By Nancy Hurrelbrinck
In the early 1790s, George Washington built a brick greenhouse at Mount Vernon with wings on the sides to house slaves, replacing a ramshackle “House for Families.”
“This new structure was meant to take slavery into the next century, woven into an architecture of great beauty and permanence,” said Henry Wiencek, an independent scholar who’s writing a book on Washington and slavery.
But when the first president drafted his will a few years later, he specified that his slaves be set free.
“Washington’s pronouncements on the subject of slavery could be contradictory . … It’s one of the mysteries of his life,” said Wiencek, a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities who gave a talk there in December. “You could say slavery was something he inherited, a part of the system. But he also had to learn how to be a master.”
As a child, Washington couldn’t have helped but absorb a distinction between the treatment of black and white children, said Wiencek, the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Whereas white illegitimate children of indentured servants, who were often prohibited from marrying, had to be taught to read and write and apprenticed in a trade, their mulatto counterparts were typically indentured for 33 years, “a big chunk of a person’s life then.”
Martha Washington also grew up with slavery. When she met George, she was the widow of the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis, whose father almost willed his estate to a young black boy who was possibly his child, which would have left her husband-to-be penniless.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington hesitated to enlist blacks, but he knew they had been fighting well in New England–and that the British were recruiting slaves by promising them freedom–so he allowed them in. At the end of the war, when his army marched to Yorktown, one in four of his soldiers was black, according to a mercenary German officer’s journal.
“Why isn’t this woven into our collective memory along with Paul Revere, Betsy Ross and Ticonderoga?” Wiencek asked.
At Yorktown, Washington had a spy in enemy camp, James Armistead, who served loyally at the risk of his life, but was sent back to slavery after the war. He appealed to Lafayette, who wrote a tribute that Armistead took to the legislature, winning his freedom.
Several of the Washingtons’ slaves ran away, including Hercules, their cook, and Ona Judge, Martha’s seamstress.
“Washington tried to have her kidnapped because Martha wanted her back, though he was inclined to let her go,” Wiencek said. “This suggests a split in their attitudes toward slaves. Hers was very hard, but his began to soften.”
The Washingtons’ views about slavery were also probably influenced by their familial relationships with African-Americans, and may have impelled George to change his mind, he suggested. Martha had a mulatto half-sister who lived with her throughout her life and who had a child with Jackie Custis, Martha’s son by her first marriage.
Jackie Custis died a few years later, but Washington’s family acknowledged the child as part of the family. He was free, but married a slave, and their children were emancipated by the husband of one of Martha’s granddaughters.
“These relationships were everywhere. It’s astonishing, the level of denial that has obscured all of this,” Wiencek said.
Additionally, the descendants of West Ford, a slave owned by Washington’s brother John, claimed George Washington was his father. “The evidence isn’t strong, and the evidence against it is strong. But merely suggesting that it should be examined enrages some Washington historians,” he said.
To defend George, historians argue that one of his brothers or nephews fathered Ford. “They’re admitting that Washington and Jefferson knew they had enslaved kin,” he said. “I think this lies at the center of the corruption slavery has wrought in this country.”
Washington once told a visiting Englishman that slavery was neither a crime nor an absurdity, noting that the U.S. government did not assure liberty to madmen. “Until the mind of the slave has been educated to understand freedom, the gift of freedom would only assure its abuse,” Washington explained.
His will, drafted a year later, said otherwise. He wrote that he wished he could free all the slaves at Mt. Vernon, but couldn’t because some belonged to his wife’s heirs, and he didn’t want to divide families. Unless Martha or her heirs freed the Custis slaves as well, families would be broken up. Wiencek believes George was trying to persuade Martha to use her influence on her heirs to free the Custis slaves–but she did not. Washington also stipulated that the freed children be taught reading, writing and a trade.
“His will was a rebuke to his family, to his class, and to the country. He was well ahead of people of his time and place,” Wiencek said. “This is George Washington’s true legacy. He’d said the slaves weren’t ready for freedom, but at last he said they must have it because of their humanity.”
Article courtesy Inside UVa, University of Virginia, v. 31, issue 2, 19 January 2001, 8. Image of the greenhouse at Mt. Vernon by Robert C. Lautman from “George Washington’s Mount Vernon,” 1998. The Monacelli Press.