George-Washington & His Slaves: Some Mercy For them? Any Mercy for Him?
Along with William Penn, the name of George Washington was mentioned in the discussion of my post yesterday about renaming Pennsylvania due to William Penn’s shameless slaveholding.
Washington also owned numerous slaves, for many decades, and his wife inherited many more. My recollection is that there were more than 300 slaves laboring to maintain Washington’s 8000 acre estate at Mt. Vernon, on the green banks of the Potomac River south of the city that now bears his name. Further, he owned the surviving slaves, about 123, until his dying day, December 14, 1799.
BTW as I read southern history, ownership of that many slaves would make Washington and his family among the very wealthiest in their society. My understanding is that only a few “super-rich” American families owned more than 200 slaves. (Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederacy, owned only about one hundred on his Mississippi landholdings; genealogists report that they found only one man in the 1860 census and property records as owning more than one thousand; the next ten largest moved quickly down toward 500.)
This suggests that Washington’s family was very wealthy in enslaved “human capital.” William Penn was small time by comparison.
So would this mean that, by the logic explored in the previous post, it is time to consider renaming the city that makes up the District of Columbia, popularly described as “the nation’s capital”? And what about the state of Washington, a continent away, anchored by the very progressive city of Seattle in the corner of the Pacific Northwest?
That’s the initial reaction.
But when I reviewed some of the material gathered by the foundation that now owns Mount Vernon (MV) about Washington’s life there, some challenging data turned up. Particularly at the end: in his will, “George Washington specified that all the slaves he owned “free and clear” (pardon the expression), were to be freed.
Consider that, 123 persons, considered as “capital,” were a very large fortune. And Washington was ready to let them, literally, “walk away.” (The other 170 slaves at MV were not “his,” and he had no right to free them.)
He anticipated that his heirs, perhaps beginning with wife Martha, would not like this “giveaway,” and might try to stop it. So the will was very specific and insistent.
“In accordance with state law,” summarizes the MV history, “George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported throughout their lives by his estate. Children without parents, or those whose families were unable to see to their education were to be bound out to masters and mistresses who would teach them reading, writing, and a useful trade, until they were ultimately freed at the age of twenty-five.
Washington’s will stated that he took these charges to his executors very seriously:
He wrote: “And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors…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, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm.”
These instructions were to take effect when Martha Washington died.
But the widow decided not to wait that long. Indeed, according to a letter by Abigail Adams, Martha feared that one or more of her husband’s slaves might decide to speed up their day of deliverance by doing away with her, so she actually signed the deed of manumission for them herself, in December 1800. (She lived on until May 1802.)
The others, and their successors, were still held as chattels at MV and at other estates owned by relatives (including, in time, Confederate general Robert E. Lee) until the Civil War.
There’s no question that slavery was the central economic institution of southern American society (and much of the rest of the nation as well.) It supported Washington in great wealth, and he never publicly spoke against it.
Yet MV historians point out that he was also the only one of the “Founding Fathers” who owned slaves to free them in his will, which is one more among his many distinctions.
And I wonder, can or should this voluntary relinquishment of slave power earn Washington any credit, any clemency, among today’s strict judges? Can it , ought it to weigh in the scales of justice for his case among the many, as to the propriety of maintaining any continuing public homage to them now, who held humans as property then?
Or is his name on the capital city and a great western state no more than outrage and oppression perpetuated?
What say ye, there reading this? Washington owned slaves, and lived well on their labor. Yet in the end, he freed all he legally could; and this in his time, in his society, was a unique liberating act.
He showed some mercy to them, in the end. Should his memory be shown any mercy by those today, now?