The Founding Father and His Slaves

By Sarah Booth Conroy

Historians Say Washington Was Relatively Considerate of His ‘People’

Presidents’ Day comes just after Congress added the name of the 40th president to that of the first at National Airport.

Ronald Reagan was an actor before he took office. Of George Washington, John Adams wrote in 1811, “If he were not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency that we have ever had.”

Adams also noted that the Founding Father had “the gift of silence,” which according to historian Dorothy Twohig, editor in chief of “The Papers of George Washington,” is “a quality rare among American politicians of any era. He had learned 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.”


In retrospect, that silence was not always a gift. Washington, a slaveholder, was reluctant to publicly condemn the practice.

He inherited 10 slaves at his father’s death in 1743. When he died on Dec. 14, 1799, 317 slaves, 123 belonging to Washington himself, lived on his five plantations. He rented bricklayers, carpenters and other skilled workmen from other landowners; contracted with indentured specialists, usually British immigrants working out their passage; and hired overseers.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union and Mount Vernon director James Rees are researching and presenting the 18th-century world of the Washingtons and their “people” (as slaves, indentured workers and salaried employees were sometimes called) through dissertations, conferences, current public tours, archaeological digs and stories from descendants of Washington’s workers.

“Partly because it was to his advantage . . . he paid considerable effort to his slaves’ welfare,” Twohig wrote in a dissertation given at a 1994 Mount Vernon conference. In a 1792 letter Washington wrote his Mount Vernon manager: “It is foremost in my thoughts . . . 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.”

Twohig doesn’t guarantee there were no “serious discrepancies” between what Washington ordered and what actually happened. “It appears, however, . . . 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,” she added. “Food, clothing and housing seem to have been at least adequate, even though families often worked on separate plantations.”

Certain workers had special privileges. Some Virginia slaves had their own gardens, hunted and fished, selling what they didn’t need in Alexandria. Hercules, the greatly admired cook, sold leftover foodstuffs in Philadelphia, then the capital, during Washington’s terms. With his $200 annual profit the slave equipped himself with elegant outfits, enhanced by ornate shoe buckles, and walked down the avenues to much admiration. When Washington went back to Mount Vernon, Hercules had absconded, leaving his 6-year-old daughter there.

The Marquis de Lafayette often tried to convince Washington of the evils of slavery and recommended resettling African Americans in the West Indies. Washington’s neighbor, political philosopher George Mason, fervently supported manumission.

wa-post2However, as editors W. W. Abbot and Twohig point out in the Washington papers, even if Washington had desired to do so during his life there were problems in freeing all the slaves — 113 were “dower” slaves from Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s very wealthy first husband. She had the right to one-third of his land and slaves for her lifetime.

In his own will, George Washington recognized the complications this posed:

“Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the Dower Negroes . . .”

Washington went on to require his heirs to provide “a regular and permanent fund . . . for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the uncertain provisions to be made by individuals.”

Any of the slaves — old, infirm, children or orphans — who could not support themselves were to be clothed and fed, and “taught to read & write, and to be brought up to some useful occupation,” Washington instructed. “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.”

William Lee, who was with Washington during the Revolution, was granted by Washington’s will “immediate freedom” and a yearly annuity, in addition to the “victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive.”

Martha Washington freed both her slaves and her husband’s a year after his death. Her heirs continued to help the freed people, as George Washington had provided, until the 1830s.

© 1998 The Washington Post Company

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