George Washington's Slaves

The Struggle for Independence

Mark King

Last year on the Fourth of July, I was listening to the audiobook 1776 by David McCullough. As you may guess, it was about the events leading up to declaring independence and the first months of fighting. I realized that I really didn't know that much about the Revolutionary War. I knew far more about the Civil War, having grown up in Florida, just miles from the Olustee Battlefield, home to the largest battle in Florida and one that was decisive in keeping the capitol of Florida from falling. 1776 told the story of Bunker Hill and the battle for Boston which the Americans won. Then the Battle of Long Island where George Washington badly miscalculated and almost lost everything, but an almost incredible evacuation to Manhattan saved the army and the cause.

Washington has always been a national hero, but what made him so special? It was not necessarily military brilliance. In fact, he made some serious blunders and many thought he was not up to the task. He had tenacity more than anything else, and was also willing to retreat when he knew he couldn't win. He was constantly retreating, and the British just didn't know how to respond to someone who wouldn't fight. He hoped to wait them out and it worked. Robert E. Lee is thought to have been a brilliant strategist, but I wonder what would have been different if he had followed Washington's example. At Gettysburg, what if he had withdrawn to a more advantageous position as General Longstreet had advised and let the Yankees attack him? He is reported to have responded to Longstreet, "the enemy is there and I intend to attack him there." I am sure Washington would have retreated and made the enemy chase him.

The year 1776 ended with the surprise attack on the Hessians and the great victory at Trenton, NJ, which once again helped keep the cause alive. It is interesting that many of the Hessians who were captured stayed on after the war and became Americans.

Now, almost a year later, if have just finished a book that gave me more insight into the character of George Washington: An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek.

Washington, like many of the founding fathers, saw the inherent contradiction if not outright hypocrisy in fighting for liberty based on the premise that "all men are created equal" and maintaining slavery. At first it seemed that Washington was indistinguishable from any other slave owner. He fed, clothed, and housed his slaves poorly and had them beaten when they did not comply. He broke up families and sold slaves at auction. He built Mount Vernon and his fortune on the backs of slaves.

However, as time went by, he became more and more uncomfortable with the whole system. During the Revolutionary war, the army was integrated with about one-quarter of the fighting force made of free blacks. (It seems like all involved were opposed to using slaves as soldiers.) Washington saw them fight with honor, skill, and courage. At one time he had doubted the innate abilities of blacks, but the war changed that. He decided that it was simply a lack of opportunity because of slavery that kept black men from achieving as much as their white counterparts. Thomas Jefferson scoffed at this assessment.

Washington had not owned slaves until in 1759 he married Martha Custis, a rich widow, who brought slaves into the marriage. She had two children by her previous marriage, so according to the laws of the day, 1/3 of the slaves belonged to her and passed under the direct control of her husband. The other 2/3 were held in trust by him until her two children came of age, and he had to give a careful account of them. As all the slaves lived together, they intermarried and families developed that crossed the ownership lines. By the time of the Revolution, Washington vowed to keep families together and would not sell a slave unless the slave consented. It seems none of them did. By the time of his death, Mount Vernon had approximately 300 slaves — about 3 times the number that would have been needed to work the plantation.

Washington considered several plans to free the slaves that were under his direct control, but felt that this would split apart the fragile union that existed among the states. Early on, South Carolina had threatened to secede from the revolution and surrender to the British if slavery was threatened. (Some have said that the Civil War was simply the last chapter of the American Revolution.) Later, when he became president, Washington had to walk a tightrope between not freeing his slaves to keep the south happy, and not appearing to own any slaves to keep the anti-slavery forces happy. Many suggested that if he freed his slaves that would set a precedent that others would be forced to follow — he wanted this but also feared it for the reasons stated above.

After he left the presidency, he attempted to buy the 2/3 of the slaves that went to his stepchildren and set them up as tenant farmers on his plantation, which he would subdivide into smaller farms. However, the Custis heirs would have nothing to do with it. From his private papers it seems that he was willing to spend everything he had to gain freedom for Mount Vernon slaves, but he was unable to make it happen.

Finally, in his will, he stipulated that all the slaves under his control would be freed upon the death of his wife and given training so that they could earn a living as free people. He also stipulated that none of them could be sold, which he fully expected that the executors of his estate would try to do. After his death, Martha became so paranoid that the slaves would hasten their day of freedom by hastening her demise that she freed them about a year later. (Incidentally, it appears that she never came around to her husband's views on slavery and that this may have been a source of marital discord between them.)

In George Washington you see the inner struggle that results when the constraints of conscience are at odds with personal ambition and political expediency. As the title suggests, although much of the country almost worshipped Washington, he was far from perfect, but you do start to glimpse something about him that was special. He was the only founding father to actually free his slaves.

So, as we look back on another Independence Day, I recognize that the founding fathers and the circumstances surrounding the founding of our nation were deeply flawed, as are our current leaders, as are we all. However, I am thankful that in spite of all the flaws and faults, we have a society that is the freest and most prosperous in human history and has been used by God to spread the gospel around the world.

Image Credit: John Trumbull; "Portrait of George Washington and William 'Billy' Lee"; circa 1780; Public Domain

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Celebrating-Holidays  | Christian-Life  | Controversial-Issues  | Political-Issues

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Published 7-19-17