they had more slaves than they knew what to do with"4. Washington endorsed the Resolves, while at the same time importing more slaves from the West Indies.  Apparently, he did not yet have enough slaves.  Certainly nothing in Washington's behavior or public statements before his command of the Continental Army indicate slavery formed a problem of conscience for the future president.  His economic well-being, his family's economic security, his ability to work at becoming the gentleman-hero of the colonies, and the shape of his society were all predicated on slave labor.

Washington led a man-hungry army.  The Continental Army was plagued by desertions, short-terms of service, and logistical difficulties.  In 1775, George Washington found himself in command of free black men serving in New England regiments.  He needed the men, and began advocating the recruitment of free blacks into his Army.  In 1779 he supported a plan to grant slaves their freedom as payment for military service, but was unsurprised by the plans failure.  Washington's Continental Army included an estimated 5,000 free black soldiers, and their presence and actions disturbed his comfort with the institution central to Southern life and society.  He did not publicly renounce slavery or share his thoughts on the matter, but privately he began a re-evaluation of the institution.  By the end of the war, he was sure that slavery had to go, but he was no more certain than any one else how to manage it5.

Washington decided against slavery as a private individual, not as a public person.  This is shown by his decision to emancipate his slaves, according to his will, after his wife's death.  If he emancipated them before this time, he would have been removing from her a legacy she rightfully possessed, especially as a significant number of his slaves were the original property of Martha.  He did not publicly announce his intention to free his slaves.  He did not publish his opinions on this institution so fundamental to his home state.  Rather, he decided in 1786 to purchase no more slaves.  At that moment, he owned over 200, over half of whom did not work due to old age or youth.  He hoped for a slow, imperceptible means of eliminating slavery, but did not develop one, nor did anyone else6.  Revolutions, and such a drastic change in the labor system, affecting as it would every other element of Southern life, would be revolutionary, are not matters of imperceptible movement. 

Washington, like other planters, was plagued by economic difficulties, the most pressing of which was how to turn land into cash.  Jefferson, heavily indebted, sold his slaves for cash as he could not sell his land, held by his creditors.  Washington's wealth was in his land.  Slaves were assets that planters could liquidate as they needed, sell and trade to their own profit and to support their business efforts.  Without this human property, planters were bankrupts with failing farms.

Unlike other planters, however, Washington had no children to consider.  The emancipation of his slaves would not affect the prospects of a son or daughter.  At the end of his life, Washington, as a husband but not a father, was free to emancipate his slaves, after seeing that his wife would not suffer from his action, without the risk of dispossessing any children.  If Washington had children, I suspect his will might have been very different and his slaves would have remained in bondage.  After all, to burden his heirs with land without the labor to work it, and the land itself not easily transferred or liquidated, would have been socially and personally irresponsible in the eighteenth century.

So it was that in 1799, George Washington secretly prepared a will that freed his slaves.  The details of the provisions he made for this emancipated population are revealing.  First, he recognized that the intermarriages of his and Martha's slaves meant that many of his slaves would not be free until after her death.  Whether she approved of this arrangement or not, we do not know, however, we do know that George wrote the testament in his own hand, without aid, and without informing his family and friends of his action.  This may indicate that he believed her to be against their emancipation, and that he believed his right to dispose of her property, while governed by respect for her status and claims as his wife, was unquestionable.  In his will, Washington forbade the transportation of the freed blacks out of Virginia, and commanded his heirs provide support to those too young or too old to live independently.  The young were to receive support until the age of 25, during which period they were also to be taught reading, writing, and a trade7.  Washington in his will recognized the necessity of economic and social support for the freed black population, a necessity the American nation would largely ignore following the Civil War when dealing with a far larger freed population.

What prevented the slave-owning Founding Fathers from ending the institution of slavery?  First, in the southern states the institution of slavery was the foundation of the elite's prosperity.  Second, the prosperity of this Southern elite was largely illusory, tied in land they could not liquidate due to debt, while slaves could be easily turned into cash when necessary.  Third, many optimists among the Founding Fathers thought that in a virtuous republic slavery would, eventually and naturally, wither away.  Fourth, the ability of men to hold to two contradictory proposals, one an ideal and one the practical principle of their material well-being, has a long history not confined to the southern United States.  Fifth, the question of what was to be done with the former slaves if slavery suddenly ended remained unanswered, and the result imagined by southern slave-owners and a majority of the Northern white population was catastrophic.  Sixth, eighteenth century men were not modern individualists.  Men such as Washington, did not believe that it was right to dispossess one's children, or future generations, for the sake of personal greed or righteousness, especially when that righteousness was not unanimously agreed upon and had such dangerous consequences. 

So much for slavery as an economic issue, which is, I admit, far less compelling than slavery as a human issue.  However, the economic and cultural supports for slavery in the colonies are important to recognize.  We have to return to them in order to realize the difficulties in dealing with slavery faced by the Founding Fathers.  To them the demise of the institution was as perilous as its maintenance.  There is no great virtue in declaring oneself against slavery today.  Of course, you and I are against slavery, and it does not cost us anything to be so.  The demise of slavery would have cost the Founding Fathers dearly in ways many of them did not think they could afford.


  1. Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: what made the Founders different. New York: Penguin Group, 2006.
  2. Wood, p. 39
  3. A very good brief description of slavery in the tribes of the Five Nations may be found in Quintard Taylor's In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), p. 62-71; on Reconstruction in the Nations, ibid, p. 114-120.
  4. Wood, p.39
  5. Wood, p. 39-40
  6. Wood, p. 40
  7. Wood, p. 40


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