“That Species of Property”: Washington’s Role in the Controversy Over Slavery

By Dorothy Twohig


Although both Jefferson and Washington were lifelong slaveholders, as were the previous generations of Washingtons in Virginia, the master of Mount Vernon has scarcely received a fraction of the criticism on the subject that has fallen on Jefferson since the 1960s. Jefferson spoke eloquently on the evils of the peculiar institution, especially in his Notes on the State of Virginia, his only book. Washington said less about slavery, and what he said was expressed privately. There is no reason to think that either man thought that Africans, if free and given opportunities to advance, could have become the intellectual equals of whites. At least a handful of American saw that as a possibility, including Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson’s critics rightly see inconsistency between his words and deeds, not only in his eloquent phrases about the evils of human bondage but, equally significant, in his efforts to promote his image as a champion of liberty. Washington never claimed to be a spokesman for human rights; besides, it was Jefferson who principally wrote the Declaration of Independence. Washington did free his slaves, as provided in his will. And there has never been, to date at least, creditable evidence that he fathered slave children at Mount Vernon. Although both the British during the War of Independence and the Republicans in the 1790s spread scurrilous stories about Washington’s private life, the rumors died almost as quickly as they appeared. Jefferson, on the other hand, suffered genuine embarrassment over newspaperman James Callender’s accusations that he had several children by his slave Sally Hemings. In the last twenty-five years, two scholars, Fawn Brodie in 1974 and Annette Gordon-Reed in 1996, produced serious if controversial books that pointed to the strong probability of Jefferson’s paternity of the Hemings children. The year 1999 brought DNA testing to the subject. According to the results, Jefferson probably sired at least one of these offspring. And, of course, Jefferson’s will provided only for manumitting Hemingses.

In 1796 George Washington received a letter from Edward Rushton, a prominent English antislavery advocate. It was hardly the polite, respectful missive that the president of the United States normally received.

It will generally be admitted, Sir, and perhaps with justice, that the great family of mankind were nevermore benefited by the military abilities of any individual, than by those which you displayed during the American contest. . . . By the flame which you have kindled every oppressed nation will be enabled to perceive its fetters. . . . But it is not to the commander in chief of the American forces, nor to the president of the United States, that I have ought to address. My business is with George Washington of Mount Vernon in Virginia, a man who not withstanding his hatred of oppression and his ardent love of liberty holds at this moment hundreds of his fellow being in a state of abject bondage–Yes: you who conquered under the banners of freedom–you who are now the first magistrate of a free people are (strange to relate) a slave holder. . . . Shame! Shame! That man should be deemed the property of man or that the name of Washington should be found among the list of such proprietors. . . . Ages to come will read with Astonishment that the man who was foremost to wrench the rights of America from the tyrannical grasp of Britain was among the last to relinquish his own oppressive hold of poor unoffending negroes. In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelibile a blot. [1]

In his disillusion with what he regarded as Washington’s lack of political courage, Edward Rushton spoke not only for his fellow opponents of slavery but for scores of later critics of the South’s peculiar institution. To historians of succeeding generations not only Washington’s ownership of slaves but his failure to speak out publicly against slavery in the face of his own growing opposition to the institution or to bring the weight of his enormous prestige to bear against it has sometimes eclipsed his reputation as the first man of his age. Why did he not from the platform of his enormous prestige and public veneration speak out publicly against a system that his private correspondence reveals he had gradually come to regard with distaste and apprehension? Virtually all of Washington’s comments on slavery were expressed privately. On no occasion did he reveal publicly his own antipathy toward the institution or his privately expressed hopes that it would either wither naturally or be abolished by legislative action. On a less emotionally charged issue Washington’s silence would call for little comment since he rarely expressed publicly his views on other controversial issues. His reticence in general on public matters was a matter of considerable discussion during his presidency. In fact, en route to his role of American icon Washington had developed a quality rare among American politicians of any era. He had learned from painful experience as early as his service in command of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War that it would not be necessary to retract or explain or apologize later for what he had not said in the first place. By the time he reached the presidency, it had become habit. Washington remained throughout his career very conscious of the speed with which both public and private sectors could turn on their unsuccessful servants. John Adams noted that Washington had “the gift of silence.” Whatever difficulties this attribute has created for historians, it contributed immensely to his reputation for wisdom. On slavery, as on many other matters, later generations can only interpret Washington’s views from the meager private comments he made on the institution and conjecture the reasons for his public silence.

During the pre-Revolutionary years Washington’s views toward slavery were conventional, reflecting those of a typical Virginia planter of his time. If he was perhaps more concerned than some planters with his slaves’ welfare, his principal interest was still their contribution to the economic life of the plantation. His slave inventories indicate the number of slaves employed at Mount Vernon at various times: in 1759 he owned 24 slaves under the age of sixteen; in 1786 he owned slightly over 100 slaves on his own, with 113 dower slaves; in 1799 there were 164 Washington slaves and 153 dower slaves. [2] Partly because it was to his advantage to do so, he paid considerable attention to his slaves’ welfare. Washington, like many Virginia planters, was deeply involved in their lives. “It is foremost in my thoughts,” he wrote his Mount Vernon manager in 1792, “to desire you will be particularly attentive to my Negros in their sickness; and to order every Overseer positively to be so likewise; for I am sorry to observe that the generality of them, view these poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draughthorse or Ox; neglecting them as much when they are unable to work; instead of comforting & nursing them when they lye on a sickbed.” [3]

Scholarly research into the conditions of slavery on the Mount Vernon plantations is just beginning and may well reveal serious discrepancies between what Washington said and what actually happened. It appears, however, from his correspondence with his managers that as a matter of plantation policy, Washington did not want slaves worked when they were ill and provided competent medical care for them when they were ailing. Food, clothing, and housing seem to have been at least adequate; even though families often worked on separate plantations, they were not separated by sale or purchase. There are such occasional exceptions as Washington’s acceptance in 1775, in settlement for a debt, of a slave in Maryland who put up a spirited resistance to being separated from his family. [4] Before the Revolution, Washington may have sold the occasional slave, but he had mixed feelings about the procedure. As he wrote his manager early in 1779, in spite of his “reluctance in offer these people at public venue . . . if these poor wretches are to be held in a State of Slavery I do not see that a change of masters will render it more irksome, provided husband & wife, and Parents & children are not separated from each other, which is not my intention to do.” [5]

In both his military and political life, Washington adopted generally a hands-on policy, and this carried over to his management of Mount Vernon. Except for his long absences during the war and the presidency, Washington managed his own plantations and was well acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of individual slaves. He was not impressed with them as a labor force. There are frequent comments in his correspondence with his managers on their irresponsibility and indolence, although he believed their poor work habits to be a result of the system itself. As early as 1778 his correspondence indicates his disillusion with the system. Writing his manager Lund Washington from White Plains during the Revolution, he expressed his hope to exchange slaves for land. “I had rather give Negroes–if Negroes would do. for to be plain I wish to get quit of Negroes.” [6] It was, he felt, a system that prevented the best use of new farming methods and machinery and hindered agricultural progress. His correspondence with his white managers contains stern instructions concerning the role slaves were to play in specific aspects of the farming of the estate and on the dire consequences of dereliction of duty. But on his journeys home, especially during the presidency, it is evident that personal appeals and complaints from his slaves frequently mitigated his demands. Indeed, Washington’s erratic mixture of sternness and indulgence inevitably created a certain amount of chaos in plantation management. [7] Although he appreciated the inefficiency of the institution, there is little evidence that the moral and ethical considerations of slavery troubled Washington to any considerable degree before the Revolution. In 1772 he was a member of the House of Burgesses which drafted a petition to the throne labeling the importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa “a trade of great inhumanity” that would endanger the “very existence of your Majesty’s American dominions.” And two years later he was certainly involved in the composition of the July 1774 Fairfax Resolves, one of which recommended that no slaves should be imported into the British colonies. The resolutions took the opportunity of “declaring our most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop forever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade.” [8] On the other hand, in 1772 Washington himself purchased five additional slaves for use on his plantations.

When he assumed command of the army at Cambridge in June 1775, Washington for the first time faced the necessity of creating some kind of public policy regarding slaves, free blacks, and the recruiting policies of the Continental army. Like most southerners he had strong objections to using blacks as soldiers. And, again like most southerners, he was too conscious of the possibility of slave revolts to look easily upon the distribution of guns into the hands of slaves. His initial reluctance was bolstered by a long colonial tradition of prohibiting slaves to bear arms. On November 12, 1775, he signed orders excluding blacks together with underage boys and old men as recruits for service since they would be “unfit to endure the fatigues of the campaign.” [9] After Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of November 7, 1775, encouraging indentured servants and free blacks to enlist in British service, Virginia blacks began to flee to British lines in the mistaken belief that British views on slavery differed from those of the slaves’ Virginia masters. Most slaves and free blacks who fled to the British continued to be employed in a service capacity, chiefly working as military laborers. [10] The emergence of Dunmore’s plan to enlist slaves and offer them their freedom and Washington’s own desperate need for men in the aftermath of failed recruiting policies and massive desertions forced him and Congress to reconsider their initial positions at least in regard to free blacks. In fact, early in the war an important distinction came to be made in recruiting policies between slaves and free blacks. By the end of December 1775, Washington had altered his views to accommodate the situation, issuing orders that because “Numbers of free Negroes are desirous of inlisting, he gives leave to the recruiting Officers, to entertain them, and promises to lay the matter before the Congress, who he doubts not will approve of it.” [11] By 1778 Washington went so far as to permit Joseph Varnum of Rhode island to raise a battalion of African-Americans. Washington continued to use former slaves in a number of more menial capacities during the course of the war. That he retained his prewar opinions on the unreliability of slave labor is indicated by his suggestion to Congress that although blacks should be hired to solve the difficulty of obtaining waggoners, the recruits should be freemen and not slaves, which “could not be sufficiently depended on. It is to be apprehended that they would too frequently desert to the enemy to obtain their liberty; and for the profit of it, or to conciliate a more favorable reception, would carry off their waggon-horses with them.” [12]

In 1778 and 1779 John Laurens of South Carolina, one of Washington’s aides-de-camp, with the qualified approval of his father, Henry Laurens, concocted a scheme to persuade the legislatures of South Carolina and Georgia to raise several battalions of slaves for service in the army, rewarding them with their freedom in exchange for their services. Washington, fond of his young aide, gave very guarded approval to the project. “The policy of our arming slaves is in my opinion a moot point, unless the enemy set the example,” he wrote Henry Laurens. “I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it–Most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison, and I fear comparison in this Case will be productive of Much discontent in those, who are held in sevitude–but as this is a subject that has never employed much of my thoughts, these are no more than the first crude Ideas that have struck me upon the occasion.” [13] Washington was well aware of the dismay with which the plan would be received by southern slaveholders. That his reservations were justified is evidenced by the fact that the anger of South Carolina’s leaders over the resolutions passed in Congress approving the scheme led to the threat that South Carolina would remain neutral during the war. When Laurens scheme eventually failed, Washington was not surprised. “That Spirit of Freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish Passion has take its place–it is not the public but the private Interest which influences the generality of Mankind nor can the Americans any longer boast an exception–under these circumstances, it would rather have been surprizing if you had succeeded.” [14]

At the end of the war, Washington made halfhearted efforts to send back slaves who had run away from their masters to enlist and to order courts of inquiry for those who were now claimed by their masters. In 1783 when the British embarked from New York, he objected to British plans to take with them bondsmen who had served with the king’s army, arguing that the provisional articles of peace prohibited such removal. He did on occasion exhibit some care that blacks enlisted in Continental and state regiments not be summarily repossessed by unscrupulous former owners. On the other hand, he approached one of the agents overseeing the embarkation of the British from New York, contending that some of his own slaves and those of his wartime manager Lund Washington might be in New York, and enlisted the agent’s aid in seeking their return. [15]

Generally speaking, during the war Washington had taken great care to give the impression that he considered the military subservient to civilian authority in suggesting changes in policy. But if, at this stage of his career, he had entertained convictions about slavery strong enough to deviate from this position, his best opportunity presented itself when in his closing circular to the governors of the states–probably, except for the Farewell Address, his best known public document–he abandoned his usual deferential posture toward civilian authority to issue what was in effect his final policy statement. In announcing to the states his resignation as commander in chief, he presented a vista of the limitless opportunities available to the new nation, advocated the establishment of an “indissoluble Union of the states under one Federal Head,” and warned that according to the policies the states “shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall. . . . It is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse . . . [and] not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved.” In the circular there is no mention of slavery per se or its impact on the nature of the new Republic, except for a vague injunction that it was essential to the “well being” of the United States that its citizens forget their local prejudices and policies, make concessions necessary for the general good, and be willing “in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.” [16]

Washington returned to Mount Vernon in time for Christmas in 1783, determined to enjoy a quiet life on his plantation. He was charmed with the idea that he had returned, as he said on more than one occasion, to his “vine and fig tree”–to the cultivation of his acres. “I am now a private Citizen on the banks of the Potomac,” he wrote in 1784, “meditating amidst Frost & snow . . . upon the structure of walks for private life.” [17] Contemporary views of Washington were, as some of his biographers have noted, beginning to constitute a kind of secular religion. Although his incoming correspondence and the steady stream of foreign and domestic visitors to Mount Vernon in the postwar years kept him very well informed as to the state of the new nation (and his comments on political affairs, especially the need for a stronger union, are frequently frank and critical), he deliberately refrained from taking public positions on issues. But if Washington sincerely believed that he would be able to withdraw from public life, he underestimated the role he had been drafted to play in the new Republic.

Mount Vernon was always his passion, and he had endless plans for its improvement and adornment and for the increase of its acreage. When he returned to managing his plantations in 1784, his already low opinion of the deficiencies of the slave system were immediately confirmed. His own problems with slave labor at Mount Vernon made him well aware of the inefficiencies of the slave system, but at least some of his growing opposition is attributable to the principles of the Revolutionary War years, with their emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of men. One can only speculate how much this contributed to his meager comments on slavery during the 1780s. Occasional remarks reveal his changing attitudes toward the system. He wrote John Francis Mercer in September of 1786 “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure & imperceptible degrees.” In the same year he wrote of slavery to his friend Robert Morris, “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 it–but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority; and this as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.” [18] Oddly, in view of his obsession with the West, Washington seems not to have devoted much consideration to the possibility of expanding slavery to the frontier or to have regarded the abundance of land to the west as a solution to the wasteful results of slave cultivation in the East.

When Lafayette, an outspoken opponent of the system, wrote Washington from France in 1783 suggesting they cooperate in an experimental settlement for freed slaves, Washington responded cordially, as he always did to Lafayette, but without committing himself to any course of action. Lafayette proposed that he and Washington “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.” In February 1786 Lafayette informed Washington that he had bought a plantation in Cayenne for a “Hundred and twenty five thousand French livres . . . and am going to free my Negroes in order to make that Experiment which you know is my Hobby Horse.” Washington praised the project, writing, “Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country, but I dispair of seeing it . . . . To set them afloat at once would, I really believe, be productive of much inconvenience & mischief; but by degrees it certainly might, & assuredly ought to be effected & that too by Legislative authority.” Yet in the end he lent Lafayette only moral support. [19] Washington seems to have been little impressed by the embryonic colonization movement. His lack of enthusiasm may have resulted partly from the fate of the settlement of free blacks in Nova Scotia after the Revolution and in Sierre Leone on the west African coast during the 1780s and 1790s. [20]

It is evident that Washington expressed his private opinions rather widely. Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist Church in America, for example, visited Mount Vernon in 1785 and noted in his diary that General Washington had given his visitors “his opinion against slavery.” [21] But whatever his changing views, Washington, like many of his antislavery contemporaries, still let his own economic interests rule when they interfered with his principles. Not only did he still need slaves to work his own plantation, he must have been at least somewhat aware that much of the golden age of economic and social expansion in the Cheaspeake had rested on black bondsmen. Washington himself was an avid partaker in the Anglicization of Chesapeake society with its emphasis on creature comforts and the acquisition of consumer goods, much of which was dependent on a slave economy. [22] In fact it is difficult to discern from his meager comments whether Washington’s disgust with slavery rests on moral grounds (although there are some indications that this is so) or primarily on the grounds of the institutions’s economic inefficiencies. Although he probably never exposed his sentiments to the wrenching self-examination that Jefferson did, it is reasonable to project to Washington at least some of Jefferson’s painful attempts to justify the inconsistencies of preaching freedom for the rebelling colonies and still defend the fetters that kept another race enslaved. Jefferson’s moral struggles, even if, as Bernard Bailyn suggests, they led him into a reluctant and apologetic racism, are more enlightening than Washington’s, if only because we know more about them. [23] Washington cut back sharply on his purchases of slaves during the Confederation years, but he occasionally continued to acquire them. In 1786 he accepted five slaves in payment for a debt owed him by the Mercer family, even though, as he wrote Mercer, “I have great repugnance to increasing my slaves by purchase.” A little later he wrote Henry Lee requesting him to purchase a bricklayer for him because “I have much work in this way to do this Summer.” [24]

On April 16, 1789, Washington left Mount Vernon to begin his journey to New York City to assume the presidency. He went, he said, “to the chair of government, with “feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution, so unwilling am I, in the evening of a life nearly consumed in public cares, to quit a peaceful abode for an Ocean of difficulties.” [25] Over the preceding months he had conducted an extensive correspondence with friends, countering their unanimous urgings that he accept the presidency with his own agonizing reluctance to risk his hardwon reputation on the uncertainties of the new government. [26] All along the route to the capital, he passed through cheering throngs to whom he seemed the embodiment of the patriot leader. Gouverneur Morris probably echoed the views of most Americans when he wrote Washington in 1788 that “You alone can awe the Insolence of opposing Factions & the greater Insolence of assuming Adherents. . . . You will become a Father to more than three Millions of Children.” [27] Washington brought with him from his service in the Revolution, an unblemished reputation for honor and integrity, for being above the struggles of political life, for dedication to duty and to the state. [28] Both at home and abroad he was the man of the century.

Critics of Washington have insisted that if there was a time before the Civil War when slavery as an institution might have been successfully attacked, Washington could have seized this moment if he had given leadership to the antislavery forces. There is no indication that he ever considered any such course. No one understood better than he the fragility of the framework that bound the states together. During the Confederation years his faith in the new nation he had given almost ten years of his life to create had faltered. “I see,” he wrote Lafayette, “one head gradually changing into thirteen.” He confided to John Jay in 1786 that in his opinion virtue had “in a great degree, taken its departure from our Land.” “We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation,” he wrote in in the mid-1780s, adding that men would not “adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power.” [29] The convention of 1787 restored his optimism. “I begin to look forward,” he wrote Sir Edward Newenham in 1788, “with a kind of political faith, to scenes of National happiness, which have not heretofore been offered for the fruition of the Most favoured Nations. The Natural, political, and Moral circumstances of our Nascent empire justify the anticipation.” [30]

But Washington was a political realist. Presiding over the Constitutional Convention left him fully aware of the specter slavery had presented at the convention. Although it had not seemed an important factor when sessions began in Philadelphia, by the end of the summer it had permeated every phase of the deliberations. In the convention the strongest supporters of the Constitution were willing to take a stand on matters they felt essential to the success of the enterprise–to the making of a new government; but, as Washington had observed, they were not willing to sink their ship by taking on North and South Carolina and Georgia on the subject of slavery. In many of the debates the delegates trod so delicately that they employed euphemisms to avoid even the use of the word; slaves were disguised as “persons,” or “persons held to Service or Labour”; the slave trade became “migrations.” Day after day Washington sat in the president’s chair listening attentively to the debates, although there is no evidence he spoke out on slavery or indeed on many other matters. [31] The reception given to the strong antislavery speeches of Gouverneur Morris of New York and the diatribes against slavery by George Mason of Virginia were not lost on Washington. Delegates such as Charles C. Pinckney contended that “the property of the Southern States was to be as sacredly preserved, and protected to them, as that of land, or any other kind of property in the Eastern States were to be to their citizens. Property in slaves should not be exposed to danger under a government instituted for the protection of property. Even staunch supporters of the Constitution like Pierce Butler of South Carolina retrenched when slavery was threatened. “The security the Southern States want,” Butler said, “is that their negroes may not be taken from them, which some gentlemen within or without doors have a very good mind to do.” [32]

The experience of the Convention may well have shown Washington that there would be little substantive support from antislavery spokesmen if he had decided to take a vigorous position on the question. As William Lee Miller has observed, when the New Englanders were needed at the Convention to inject fortitude into the discussions on slavery, “New England was in the backrooms of the taverns making deals, and then on the floor of the convention prefacing its part in those deals by saying that of course it had never owned slaves and disapproved of the slave trade and knew slavery to be a moral evil.” [33] In return for their support of the new government, the slave-owning southerners got most of what they wanted in the convention. The three-fifths clause gave them extra representation in Congress; the electoral college gave their votes for president more potency than the votes from the North; the prohibition on export taxes favored the products of slave labor; the slave trade clause guaranteed their right to import new slaves for at least twenty years; the fugitive slave clause gave slave owners the right to repossess runaway slaves in free states; in the event of a slave rebellion the domestic violence clause promised the states federal aid. As Charles C. Pinckney pointed out in the South Carolina Ratifying Convention, “considering all circumstances, we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make. We would have made better if we could, but, on the whole, I do not think them bad.” [34]

The climate of the presidential years was equally unpromising. By the mid-1780s it was evident that the idealism of the 1770s had turned out to be an illusion. As Washington well knew, the last decades of the century witnessed a reversal in states like Virginia, where during the war there had been widespread public attacks on slavery and embryonic plans for the abolition of the institution. Proslavery petitions proliferated in Virginia; over twelve hundred signatures appearing in such petitions to the assembly, testifying to considerable opposition to manumission and to deepening hostility toward the antislavery activities of the Quakers, Methodists, and others. The Deep South tightened legislation regarding slaves. There were sporadic objections to slavery on moral grounds, some northerners pointing out as early as 1790 the immorality of aristocrats living off the sweat of their slaves. On occasion northern intellectuals may have espoused a free-labor ideology, but they failed to advance their cause by overt action. Even the North profited by slavery in terms of its economic connections with the South, and except for occasional lip service from societies to promote manumission, there was little mainstream opposition from that quarter. [35] In considering ratification of the Constitution, not one state which held conventions in the late 1780s introduced any amendment concerning slavery. And in fact there was little vocal support for the antislavery movement. Among Washington’s peers, critics of slavery like Hamilton and Jay were active in manumission societies but offered few public comments. Madison, a lifelong opponent of the institution, confined his musings on the contradictions between the ideals of the Revolution and the existence of slavery to his memoranda. Jefferson made relatively few public statements on the institution, except for his agonized soul-searching concerning the eligibility of blacks for full citizenship. [36] Benjamin Franklin, especially through the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, gave more impressive leadership. Patrick Henry opposed slavery but kept his own slaves because, as he said, of the “general Inconvenience of living here without them.” [37]

Washington was aware organized opposition to slavery had never come from a wide spectrum of the population. Postwar clerical arguments against slavery had made little headway and less impact on southern owners. Certainly such mainstream questioning of the validity of the institution as did exist tended to center on the contention that slavery had been foisted by Great Britain on unwilling colonies who now had to deal with the resulting evils. Washington, like many others of his post-Revolutionary generation, still blamed Britain for hanging slavery around colonial necks. [38] Even the opposition itself was fragmented. Most of the opponents of slavery were Quakers and members of other benevolent religious groups, and slavery was only one of their interests. Early in the eighteenth century Quaker opponents of slavery had concentrated their efforts on the conditions of slavery and on the sect’s religious duties toward the slaves. Not until the late l760s and early 1770s was there strong opposition to the foreign and domestic slave trade, and recent research has suggested serious conflicts among Quakers regarding the freeing of slaves. Quakers generally shared Washington’s strongest objection to the institution–that the buying and selling of slaves broke up families. The fact that by the end of the Revolution slaveholders had an enormous economic stake in the preservation of the institution while advocates of abolition had nothing to lose was certainly not lost on Washington. [39]

Washington shared the determination of most of his own generation of statesmen not to allow slavery to disturb their agenda for the new Republic. Antislavery sentiment came in a poor second when it conflicted with the powerful economic interests of proslavery forces. To Washington as to many Americans, even some whose opinions on slavery were far more radical than his own, the institution had become a subject so divisive that public comments were best left unsaid. Washington himself was far from being an egalitarian. In spite of the Revolution’s rhetoric, the United States was still a society of deference and Washington never seriously questioned the political and social validity of the prevailing ideas of rule by an elite any more than he questioned his own position in such a society. Publicly no comments came from him on slavery. For Washington, as for most of the other founders, when the fate of the new republic was balanced against his own essentially conservative opposition to slavery, there was really no contest. And there was a widely held, if convenient, feeling among many opponents of slavery that if left alone, the institution would wither by itself. Ironically, the clause of the Constitution barring the importation of slaves after 1808 fostered this salve to the antislavery conscience by imparting the feeling that at least some progress had been made.

A major factor in Washington’s failure to put his growing opposition to slavery into practice in the 1790s was certainly his own conception of his presidential role. He assumed the office on a wave of bipartisan support and reverence. Even the meager criticism his support of the Constitution had evoked from its detractors–one critic had called him the Trojan horse in which the designs upon the liberty of the nation were being smuggled into the new Republic–redounded to his credit as a man willing to risk his reputation for the good of his country. But he went into office with scarcely a specific blueprint for his presidency. At the convention none of the delegates except possibly Hamilton, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris had clearly formulated ideas as to the kind of executive that would emerge. Washington was certainly aware of–and to a certain extent shared–the general whig bias of the Revolutionary generation against the concentration of power in the executive. To many of the delegates at the convention in Philadelphia, the provisions of Article II were based on the assumption that Washington would accept the office of president. Pierce Butler noted the presidential powers were “full great and greater than I was disposed to make them”, and that members would not have expanded Article II had they not “cast their eyes toward General Washington as President, and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to be given to a President, by their opinions of his virtue.” [40] Washington was well aware of the general public uneasiness concerning executive power and other aspects of the new government. He had carefully created his role of a national icon–John Adams called him “the best actor of the presidency that we have ever had”–and he had an extraordinary grasp of the symbolic function of his office as a unifying force for the new nation. [41] Even the most cursory examination of the political correspondence of the period indicates how important Washington was in holding the fabric of the new nation together. At some point in his journey he had become a precarious symbol for a chimerical American consensus. He was not about to risk this role in what he certainly regarded as a quixotic attempt to challenge the South’s peculiar institution.

As president, Washington proceeded tentatively and with his customary caution. “To form a new government,” he had written John Washington in 1776, “requires infinite care & unbounded attention; for if the foundation is badly laid the superstructure must be bad . . . . A matter of such moment cannot be the Work of a day.” [42] He believed, as he wrote Rochambeau in the summer of 1790, that “in a government which depends so much in its first stages on public opinion, much circumspection is still necessary for those who are engaged in its administration.” [43] He cherished the approval of his peers and of the public; he had worked hard to deserve it. But probably more than any other of the Founders, he was acutely aware how fragile it all was and how easily the slavery controversy could destroy it. Through both of his administrations he feared the new Republic was still on experimental ground.

Washington’s few private comments during the presidential years regarding slavery have been widely quoted. Clearly his own economic necessities seconded his political caution. He wrote Tobias Lear in 1794 giving elaborate instructions on the sale of land to put his financial affairs in order. “I have no scruple to disclose to you, that my motives to these sales . . . are to reduce my income, be it more or less, to specialties, that the remainder of my days may, thereby, be more tranquil & freer from cares; and that I may be enabled . . . to do as much good with it as the resource will admit; for although, in the estimation of the world I possess a good, & clear estate, yet, so unproductive is it, that I am oftentimes ashamed to refuse aids which I cannot afford unless I was to sell part of it to answer the purpose.” Washington added a coda to the letter, which, ever cautious, he marked “Private”: “Besides these, I have another motive which makes me earnestly wish for the accomplishment of these things, it is indeed more powerful than all the rest. namely to liberate a certain species of property–which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings; but which imperious necessity compels . . . until I can substitute some other expedient, by which expences not in my power to avoid (however well disposed I may be to do it) can be defrayed.” [44] In the same year he told Alexander Spotswood: “With respect to the other species of property, concerning which you ask my opinion, I shall frankly declare to you that I do not like even to think much less talk of it. However, as you have put the question, I shall, in a few words, give you my ideas of it. Were it not then, that I am principled agt selling Negroes, as you would Cattle in the market, I would not, in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one as a slave.” [45] Most frequently quoted is his remark to David Stuart after the failure of one of the myriad Quaker petitions to Congress: “The memorial of the Quakers (& a very mal-apropos one it was) has at length been put to sleep, from which it is not <illegible> it will awake before the year 1808.” Stuart had reported to Washington the growing feeling in Virginia that a “Northern phalanx” was bearing down on the state and that it was said that “many who were warm Supporters of the government, are changing their sentiments, from a conviction of the impracticability of Union with States, whose interests are so dissimilar with those of Virginia.” The Quaker petitions to Congress, Stuart contended had given “particular umbrage” in Virginia as had the fact that the “Quakers should be so busy in this business. That they will raise up a storm against themselves, appears to me very certain.” [46]

On a personal level, Washington, with his passion for order, feared the element of anarchism in the antislavery movement. In general he did not give a warm reception to gadflys–especially Quaker gadflys–and the tone of many of the antislavery appeals with which he was deluged in the l780s and l790s, combining imperious demands with evangelical piety, were not likely to incline him in their favor. Edward Rushton’s was not the only castigation that he received in these years from antislavery sources. One of Washington’s weaknesses as a politician was the fact that he was extraordinarily thin-skinned and criticism of either his personal or political behavior often troubled him far out of proportion to the event. The copy of Edward Rushton’s polemic bears a notation in a contemporary hand, dated Liverpool, 20 Feb. 1797, that the letter was transmitted to Washington in July 1796 and “a few weeks ago it was returned under cover, without a syllable in reply.” [47]

Even in a private capacity Washington’s achievements in regard to slavery during the presidency were not impressive. In April 1791, fearing the impact of a Pennsylvania law freeing slaves after six months’ residence in that state, he instructed his secretary Tobias Lear to ascertain what effect the law would have on the status of the slaves who served the presidential household in Philadelphia. In case Lear believed that any of the slaves were likely to seek their freedom under Pennsylvania law, Washington wished them sent home to Mount Vernon. “If upon taking good advise it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may decieve both them and the Public.” When one of his slaves ran away in 1795 Washington told his overseer to take measures to apprehend the slave “but I would not have my name appear in any advertisement, or other measure, leading to it.” [48]

To Washington, factions were the death knell of republics, introducing party squabbles and leading to the divisiveness that would destroy his dream of creating a republic with a responsible citizenry, free of political strife. He exhibited great skill in defusing potential domestic crises during his first administration, and like Bolingbroke’s patriot king, he hoped to remain above the fray. When party faction and internal strife developed during the second administration–the neutrality crisis in 1793, the fight over the Jay Treaty, the Whiskey Insurrection in western Pennsylvania–Washington took it as a personal defeat of his view of the Republic. And the slavery question, he well knew, dwarfed the other controversies that troubled his administration. Many southerners had already come to regard opposition to slavery as a symbol for the mistrust and disillusion with which they regarded the new government. And there are strong indications in the correspondence of many that they still considered Washington as their only bulwark against the ravishment by northern politicians.

If Washington still had any doubts concerning reaction in the United States to the specter raised by the question of emancipation, public reaction toward the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint Domingue in 1791 would have confirmed his determination to avoid pursuing the issue at all costs. The horrors of the revolt of the slaves on Saint Domingue against their French masters were immediately apparent although less understood in the United States were the appalling conditions that had inspired the revolt. Daily reports appeared in American newspapers on the insurrection. The revolution struck Americans on two fronts. It played to their views of the sanctity of property, which to most Americans was part of the basic natural rights for which they had fought Britain for eight and a half long years, and it fed the fear, in the Deep South of slave insurrections. Southern slaveholders were understandably most vocal in support of their Saint-Domingan counterparts. But nationwide sympathy, even among antislavery supporters, swung immediately to the planters, many of whom were important, both financially and politically, and many of whom had major economic connections in the United States. Washington wrote Jean Baptiste de Ternant, the French minister, in September 1791, promising to lose no time in dispatching orders to furnish money and arms requested by the French government to quell the revolt. “I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United states are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and Allies the French to quell ‘the alarming insurrection of the Negros in Hispanola and of the ready disposition to effect it, of the Executive authority thereof.” The administration bowed immediately to French requests that portions of the Revolutionary War debt still owed to France by the United States be used to aid French efforts to put down the revolt and provision the colony. [49] Strongly supported by the Washington administration with money and arms and by public opinion in the United States, thousands of refugees fled to America, settling in seaboard cities, where their tales of the death and destruction left in the path of the rebelling slaves appalled Americans in the North and fed southern paranoia. [50]

No one was more aware than Washington of the potential the slavery issue had for the destruction of the Republic. As he had written to Alexander Spotswood in 1794, “I shall be happily mistaken if [slaves] are not found to be a very troublesome species of property ere many years pass over our heads.” [51] From Washington’s occasional comments on slavery expressing his desire to see it disappear from the new American nation it is difficult to decipher how deep his sentiments ran. It is likely that he had come to disapprove of the institution on moral grounds and that he considered it a serious impediment to economic development. Although he did not make sufficient comments on the institution of slavery for us to be certain, it appears that his opposition dealt more with the immorality of one man holding ownership over another than with the cruelty and abuse to individuals that slavery might engender. But there is no indication in his correspondence that he advocated any immediate policy of abolition. Obsessed with order both in his personal life and in politics, he would hardly have contemplated saddling the fragile new nation with the enormous problems resulting from immediate abolition–the disruption in the labor market, the care of blacks too old or too sick to work. In the eighteenth century immediate abolition found few supporters except among antislavery radicals. Many of the founding generation feared the idle poor of whatever color, and the anticipation that emancipation would contribute to a vast idle population made, even for such statesmen as Jefferson, foreign settlement of freed slaves a corollary to emancipation. “Justice is in one scale,” Jefferson observed, “and self preservation is in the other.” [52] Such apprehensions were not confined to the South. A New York law of the colonial period contended that “it is found by Experience, that the free Negroes of this colony are an Idle slothful people and prove very often a charge on the place where they be.” [53] When Washington freed his own slaves at his death, he made relatively elaborate arrangements to prevent them from becoming a liability to the community. Washington specified that those of his slaves who were too old, too young, or too infirm to support themselves should be “comfortably cloathed & fed by my heirs while they live.” Young slaves were to be taught to read and write. [54] Like his most of his peers Washington regarded stability and the sanctity of property as basic tenets of the new Republic.

It is likely, also, that Washington subscribed to the widely held belief that slavery would die a natural death, bolstered by the prohibition of importation of slaves after 1808, although that argument was weakened by the extensive natural increase among the slave population along the Chesapeake after 1730. [55] To his credit Washington did, unlike most of his peers, did free his slaves in his will, and during much of his public life he gave at least private support to the idea of emancipation. But, given his accurate conception of his own great and pivotal role in the infant country and his fears for the survival of the Republic itself, it is far from likely that he was ever sorely tempted to open as a national issue the Pandora’s box that the Constitutional Convention appeared to contemporaries to have closed for the next twenty years.


1. Edward Rushton to GW, July 1796. The quotation is taken from a contemporary copy in the Rhode Island Historical Society. Rushton, a prominent English antislavery advocate, later published in England his “Expostulatory Letter to George Washington on his continuing to be a Proprietor of Slaves.” [back]

2. Memorandum, 1758-1759, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 6:183-84 (hereafter PGW); PGW: Diaries 4:277-83; GW: Writings 37: 268. The dower slaves were those slaves that had originally belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Custis had died interstate and by law his widow acquired ownership of one-third of her husband’s personal property and a lifetime right to the use of one-third of his land and slaves. Her two young children by Custis each received one-third of Custis’s personal property. Upon his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, GW assumed control not only of her dower rights in the Custis estate but also of a considerable number of slaves. Martha Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, inherited immediately two-thirds of his father’s land and slaves. The remaining third would devolve upon him or his estate on the death of his mother. During his stepson’s minority Washington was able to use John Parke Custis’s slaves as if they were his own, as he did Martha Washington’s dower slaves. Because upon his wife’s death the dower slaves would go to the Custis heirs, any plans GW had for disposing of his own slaves could not include those belonging to the Custis estate. By the time of GW’s death, the two groups had extensively intermarried. For a detailed account of the distribution of the Custis property, see “Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate,” in PGW, Col. Series, 6:201-313. A list of the dower slaves by name, c. 1760-61, is in ibid. 311-13. [back]

3. GW to Anthony Whitting, Oct. 14 1792, Washington Papers, Library of Congress (WPLC). [back]

4. See Daniel Jenifer Adams to GW, March 15, 1775, PGW, Col. Series, 10:302-4. The slave proved so recalcitrant that he was eventually returned to Maryland. See also Lund Washington to GW, Dec. 3, 17, 1775, Jan. 25, Feb. 8, 1776, PGW, Rev. Series, 2:477-82, 569-72, 3:187-89, 229-72. [back]

5. GW to Lund Washington, Feb. 24, 1779, WPLC. GW would undoubtedly have characterized his role as paternalistic. See Howard McGary, “Paternalism and Slavery,” in Subjugation and Bondage: Critical Essays on Slavery and Social Philosophy, ed. Tommy L. Lott (Lanham, Md., 1998), 187-208. [back]

6. GW to Lund Washington, Aug. 15, 1778, WPLC. [back]

7. At least some of GW’s derogatory comments on slaves and their labor must be considered in the light of his perennial dissatisfaction with the performance of other subordinates, from general officers to relatives to farm managers. See also Robert W. Fogel et al., Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Evidence and Methods (New York, 1992), 58-61; Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998), 172, 191, 192. [back]

8. H.R. McIlwaine and John P. Kennedy, eds., Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 13 vols. (Richmond, 1905-15), 1770-72: 283-84; PGW: Col. Ser. 10:119-28. [back]

9. General Orders, Nov. 12, 1775, PGW, Rev. Ser., 2:353-55. Almost all colonies had exclusionary legislation barring slaves from serving in the militia and owning weapons. But all colonies also made occasional exceptions. See, for example, Hening Statutes 2:481, 3:459. See also Benjamin Quarles, “The Colonial Militia and Negro Manpower,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 45 (1959): 643-52. [back]

10. Virginia enacted stringent regulations to prevent defection by slaves, ranging from execution to transportation to the West Indies. Because the state was required by law to compensate the owners of executed slaves, a more convenient punishment was a sentence to labor in the lead mines of remote Fincastle and Montgomery counties, serving the dual purpose of removing rebellious slaves and contributing to the war effort. See Sylvia R. Frey, “Between Slavery and Freedom: Virginia Blacks in the American Revolution”, Journal of Southern History, 49 (1983): 383-85. Indeed, the appalling indifference to the plight of former slaves, hit by devastating epidemics of smallpox and by overwork and exposure in British service, should not have encouraged enlistment on either side. Rumors, often unsubstantiated, persisted of slaves offered for sale by the British. In Virginia at least slaves were used by the British “as a tool instead of as a weapon” (ibid., 394-95, 398). [back]

11. General Orders, Dec. 30, 1775, PGW, Rev. Ser. 2:620. [back]

12. Pete Maslowski, “National Policy Toward the Use of Black Troops in the Revolution,” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 73 (1972): 2-6; Varnum to GW, Jan. 2, 1778, WPLC. For GW’s reservations on enlisting slaves, see GW to Henry Laurens, March 20, 1779, Laurens Papers, South Carolina Historical Society. See also GW to Committee of Congress with the Army, Jan. 29, 1778, WPLC. [back]

13. GW to Henry Laurens, March 20, 1779, Laurens Papers. For details on the evolution of the Laurens plan, see Maslowski, “National Policy toward the Use of Black Troops in the Revolution,” 6-17. See also Worthington C. Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 8:385-87. [back]

14. GW to John Laurens, July 10, 1782, WPLC. Writing to his son in early 1778, Henry Laurens had pointed out effectively the obstacles to the younger man’s agenda. “If any good shall arise from a prosecution of it, the merit will be solely yours. For now, I will undertake to say there is not a Man in America of your opinion.” (Henry Laurens to John Laurens, Feb. 6, 1778, in Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress 1774- 1789, 26 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1976-98), 9:38-40. For John Laurens’s description of the eventual demise of the plan in the South Carolina council and assembly, amid “the howlings of a triple-headed monster in which Prejudice Avarice & Pusillanimity were united,” see his letter to GW, May 19, 1782, WPLC. The plan was equally unsuccessful in Georgia. [back]

15. GW to Daniel Parker, April 28, 1783, Boston Public Library; GW to Benjamin Harrison, April 30, and May 6, 1783; Conference between GW and Lord Carleton, May 6, 1783, GW to Rufus Putnam, Feb. 4, 1783, WPLC; GW to Rufug Putnam, Feb. 2, 1783, Marietta College. See also Walter H. Mazyck, George Washington and the Negro (Washington, D.C., 1932), 82-84; Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock, (Princeton, N.J., 1991), 192-93. [back]

16. “Circular to the Governors of the States,” June 8, 1783, WPLC. [back]

17. GW to the duc de Lauzun, Feb. 1, 1784, PGW, Conf. Ser. 1:90-91; Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment, (Garden City, N.Y., 1984), 3. [back]

18. GW to John Francis Mercer, Sept. 9, 1786, and to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786, in PGW, Conf. Ser., 4:15-16, 243-44. GW’s comments to Morris were elicited by Pirate, alias Belt v. Dalby, one of the first cases heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concerning Pennsylvania’s 1780 and 1788 laws dealing with slavery. For the case and the background to GW’s comments, see Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism and Comity (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981), 50-51. See also the Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, March 30, 1786. [back]

19. Lafayette to GW, Feb. 6, 1786, GW to Lafayette, May 10, 1786, PGW: Conf. Ser. 3:544, 4:41-45. After his purchase of “La Belle Gabrielle,” Lafayette acquired additional lands in Cayenne and instituted a program of limited education, reimbursed labor, and gradual emancipation. The scheme and the plantation itself perished in the early days of the French Revolution. After Lafayette was arrested and imprisoned in 1792, the Cayenne property was seized by the French Revolutionary government and the slaves were sold. [back]

20. His contacts with Granville Sharpe and his circle may well have given GW considerable information on the difficulties in the Sierra Leone settlements. See Frey, Water from the Rock, 193-94; PGW: Diaries 4:78. GW’s library contained over fifteen of Sharpe’s works, including several treatises on slavery. See Franklin Osborne Poole, Index to A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenaeum (Boston, 1900), 58-59. [back]

21. Francis Asbury, The Journal of the Rev. Francis Asbury, 3 vols. (New York, 1821), 1:385. Asbury and Thomas Coke were at Mount Vernon in a vain attempt to persuade GW to support the antislavery petition pending in the Virginia House of Burgesses. For an account of the fate of the unsuccessful petition, see William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series, 17 vols. (Chicago and Charlottesville, Va., 1962-91), 8:403-5. See also Madison to GW, Nov. 11, 1785, in PGW, Conf. Ser., 3:355-58. [back]

22. See Lois Green Carr and Lorena S. Walsh, “Changing Life Styles and Consumer Behavior in the Colonial Chesapeake,” in Of Consuming Interests: The Style of Life in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Cary Carson et al. (Charlottesville, Va., 1994), 59-166; Timothy H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies, 25 (1986): 467-99. [back]

23. Jean Yarbrough, “Race and the Moral Foundation of the American Republic: Another Look at the Declaration and the Notes on Virginia,” Journal of Politics, 53 (1991): 90-105; Bernard Bailyn, “Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 137 (1993): 498-515. [back]

24. GW to John Francis Mercer, Nov. 6, 1786, to Henry Lee, Feb. 4, 1787, PGW, Conf. Ser., 4:336-38; 5:10-11. [back]

25. GW to Knox, April 1, 1789, in PGW, Pres. Ser., 2:2-3. [back]

26. See, for example, Benjamin Lincoln to GW, Sept. 24, 1788, Alexander Hamilton to GW, Sept. 1788, GW to Hamilton, Oct. 3, 1788, to Lincoln, Oct. 26, 1788, Gouverneur Morris to GW, Dec. 6, 1788, ibid., 1:5-8, 23-25, 31-33, 70-74, 165-66. [back]

27. Gouverneur Morris to GW, Dec. 6, 1788, ibid., 1:165-66; Thomas Jefferson to GW, April 16, 1784, in Julian P. Boyd, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 27 vols. to date (Princeton, N.J., 1950–), 7:105-10. See also Michael Gilmore, “Eulogy as Symbolic Biography,” Harvard English Studies, 8 (1978): 131; Barry Schwartz, “The Character of Washington: A Study in Republican Culture,” American Quarterly, 38 (1986), 204-20. [back]

28. Rush to Thomas Ruston, Oct. 29, 1775, in L.H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1951), 2:91-94. [back]

29. GW to John Jay, May 18, Aug. 15, 1786, in PGW, Conf. Ser., 4:55-56, 212-13. [back]

30. GW to Newenham, Aug. 29, 1788, The Rosenbach Foundation. [back]

31. For slavery at the Convention, see esp. Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death,” in Beyond Confederation, ed. Richard Beeman, et al. (Chapel Hill, 1987), 188-225. See also William L. Miller, The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding (Charlottesville, Va., 1992), 117-41. [back]

32. Pinckney’s speech in the House of Representatives, Feb. 14 , 1820, quoted in Max Farrand, ed., , Records of the Federal Convention, 4 vols. (New Haven, 1911-37), 3:439-44. [back]

33. Miller, Business of May Next, 133. [back]

34. Staughton Lynd, “The Compromise of 1787,” Political Science Quarterly, 81 (1966): 225-50; William S. Freehling, “The Founding Fathers and Slavery,” American Historical Review, 77 (1972), 81-93; William M. Wiecek, “The Witch at the Christening: Slavery and the Constitution’s Origins, in The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution, ed. Leonard W. Levy and Dennis J. Mahoney, (New York, 1987), 167-84; Jonathan Elliot, ed., The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, 5 vols. (Philadelphia, 1861-63), 4:277-86. [back]

35. James L. Hutson, “The American Revolutionaries; the Political Economy of Aristocracy, and the American Concept of the Distribution of Wealth, 1765-1900,” American Historical Review 98 (1993), 1079-1105. [back]

36. Examinations of Jefferson’s views on slavery are legion. See esp. Bailyn, “Jefferson and the Ambiguities of Freedom,” 506; John C. Miller, Wolf By the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York: 1977); Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Slavery: Treason against the Hopes of the World,” in Jefferson Legacies, ed., Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), 181-221. Jefferson’s reservations are somewhat explained by his fear of northern mercantilism and its spread to the south and to the new territories. GW, who had no such fears, has less excuse. [back]

37. For the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, see Gary B. Nash and Jean R. Soderland, Freedom By Degrees: Emancipation in Pennsylvania and Its Aftermath (New York, 1991), 115-36. For Henry’s statement, see his letter to Robert Pleasants, Jan. 18, 1773, in William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence and Speeches 3 vols. (New York, 1891), 1:152-53. [back]

38. Peter Augustine Lawler, “Tocqueville on Slavery, Ancient and Modern,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 80 (1981): 466-77. The charge had emerged during the debates over the Declaration of Independence although the clause concerning the British role was struck out in compliance with the protests of South Carolina and Georgia. George Mason had observed at the Convention that the trade originated “in the avarice of British merchants” (Farrand, Records, 2:370). For the South’s moral justification of slavery, see William W. Fisher III, “Ideology and Imagery in the Law of Slavery,” in Slavery and the Law, ed. Paul Finkelman (Madison, Wis., 1997), 52-59. [back]

39. See Jean Soderland, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton, N.J., 1985). For a conflicting view, see Jack Marietta, “Egoism and Altruism in Quaker Abolition,” Quaker History, 82 (1993): 123. See also Sydney V. James, A People Among Peoples (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 104, 126, 129-30; Herbert S. Klein, “Anglicanism, Catholicism and the Negro Slave,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 7 (1966), 322, 325; Howard Temperley, “Capitalism, Slavery and Ideology,” Past and Present, 75 (1977), 97, 101; Gary B. Nash, “Slaves and Slaveowners in Colonial Philadelphia,” WMQ, 30 (1973): 255-56; Russell R. Menard, “From Servants to Slaves: The Transformation of Chesapeake Labor,” Southern Studies, 16 (1977), 355-90; Robert P. Forbes, “Slavery and the Evangelical Enlightenment,” in Religion and the Antebellum Debate over Slavery, ed. John R. McKivigan and Mitchell Snay (Athens, Ga., 1998), 68-106; John R. McKivigan, “The Northern Churches and the Moral Problem of Slavery,” in The Meaning of Slavery in the North, ed. David Roediger and Martin H. Blatt (New York, 1998), 77-94. [back]

40. Butler to Weedon Butler, May 5, 1788, in Farrand, Records, 3:301-4. [back]

41. Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 21, 1911, in John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds., The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805-1813 (San Marino, Calif., 1966), 181. [back]

42. GW to John Augustine Washington, May 31 – June 4, 1776, PGW, Rev. .Ser., 4:411-12. [back]

43. GW to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, Jan. 9, 1790, and to the comte de Rochambeau, Aug. 10, 1790, PGW, Pres. Ser., 4:551-54, 6:231-32. [back]

44. GW to Lear, May 6, 1796, Huntington Library, San Marino, California. [back]

45. November 23, 1794, photocopy, MTVL. [back]

46. GW to Stuart, March 28, 1790, Stuart to GW, March 15, 1790, PGW, Pres. Ser., 5:286-88, 235-38. Earlier in the month, while the Quaker petition was pending in Congress, Warner Mifflin, a prominent Quaker abolitionist, had visited GW to argue in behalf of the petition. The president responded to Mifflin by saying that “as it was a matter which might come before me for official decision I was not inclined to express any sentimts. on the merits of the question before this should happen” (PGW: Diaries 6:47). [back]

47. Rhode Island Historical Society. The note continues “As children that are crammed with confectionary have no relish for plain and wholesome food; so men in power who are seldom addressed but in the sweet tones of adulation, are apt to be disgusted with the plain and salutary language of truth. To offend was not the intention of the writer; yet the president has evidently been irritated.” [back]

48. Tobias Lear, Letters and Recollections of George Washington, (New York, 1906), 38; GW to William Pearce, 22 March 22, 1795, MTVL. [back]

49. GW to Ternant, Sept. 24, 1791, Archives du Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres, Memoires et Documents, Etats-Unis, Paris. For French refugees in influencing American public opinion in the United States, see Catherine Hebert, “French Publications in Philadelphia in the Age of the French Revolution,” Pennsylvania History, 58 (1992): 37-61, and Allan J. Barthold, “French Journalists in the United States, 1780-1800,” Franco-American Review 1 (1937): 215-30. See also “Slavery in Virginia and Saint-Domingue in the Late Eighteenth Century,” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, 1990, 13-14; Carl A. Brasseaux, The Road to Louisiana: The Saint Domingue Refugees, 1792-1809 (Lafayette, La., 1992). For the use of the American debt to France, see George Latimer to Alexander Hamilton, Jan. 2, 1793, introductory note, in Harold C. Syrett et al., eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 27 vols. (New York, 1961-87), 13:443-45. [back]

50. For background to the slave revolt, see Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville, Tenn., 1990), esp. ch. 3.; Fick, “The French Revolution in Saint-Domingue,” in A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean, ed. David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus (Bloomington, Ind., 1997), 51-75; Frances Sergeant Childs, French Refugee Life in the United States, 1790-1800 (Baltimore, 1940), 11-16; Thomas Fiehrer, “Saint-Domingue/Haiti: Louisiana’s Caribbean Connection,” Louisiana History 30 (1989): 426-27. [back]

51. Nov. 23, 1794, photocopy, MTVL. [back]

52. For the roots of these fears, see Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom, The American Paradox,” Journal of American History 59 (1972): 12-26; Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition, 12 vols. (New York, 1904-5), 10:157. [back]

53. Cited in William M. Wiecek, “The Statutory Law of Slavery and Race in the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of British America,” WMQ 34 (1977): 278-79. [back]

54. GW’s will, July 9, 1799, PGW: Ret. Ser. 4:477-511; Ira Berlin, “The Revolution in Black Life,” in The American Revolution: Explorations in American Radicalism, ed. Alfred Young (DeKalb, Ill., 1976), 368. [back]

55. Allan Kulikoff, “A Prolifick People: Black Population Growth in the Chesapeake Colonies, 1700-1790,” Southern Studies, 16 (1977): 394. For the concept that slavery would gradually disapear after importation ceased, see Jefferson to Jean Nicholas Demeuneir, June 26, 1786, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers 10:62-64; Gary Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison, Wis., 1990), 3-20). William Cohen has pointed out that the natural increase during the latter part of the century on such Virginia plantations as Jefferson’s Monticello, where between 1774 and 1778 there were at least 22 births to 12 deaths among his slaves, should have shown planters to fallacy of such arguments (“Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery,” Journal of American History 56 [1969]: 509). The importation of slaves from Africa had dropped sharply after 1765, although the number of slaves through natural increase had grown in most of the southern states. In Virginia in particular the estimated number of slaves had increased from 189,000 in 1760 to 303,000 by 1780 (John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985], 136). See also Carr, Colonial Chesapeake Society, 12. [back]

About the Author

Dorothy Twohig (1927-2011) was former editor-in-chief of The Papers of George Washington and editor of the one-volume edition of George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. She was associate professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. This article was originally presented at a conference on Washington and Slavery at Mount Vernon, October 1994. Published in George Washington Reconsidered, Don Higginbotham, ed., University Press of Virginia, 2001.

© 1997 Dorothy Twohig

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