October 2nd, 2021


The Legacy of Slavery: George Washington

Today a second look is being taken at the legacy of many of the antebellum leaders who supported the institution of slavery. It has resulted in statues being removed from public locations, buildings and other institutions being renamed and the stripping of other honors that have been in place for generations. For example, in 2019, the University of Buffalo took steps to distance the institution from Millard Fillmore, one of its founders. The University ceased its co-sponsorship of Fillmore's annual gravesite ceremony, because of his controversial policies regarding slavery. In 2020, Fillmore's name was removed from the Millard Fillmore Academic Center. What about some of the more prominent slaveholders and their legacies? Let's begin at the beginning.

George Washington was a slave owner for almost all of his life. Following the Revolutionary War, he stated that he personally opposed the institution of slavery, but his actions as President did not match these words. For example, he gave emergency financial and military relief to French slave owners in Haiti to suppress a slave rebellion. He also signed bills into law that allowed slave owners to recapture their slaves in any state and protected white U.S. citizenship. However he also signed the Northwest Territory Act that banned slavery in the Northwest Territory in 1789.

Washington first became a slaveholder at the age of eleven, when he inherited ten slaves. By the time he died there were 316 slaves at Mount Vernon, including 123 owned by Washington himself, 40 leased from a neighbor, and another 153 "dower slaves" which were controlled by Washington but were the property of his wife Martha's first husband's estate. The norm of the day was for slaves to work from dawn until dusk unless injured or ill. They were whipped for running away or for other infractions. They were fed, clothed, and housed as inexpensively as possible.

There are contradictory reports of how slaves were treated at Mount Vernon. One visitor wrote (in 1798) that Washington treated his slaves "with more severity" than his neighbors. Another around the same time stated that "Washington treat[ed] his slaves far more humanely than did his fellow citizens of Virginia."

Washington's writings show that he had a low opinion of the honesty and willingness to work of his slaves, as well as of the ability of his overseers to control them. He gave his overseers written authority to whip those slaves that the overseer considered to be in need of such "correction," including female slaves.

Before the American Revolution, Washington expressed no moral reservations about slavery, but by 1778 he had stopped selling slaves because he did not want to break up slave families. Some historians speculate that Washington may have had a change of heart on the subject of slavery because of the rhetoric of the American Revolution, because of the thousands of blacks who sought to enlist in the army, because of the anti-slavery sentiments of his aide John Laurens, and because of the enslaved black poet Phillis Wheatley, who wrote a poem in his Washington's honor.

In 1778, while the war was occurring, Washington wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon that he wished to sell his slaves and "to get quit of negroes" for reasons of economic efficiency. Washington could not legally sell the "dower slaves", and because these slaves had long intermarried with his own slaves, he could not sell his slaves without breaking up families, something which he had resolved not to do.

After the war, Washington often privately expressed a dislike of the institution of slavery. In 1786, he wrote to a friend:

"I never mean 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."

In another letter he wrote that "there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery. He expressed moral support for plans by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette to emancipate slaves and resettle them elsewhere. When it became apparent that he had too many slaves at Mount Vernon than were economically feasible, Washington wrote "It is demonstratively clear that on this Estate I have more working Negroes by a full [half] than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system." Washington could have sold his "surplus" slaves and immediately have realized a substantial income. By selling a single slave, Washington could have paid two years worth of taxes. By his failure to do so, some historians credit this to Washington's desire to take a more humanitarian course of action.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, known as the Freedom Ordinance, was passed by Congress on Washington's watch as President. One provision of the Ordinance was the exclusion of slavery in the Northwest Territory, which received support from southern slave owners. Though they did not oppose slavery, they excluded it in the area because of competition with their crops like tobacco. The law also required the government to return runaway slaves. In 1790, President Washington signed the Naturalization Act which limited U.S. Citizenship to only free white persons. In 1793, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, giving slave owners the right to capture fugitive slaves in any U.S. State.

Washington was the only prominent slaveholding Founding Father to emancipate his slaves. He included a provision in his will to free his slaves upon the death of his wife. William Lee, Washington's longtime personal servant, was the only slave freed outright in the will. The will called for the ex-slaves to be provided for by Washington's heirs, the elderly ones to be clothed and fed, the younger ones to be educated and trained at an occupation. Washington could not emancipate the "dower slaves" at Mount Vernon.

Historians debate the significance of Washington's failure to act publicly upon his growing private misgivings about slavery during his lifetime. Some see this as a tragically missed opportunity. To others, Washington did not want to risk splitting the new nation apart over the slavery issue. As historian Dorothy Twohig puts it, "He did not speak out publicly against slavery because he did not wish to risk splitting apart the young republic over what was already a sensitive and divisive issue."

Washington's many achievements including his success as the military leader of the American Revolution and his status as "the father of his country" have secured a legacy such that no significant movement has arise to remove statues of Washington, or to erase his name from the many places of honor that it can be found. Will this change as the movement to retroactively punish those who enabled the institution or slavery? Or is Washington too great a historical figure for consideration of such a course of action?