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Slavery and the Washingtons

Memorial to slaves at Washington's home Mount Vernon.      Unmarked slave burial ground at George Washington's home in Mount Vernon.
Photos from Mount Vernon:
Commemorative marker, burial ground for enslaved people

I originally thought of Finding George Washington as a comical, fish-out-of-water story, but as I learned more about my subject, so much emerged about George. A charismatic leader, but a soft-spoken, uninspiring orator. A courageous man, who endured the burden of dental pain throughout his life. A powerful, ambitious man, but a kind, gentle husband and stepfather. A 6’2” giant, at a time when most men were much shorter. A skillful horseman, a graceful dancer, a man’s man who enjoyed the company of women.

Perhaps most significantly, like most of the Founding Fathers, he was a slave owner. History establishes that Washington, privately, had at least a dawning awareness that slavery was evil and immoral. But both George and Martha felt betrayed when two enslaved people—her maid Ona Judge and the family cook Hercules—ran away from their Philadelphia household during his presidency. Exhibiting unfathomable arrogance, both Washingtons resented their “disloyalty.”

At the time of George’s death in the waning days of the eighteenth century, the Washingtons had retired to Mount Vernon, home to more than 300 enslaved people. He attempted to free them en masse, to make a powerful statement. In his will, George declared that all slaves he owned would be freed after his beloved Martha died. He provided for the education and training of slave children, as well as homes for their sick and elderly.

But … it’s complicated. George only owned 123 of the slaves himself. Under Virginia law, he had no control over those slaves who had come from the estate of her late first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, four decades earlier. Plus the two groups of enslaved humans had long since intermarried.

Distraught over George’s passing, Martha never again slept in the master bedchamber they had shared at Mount Vernon, staying instead in a garret room on the third floor. She outlived him by a couple of years. During that time, as the slaves George had owned anticipated their impending freedom, she feared they might hasten her passing in order to achieve it. So she freed them herself, signing a Deed of Manumission at the end of 1800.

After Martha’s death in 1802, the 153 dower slaves, descendants of the enslaved people from the Custis estate, met a tragic—but typical —fate. Within a short time, her grandchildren had sold or split up most of these slaves, breaking up families, separating children from parents, and continuing their bondage indefinitely into future generations.

George’s manservant Billy Lee—who accompanied him into battle during the Revolution—was the only slave George mentioned by name in his will. In return for his service during the war, the General granted Billy immediate freedom and provided him a pension and permanent home at Mount Vernon. Disabled by horse-related injuries to both knees, Billy Lee learned a cobbler’s trade and outlived George by decades, making shoes. He was known to enjoy visiting with Revolutionary War veterans, including Lafayette, who came to pay respects to the memory of the charismatic General who had led the War of Independence.

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3 thoughts on “Slavery and the Washingtons”

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