GW: Life & Times

Questions — A Last Word on Slavery: Washington's Will

Read the transcription of the fourth paragraph of Washington's Will, which discusses his slaves printed below to answer the questions.

1. When were Washington's slaves to be freed and why?
2. What instructions did he leave for taking care of the slaves after they were freed?
3. Washington refers to one of his slaves by name. What does GW say about this slave and why?
4. How do you think others might have reacted when they learned of Washington's actions?
5. After reading this document and the section from the Farm Reports, what are your conclusions about slavery at Mount Vernon?

<Ite>m Upon the decease <of> my wife, it is my Will & desire th<at> all the Slaves which I hold in <my> own right, shall receive their free<dom>. To emancipate them during <her> life, would, tho' earnestly wish<ed by> me, be attended with such insu<pera>ble difficulties on account of thei<r interm>ixture by Marriages with the <dow>er Negroes, as to excite the most pa<in>ful sensations, if not disagreeabl<e c>onsequences from the latter, while <both> descriptions are in the occupancy <of> the same Proprietor; it not being <in> my power, under the tenure by which <th>e Dower Negroes are held, to man<umi>t them. And whereas among <thos>e who will recieve freedom ac<cor>ding to this devise, there may b<e so>me, who from old age or bodily infi<rm>ities, and others who on account of <the>ir infancy, that will be unable to <su>pport themselves; it is m<y Will and de>sire that all who <come under the first> & second descrip<tion shall be comfor>tably cloathed & <fed by my heirs while> they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the ag<e> of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that th<is cla>use respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the <u>ncertain provision to be made by individuals. [1] And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which ha<v>e befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, whic<h> shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test<im>ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War. [2]


1. At about the same time that he was drawing up his will, Washington made a list of the adult and child slaves on each of the Mount Vernon farms, usually giving ages, occupations, and other pertinent information. His list of 317 slaves, printed immediately below, includes the names of 124 who belonged to him outright and were to be freed when Martha Washington died, 153 who were Martha Washington's dower slaves and at her death would go to the Custis heir-at-law, her grandson George Washington Parke Custis, and forty others leased by GW from his neighbor Penelope Manley French. Of the 277 slaves belonging to Washington in his own right or by marriage, 179 were 12 years old or older, eighteen of whom were "Passed labor." The remaining ninety-eight were children under the age of 12. Of those twelve years old and over, ninety-five were females and eighty-four were males. Shortly after Washington's death, Bushrod Washington recommended to Martha Washington that she get "clear of her negroes" at Mount Vernon. According to Eugene Prussing, she "was made unhappy by the talk in the [slave] quarters of the good time coming to the ones to be freed as soon as she died." He reported that "many did not wait for the event" but took off at once. In any case, all the slaves that Washington owned outright were freed after Martha's death, and the accounts of the executors of Washington's will show an expenditure by 1833 of more than $10,000 to the pensioned former slaves who remained at Mount Vernon or lived nearby (Bushrod Washington to Martha Washington, 27 Dec. 1799, in Fields, Papers of Martha Washington, 328-31; Prussing, Estate of George Washington, 158-60). [back to text]

2. At a sale in October 1767 Washington bought "Mulatto Will" for £61.15 from Mary Smith Ball Lee, widow of John Lee of Westmoreland County, who had recently died. The young man called himself William Lee; Washington at first called him Billy, but after the Revolution he consistently referred to him in his papers as Will or William. As early as May 1770 Will Lee began going to Williamsburg as Washington's body-servant to Williamsburg for the meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses. For the next two decades Will was in constant attendance upon Washington as his personal servant, acting by turns as valet, waiter, butler, or huntsman. He accompanied Washington to the meeting of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, remained by his side "through the War" and returned with him to Mount Vernon at the end of 1783, went back with him to Philadelphia in 1787 at the calling of the Constitutional Convention, and, even though by then badly crippled, travelled to New York when Washington became president in 1789.

During the war Will Lee took as his wife "one of his own colour a free woman" from Philadelphia, named Margaret Thomas, who was, Washington wrote Clement Biddle, "also of my family." Washington's efforts after the war to bring Will Lee's wife to Mount Vernon apparently failed. According to George Washington Parke Custis, Will was "a stout active man, and a famous horseman," until two accidents in the late 1780s deprived him of the use of his legs. While acting as a chain carrier when Washington surveyed his Four Mile Run tract near Alexandria in April 1785, Will fell and "broke the pan of his knee"; three years later, in March 1788, he fell at the post office in Alexandria and "broke the Pan of his other Knee" (Diaries, 4:125, 5:281). In June 1788 he was still "unable to walk" (ibid., 5:349), but when Washington left Mount Vernon for New York on 16 April 1789 to assume the presidency, Will followed him. The old servant got as far as Philadelphia before problems with his knees forced him to remain there to seek treatment from doctors. On 3 May Tobias Lear, writing from New York, asked Clement Biddle in Philadelphia to persuade Will Lee to return to Mount Vernon, "for he cannot possibly be of any service here." Will was not to be persuaded: on 22 June Lear wrote Biddle that "Billy arrived here safe & well." What services if any Washington's faithful servant was able to perform in New York is unclear, but Washington informed his secretary Tobias Lear in November 1793 that Lee's replacement was "too little acquainted with the arrangement of a Table, & too stupid for a Butler." Back at Mount Vernon, Will Lee took up residence in his house near the mansion and acted as a cobbler, becoming, according to later testimony of one of Bushrod Washington's Mount Vernon slaves, a troublesome old man before his death, probably about 1810. See Cash Accounts, May 1768, n.2 (Papers, Colonial Series, 8:82-83), GW to Clement Biddle, 28 July 1784 (Papers, Confederation Series, 2:14), Custis, Recollections of Washington, 157, Tobias Lear to Clement Biddle, 3 May, 22 June 1789 (ViMtV), Biddle to GW, 27 April 1789, n.1 (Papers, Presidential Series, 2:133-34), Diaries, 2:238, 278, 286-88, 3:276, 5:73, GW to Lear, 8 Nov. 1793, and Prussing, Estate of George Washington, 27, 159. [back to text]

Additional Resources

  • Washington's Will
  • Washington and Slavery
  • A Concert of Mourning, an on-line exhibit commemorating the period of national mourning of Washington's death
  • George Washington's Terminal Illness A Modern Medical Analysis of the Last Illness and Death of George Washington by White McKenzie Wallenborn, M.D.
  • Norfolk In By-Gone Days: President Washington's Funeral by the Rev. W.H.T. Squires, D.D. Norfolk (VA) Ledger-Dispatch, 1944