by Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
July 6, 2018
Shortly after George Washington‘s death, the London newspaper Bell’s Weekly Messenger praised the first U.S. president’s decision to free his slaves in his will. “He emancipates his slaves after his wife’s death,” the author of the article clarified. “Improving upon this direction of her husband, Mrs. Washington, to whom we know not that we can pay a more acceptable tribute than to say, that she was worthy of such a man, has, it is said, already emancipated them.”1
This was not completely true. First of all, when the article was published in March 1800, Martha Washington had not yet emancipated the slaves, though she planned on doing so. She signed the deed of manumission later that year, on Dec. 15, 1800. George Washington’s slaves legally became free on Jan. 1, 1801.
Secondly, while the journalist was eager to commend her worthy impulses, Martha did not choose to free these people prematurely out of any moral imperative. She did so because she feared for her life. As Abigail Adams put it, “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death, she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] there interest to get rid of her.”2 Considering that Martha’s life was the only thing standing between approximately half of the members of Mount Vernon‘s enslaved community and their freedom, it’s easy to see why she felt unsafe.3 Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis described her decision to free the slaves early as “prudential.“4
None of Martha Washington’s writings implies that she held any moral opposition to the institution of slavery. As late as 1795 she wrote to her niece, who was upset that a young enslaved child had died, “Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints—that one is heardly sure of keeping them—I hope you will not find in him much Loss—the Blacks are so bad in thair nature that they have not the least Gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them.”5 For years, Martha actively tried to recapture her enslaved maid Ona Judge after Judge ran away in Philadelphia. Martha also left one enslaved man, Elish (or Elijah), whom she could have legally freed, to her grandson in an addendum to her will.
To argue that Martha Washington freed her husband’s slaves early out of empathy or anti-slavery sentiment would be irresponsible. Nothing in her writing supports that reasoning. It seems more likely that she did so for self-preservation, though whether her life was actually in danger is unclear. It would be incredibly dangerous for an enslaved person who had almost no legal protections to attack any white person, especially a figure as famous as Martha Washington. That did not mean it was out of the question, however. Surely the Washingtons, more than most, understood the drive to risk life and limb in the pursuit of liberty. George Washington, writing on the subject of runaway slaves, understood that “the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist.”6 The fact that Martha Washington feared for her life at all says something about Mount Vernon’s tense atmosphere at the time. In the end, most of George Washington’s slaves left Mount Vernon as free people in 1801, with a few staying behind to support their families. Those left behind in slavery continued to do what they could in order to survive and make the most of their lives.
1. News. Bell’s Weekly Messenger (London, England), March 23, 1800.
2. Abigail Adams to Mary Adams, Dec. 21, 1800, in Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia, Mo., 1997), 214.
3. George Washington freed 123 people total. Most of the other enslaved individuals at Mount Vernon were “dower slaves,” the legal property of Martha Washington’s heirs. This inheritance resulted from a Virginia law in effect when Martha’s first husband died, which strictly instructed that a man’s property descend to his heirs, not to his widow’s next husband.
4. George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (Philadelphia, 1861), 158.
5. Martha Washington to Frances Bassett Washington (Lear), March 24, 1795. Manuscript, Huntington Library.
6. “From George Washington to Tobias Lear, April 12, 1791,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0062. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 8:84–86.