In his writings, George Washington felt very strongly that slavery was aninstitution that needed to be eliminated from American society. However, there wereseveral circumstances that arose following the American Revolution that would preventWashington from actively pursuing the elimination of slavery during his lifetime.
It iscertainly plausible that George Washington’s personal economic short-comings, forefront in the setting of conflicting political agendas and the nation’s revolutionaryclimate, prevented this founding father from actively pursuing the nationwideemancipation of slaves. Prior and during the American Revolution, little was written by Washington onhis feelings about slavery. In the last year of the war and thereafter, more attention wasspent by Washington on the issue of slavery. On February 5, 1783, Washington receiveda letter from Marquis de Lafayette, whom Washington considered both a friend and ason, that stated, “Let us unite in purchasing a small estate, where we may try theexperiment to free the negroes, and use them only as tenants. Such an example as yoursmight render it a general practice..
.” (Sparks v.3, p.547). It is doubtful that Lafayettewould have proposed this idea unless he knew that Washington had strong views onseeing the elimination of slavery.
Washington wrote back to Lafayette on April 5, “Thescheme…
to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from thatstate of Bondage in which. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence ofyour Heart. I shall be happy to join you is so laudable a work…” (Fitzpatrick v.
26, p.300).Unfortunately, Washington was still in charge of the American troops, and wouldbe so until December, so he thought it would be best to “…defer going into a detail of thebusiness, ’till I have the pleasure of seeing you” (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.
300). However, whenWashington finally did return home in December, he found himself in such great debtthat even noble experiments like the one that Lafayette had proposed, had to took a backseat to getting Washington’s financial situation in order.Lafayette went on with his plan alone, buying land in the French colony of Cayenne(Sparks v.4, p.110). Washington was still very supportive of this plan despite hisinability to participate, and on May 10, 1786, he wrote to Lafayette, “Your latepurchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaveson it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity” (Fitzpatrick v.
28, p.424).Washington hoped that the American people would have similar ideas and feelings onslavery, but he realized that this hope was very unlikely to be realized. He writes toLafayette in the same letter, “Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generallyinto the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it” (Fitzpatrick v.28,p.424).
While Washington believed that the slaves needed to be freed, he also thoughtthat the process should be a slow and gradual one. He felt that to release the slaves all atonce would, “Be productive of much inconvenience and mischief..
.” (Fitzpatrick v.28,p.242). There would be a mass of former slaves in America who did not have the skillsneeded to survive. Many of them may have had to resort to stealing in order to feedthemselves.
It would also be very inconvenient for the slave holders who depended sogreatly upon their slave work force. To eliminate such a work force would devastatemany Americans, mostly Southerners, who relied heavily on slave-labor. In numerous letters, Washington stresses his desire to see Legislative authorityenact a plan that would slowly and gradually free the slaves. In a letter to Robert Morrison April 12, 1786, Washington writes, “I can only say that there is not a man living whowishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery…byLegislative authority.
..” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.
408). He also writes on September 9, 1786,to John Mercer that, “I never mean..
.to possess another slave by purchase; it being myfirst wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolishedby slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees” (Fitzpatrick v.29, p.
5). Much later in his life,Washington is still echoing this same message when he writes on August 4, 1797, to Lawrence Lewis that, “I wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State Virginiacould see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery…” (Fitzpatrick v.36, p.
2).Despite Washington’s high hopes and grand talk, he himself did not free one slaveduring his lifetime. Before it is thought that Washington was simply all talk, however, itis important to consider the circumstances, in particular his financial situation, that hehad to deal with upon returning home from the war in late 1783.
As Freeman writes, “The eight years of service in the Army had been eight yearsof neglect at home” (v.6, p.4). Debtors paid Washington back during his absence withgreatly depreciated currency.
The 1781 British raid saw eighteen slaves run away, andanother nine had to be sold. The nine slaves that were sold during Washington’s time inthe army, were sold only because the estate had not even enough money to pay for taxes. According to Carroll and Ashworth, Washington opposed the selling of Negroes likecattle in the market (Carroll v.7, p.
585). The man left in charge of Washington’s estate,Lund Washington, had an aversion to travel and bookkeeping, which meant that rentfrom Washington’s western lands were never collected (Freeman v.6, p.4-5). InWashington’s own words, “I made no money from my Estate during the nine years I wasabsent from it, and brought none home with me” (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.345).
Add this tothe fact that Washington refused a salary as General of the army, and it quickly becomesevident that the Washington estate was not in very good financial shape.As much as Washington may have wanted to, if he would have given his slavestheir freedom, it would have proved financially disastrous. Without this needed laborforce, it is quite possible that Washington may have never gotten out of debt. He refusedall attempts by Congress to give him a yearly allowance (Freeman v.6, p.6). He had spenteight years volunteering his time and energy to the Continental Army, it was unlikely thathe would suddenly accept payment from his country.
He was proud to have served hiscountry while collecting no salary, to do so now would be an attack on his pride.The fact that Washington was in dire financial straits can be easily seen in manyof his letters. In a letter to the Earl of Tankerville, on January 20, 1784, Washingtonwrites, “An almost entire suspension of every thing which related to my own Estate, fornear nine years, has accumulated in abundance of work for me (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.309). On July 8, 1784, he writes to John Mercer, “I do assure you Sir, that I am distressed forwant of money..
.” (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.436). A year and a half later, Washington is stillstruggling for money, writing on December 20, 1785 to Mercer, “..
.It cannot be moredisagreeable to you to hear, than it is to me to repeat that my wants are pressing, somedebts which I am really ashamed to owe, are unpaid…” (Fitzpatrick v.
28, p.363). LundWashington, the man who was in charge of the estate during Washington’s absence, hadnot been paid since April, 1778. It wasn’t until 1794 that Lund had been fully paid andthe account closed (Freeman v.
6, p.7).In his Last Will and Testament, Washington finally freed his slaves, upon thedeath of Martha. In his Will, Washington writes, “Upon the decease of my wife, it ismy Will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive theirfreedom” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.
276). Washington refrained from releasing his slavesimmediately, because he realized that many of his slaves had married dower slaves, whocould not be freed until the death of Martha (Carroll v.7, p.
585). To have freed his slavesimmediately would have produced, “…such insuperable difficulties.
..and excite themost painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences…
” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276)from those dower slaves married to the freed slaves.
Washington did not want toseparate husband from wife, mother from child. Washington also feared that some freedslaves who had family that were dower slaves would help them to escape. By waitinguntil both he and Martha were past away, both Washington’s slaves and the dower slavescould be released at the same time.Washington also provided in his Will for the care of those freed slaves who,”from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy…
willbe unable to support themselves…”, should be given comfortable clothes and fed by hisheirs while they are alive (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276).
Those youths without parents were tobe cared for until the age of twenty, taught how to read and write, and be shown how toperform “…some useful occupation…
” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Washington demandedthat, “..
.This clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled atthe Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect, or delay…
“(Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276).
Though it took him until his death to free his slaves,Washington made sure that they would be given opportunities to survive on their own,even if it meant costing his heirs a lot of money.Washington’s concerns and caring for the slaves is yet another reason why thisman must be revered in history. While it is true that he held over 300 slaves at the timeof his death, it is also true that through his influential letters, and through his releasing ofhis own slaves in his Will, Washington helped to push the anti-slave movement forward. For a Virginian in the late 18th century, Washington was truly enlightened on his viewsof slavery. It is unfortunate that more Southern Americans did not follow Washington’slead, for this issue of slavery would cost us many American lives in another sixty years,and would almost destroy the nation that George Washington had worked so hard atbuilding.
Works CitedCarroll, J.A., and M.W.
Ashworth. George Washington: A Biography. Vol.
7.New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957. 7 vols.Fitzpatrick, John C.
, ed. The Writings of George Washington. 39 vols.Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1933.Freeman, Douglass S.
George Washington: A Biography. Vol. 6. New York:Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.
7 vols.Sparks, Jared. Correspondence of the American Revolution, Letters toWashington.
4 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1853.History