In his writings, George Washington felt very strongly that slavery was an institution that needed to be eliminated from American society. However, there were several circumstances that arose following the American Revolution that would prevent Washington from actively pursuing the elimination of slavery during his lifetime.
It is certainly plausible that George Washington’s personal economic short-comings, forefront in the setting of conflicting political agendas and the nation’s revolutionary climate, prevented this founding father from actively pursuing the nationwide emancipation of slaves. Prior to and during the American Revolution, little was written by Washington on his feelings about slavery. In the last year of the war and thereafter, more attention was spent by Washington on the issue of slavery.
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On February 5, 1783, Washington received a letter from Marquis de Lafayette, whom Washington considered both a friend and a son, that stated, “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…” (Sparks v.3, p.547). It is doubtful that Lafayette would have proposed this idea unless he knew that Washington had strong views on seeing the elimination of slavery. Washington wrote back to Lafayette on April 5, “The scheme… to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in which. they are held, is striking evidence of the benevolence of your 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 would be so until December, so he thought it would be best to “…defer going into a detail of the business, ’till I have the pleasure of seeing you” (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300). However, when Washington finally did return home in December, he found himself in such great debt that even noble experiments like the one that Lafayette had proposed, had to take a back seat to get 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 his inability to participate, and on May 10, 1786, he wrote to Lafayette, “[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on 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 on slavery, but he realized that this hope was very unlikely to be realized. He writes to Lafayette in the same letter, “Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into 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 thought that the process should be a slow and gradual one. He felt that to release the slaves all at once would, “[B]e 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 skills needed to survive. Many of them may have had to resort to stealing in order to feed themselves. It would also be very inconvenient for the slaveholders who depended so greatly upon their slave workforce. To eliminate such a workforce would devastate many Americans, mostly Southerners, who relied heavily on slave-labour.
In numerous letters, Washington stresses his desire to see Legislative authority enact a plan that would slowly and gradually free the slaves. In a letter to Robert Morris on April 12, 1786, Washington writes, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]…by Legislative 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 my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by 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, “I wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State [Virginia] could 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 slave during his lifetime. Before it is thought that Washington was simply all talk, however, it is important to consider the circumstances, in particular his financial situation, that he had 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 years of neglect at home” (v.6, p.4). Debtors paid Washington back during his absence with greatly depreciated currency. The 1781 British raid saw eighteen slaves run away, and another nine had to be sold. The nine slaves that were sold during Washington’s time in the 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 like cattle 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 rent from Washington’s western lands was never collected (Freeman v.6, p.4-5). In Washington’s own words, “I made no money from my Estate during the nine years I was absent from it and brought none home with me” (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.345). Add this to the fact that Washington refused a salary as General of the army, and it quickly becomes evident 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 slaves their freedom, it would have proved financially disastrous. Without this needed labour force, it is quite possible that Washington may have never gotten out of debt. He refused all attempts by Congress to give him a yearly allowance (Freeman v.6, p.6). He had spent eight years volunteering his time and energy to the Continental Army, it was unlikely that he would suddenly accept payment from his country. He was proud to have served his country 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 many of his letters. In a letter to the Earl of Tankerville, on January 20, 1784, Washington writes, “An almost entire suspension of everything which related to my own Estate, for near nine years, has accumulated in the 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 for want of money…” (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.436). A year and a half later, Washington is still struggling for money, writing on December 20, 1785 to Mercer, “…[I]t cannot be more disagreeable to you to hear than it is to me to repeat that my wants are pressing, some debts which I am really ashamed to owe, are unpaid…” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.363). Lund Washington, the man who was in charge of the estate during Washington’s absence, had not been paid since April 1778. It wasn’t until 1794 that Lund had been fully paid and the account closed (Freeman v.6, p.7).
In his Last Will and Testament, Washington finally freed his slaves, upon the death of Martha. In his Will, Washington writes, “Upon the decease [of] my wife, it is my Will and desire th[at] all the Slaves which I hold in [my] own right, shall receive their free[dom]” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Washington refrained from releasing his slaves immediately because he realized that many of his slaves had married dower slaves, who could not be freed until the death of Martha (Carroll v.7, p.585).
To have freed his slaves immediately would have produced, “…such insu[perab]le difficulties…[and] excite the most pa[i]nful sensations, if not disagreeabl[e c]onsequences…” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276) from those dower slaves married to the freed slaves. Washington did not want to separate husband from wife, a mother from child. Washington also feared that some freed slaves who had families that were dower slaves would help them to escape. By waiting until both he and Martha were passed away, both Washington’s slaves and the dower slaves could 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 infi[rm]ities, and others who on account of [thei]r infancy…will be unable to [su]pport themselves…”, should be given comfortable clothes and fed by his heirs while they are alive (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276).
Those youths without parents were to be cared for until the age of twenty, taught how to read and write, and be shown how to perform “…some useful occupation…” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Washington demanded that, “…[T]his [cl]ause 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…” (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 this man must be revered in history. While it is true that he held over 300 slaves at the time of his death, it is also true that through his influential letters, and through his releasing of his 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 views of slavery. It is unfortunate that more Southern Americans did not follow Washington’s lead, 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 at building.
Carroll, 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 to Washington. 4 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1853.
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