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Blacks were in Washington’s view shiftless, lazy, ignorant, clumsy, immoral, thieving, and natural liars. Of his favored house slaves he wrote that he knew “. . . of no black person about the house that is to be trusted.” After lending a slave to a niece, his wife Martha wrote that she hoped “. . . you will not find in him much sass. [T]he Blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least gratitude from the kindness that may be showed to them.” Later in Washington’s career as a slaveowner he was visited by an English traveler who concluded that the former president wasn’t “of a humane disposition” Likewise, when the Polish revolutionary Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon he was appalled by the misery he found among the slaves. Describing the housing for the slaves as “more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants,” he nevertheless concluded that Washington’s treatment of his slaves was better than that of the other slaveholders in the area.
During the period in which he resided in Philadelphia, a domestic slave of his, Oney Judge, regarded as pampered and spoiled by the General and his wife, apparently fled in desperation from him. Washington’s fervent efforts to recapture her were rebuffed by northern anti-slavery forces aided by the growing strength of the urban black community.
As a general Washington was reluctant to recruit and make use of black troops, although during the French-Indian War he had used blacks as laborers. As a slaveowner he instinctively recoiled from the very idea of arming blacks but the crisis of war forced change on him. When he arrived as commander in New England blacks had already distinguished themselves in the early battles of the American Revolution. Peter Salem, a black sharpshooter then celebrated for his slaying of the British officer leading their troops, Major John Pitcairn, at Bunker Hill, was presented to Washington. Other blacks achieved prominence in the early battles of the revolution as well, a fact that produced anxiety among the emerging nation's slaveholders, Washington included. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina demanded in September 1775 that the revolution's armed forces be purged of blacks. This effort failed but Washington took up the cause writing to the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, that, "From the Number of Boys, Deserters, & Negroes which have been listed in the Troops of his Province, I entertain some Doubts whether the Number required can be raised here." Later, Washington's policy was one of the rejection of enlistment of "any deserter from the Ministerial army, nor any stroller, negro, or vagabond." Since there were already blacks in the revolution's armed bodies, and, in order to rid themselves of these men, Washington issued a November 1775 order excluding all blacks, slave or free.
The pitfalls of the strategy of excluding all blacks became apparent after Lord Dunmore issued his famous proclamation that slaves who joined and fought for the British would receive their freedom. A new general order, that of December 30, 1775 was issued allowing free blacks to enlist.
Washington had several opportunities to demonstrate the sincerity of his oft-noted, but rare, anti-slavery remarks. Irritated in 1786 by abolitionist efforts to emancipate an African held by one of his Alexandria neighbors, he said that his opposition to this Quaker action didn’t mean “that I wish to hold these unhappy people. . . in slavery” maintaining that “no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition of it.” Earlier, after Washington expressed enthusiasm for Lafayette’s plan to buy an estate to experiment with free African labor, he put the plan off and nothing ever came of it. It is no wonder that the prospect of living without slaves seemed so far-fetched to Washington since like Jefferson, he relied on slaves and slave labor's profits for virtually every aspect of his life. Washington's teeth, for example, were wooden according to the popular folklore but, in reality, they were forcibly yanked from one or more of his enslaved people and implanted into his mouth. Washington's legendary "kindness" was evident in this transaction as he gave the slave a small fee for the teeth.
What sympathy and good will Washington had towards blacks was displayed by his brief relationship with Phillis Wheatley who had astounded many prominent Americans of the era with her high quality poetry. After receiving a letter from the young poet in October 1775, Washington wrote her in response and commended her on “the striking proof of your great poetical talents.” He invited her to visit him at his headquarters as he would have be “happy to see a person favored by the Muses.”88 After visiting Washington in April 1776 and meeting with him alone for a half hour, Wheatley pinned a poem in his honor that ended with this final couplet:
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
However this single incident might be interpreted, its significance pales by comparison with the weight of the day-to-day activities Washigton as a slaveowner was involved in.
George Washington was born February 22, 1732 to middling planter Augustine Washington (1694-1743) and Mary Ball (1708-1789), the daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter. In a manner fitting for one destined to become the first United States president, Washington grew up as a member of an ambitious, upwardly mobile family that took full advantage of the forced labor of slaves and the rapidly expanding pool of available land. At the time of Washington's birth his family owned roughly twenty slaves and possessed several thousand acres of land. While George Washington played with black slave children on his father's Northern Neck Virginia plantation, he and his playmates were separated when he became older in order that he could become accustomed to his future role as slavemaster and they their future role as lifelong slaves.
During the period when the struggle against British colonialism reached its apex, Washington emerged as the Revolution's undisputed leader. Taking advantage of his celebrity and status as the most revered colonial military figure, the Virginian was ideally suited for such a role. Physically imposing, having a depth of culture as well as considerable social ties linking him to the ruling families of Virginia, he was willing to sacrifice both his time and energy for the colonists' cause. His ability to raise and help finance his own troops made him an almost indispensable figure in the movement for American independence. Soon he became the Revolution's most enduring symbol of resoluteness having displayed heroism and legendary leadership through the trials and tribulation of Valley Forge as well as during the battles at Yorktown and elsewhere. Through it all and, in the end, his status rose as he outshined the other stars of the Revolution and played a unique and irreplaceable leadership role. He was a unifier that stood in marked contrast to other leaders such as a Jefferson, who would, in contrast to Washington's vision of an American nation, speak of himself as a "Virginian" and "Virginia" as his country.
His quest for a united citizenry was one, however, that excluded African Americans. Consistent with his upbringing, Washington's view of blacks was focused almost exclusively on their role as coerced and unwilling laborers on the properties he owned or controlled. Politically he shared the concerns common to his regional slaveholding class--that slavery be highly profitable and that slaves have no chance of freedom. These concerns impacted daily life and the routine struggle between slave and slavemaster. With respect to everyday matters, the future president put his faith in tried and true methods of slave management prior to the Revolution and had prospered financially as a result of their use. Later, however, the impact of his celebrity and image as a world-class democratic liberator helped transform him into a slaveholder whose actions were tempered by the fear of negative publicity. An internationally-renown figure, he became conscious of his role as a symbol of the American Revolution and the young American nation. Washington's effort to transform himself into a humane slaveholder eventually ran aground as he reaffirmed for himself and others of his class the notion that a kinder and gentler slaveholder would soon encounter financial difficulty. With the fear of beatings and the threats of being shipped far away from their family and friends removed, the system of forced labor would inevitably break down.
Women were hardly exempt from the harsh labor regime on the Washington plantations. They faced incredibly harsh working conditions on a routine basis. Washington assigned "grubbing"—the clearing of stumps from swamps—physically debilitating labor, to women. Washington, who said that he loved the routine of a "farmer," knew his slaves by name generally. This is borne out in his descriptions of runaway slaves. In the advertisement he purchased he is careful to project the image of a "kind" slavemaster:
"As they went off without the least Suspicion, Provocation, or Difference with any Body, or the least angry Word or Abuse from their Overseers, 'tis supposed they will hardly lurk about in the Neighbourhood, but steer some direct Course (which cannot even be guessed at) in Hopes of an Escape..."
By the end of his life, Washington vacillated between trying to be a considerate and moderate slaveholder and the one he was raised to be, the typical profit-driven slaveowner who fully accepted the cruel features of the system. In 1752, roughly a quarter century before the American Revolution, he gained possession of the 2,650-acre Mount Vernon estate after the death of his half-brother Lawrence. In 1759 his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis proved beneficial to his property holdings. The wealthiest widow in all of Virginia, Martha Custis had inherited one hundred slaves and six thousand acres from her planter husband. This dramatically expanded the number of slaves under Washington's ownership and management. Washington, who had a reputation for extravagance, was at least in part attracted to Martha Custis because of her fabulous wealth.
Washington constantly sought to augment his workforce of slavery during the late colonial period. He often travelled to the Maryland side of the Potomac to purchase slaves for the least expensive price possible. Washington paid taxes on forty-nine slaves in 1760, seventy-eight in 1765, eighty-seven in 1770, one hundred thirty-five in 1775, and two hundred sixteen in 1786. By 1799, Washington had three hundred seventeen slaves spread over five plantations.
For Washington, the standard slaves would be measured by was the extent to which they worked day and night for him and exhibited perfect obedience and loyalty. Anything less was unacceptable and would likely be met with violence. In a document entitled, “A View of the work at the several Plantations in the year 1789, and general directions for the Execution of it” these were instructions to John Fairfax an overseer at Mount Vernon. He wrote:
To request that my people may be at their work as soon as it is light–work ‘till it is dark–and be diligent while they are at it can hardly be necessary, because the propriety of it must strike every manager who attends to my interest, or regards his own Character–and who on reflection, must be convinced that lost labour can never be regained–the presumption being, that every laborer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health, or constitution, will allow of.
Ideally, Washington or a reliable overseer would be present among the slaves for the maximum amount of time to ensure a steady flow of production. When Washington himself was unable to play this role he expected his overseers to maintain this constant presence. Warning that “when an Overseer’s back is turned the most of them will slight their work, or be idle altogether,” he maintained that the damage to slave psychology was permanent. Even “correction,” whipping and sundry physical violence, would not be able to recreate the previous ideal situation for the slavemaster. He complained that while “correction” was unable to repair the damaged master-slave relationship and that it often “produces evils which are worse than the disease,” there was not “any other mode but this to prevent thieving and other disorders, . . .”