Washington Frees His Slaves

George Washington was a very great man, but more importantly he was a very good man.  Born into a time and place where negro slavery was taken to be simply a fact of life, he gradually grew to believe that it was an evil.  Unlike other Founding Fathers who also talked about the evils of slavery but never freed their slaves, Washington left explicit instructions in his will for the freeing of his slaves after the death of his wife.  This of course involved a huge pecuniary loss to his Estate.   He not only made arrangements for the freeing of his slaves, he also left provisions for the care of slaves who were too old and/or infirm to support themselves and instructions that young slaves were to be taught to read and write and trained in a useful occupation and freed on their 25th birthday.   He specifically forbade the sale or transportation of any of his slaves from Virginia in an attempt to avoid the provisions of his will freeing them.   Martha Washington freed all of George Washington’s slaves on January 1, 1801. How much agony, war and bitter racial strife this nation would have been spared if all slaveholders had followed the example of the Father of Our Country!  Here is the portion of Washington’s will regarding the manumission of his slaves: 

Item Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and 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, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy or the same Proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit them. And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably clothed and 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 age 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 & final. The negroes thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses), to be taught to read and write; & to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of orphan & 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 this clause 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 & infirm; Seeing that a regular & permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. 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 have 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, which shall be independent of the victuals and clothes he has been accustomed to receive, if he chooses the last alternative: but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first: & this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

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Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. I had wondered why he hadn’t freed them before his own death.

    • I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but the laws of Virginia made that impractical and even dangerous. You will have noticed his concern to avoid breaking up marriages and other relationships between his and his wife’s slaves. Freeing slaves during a man’s lifetime was difficult, expensive and could be traumatic for the slaves themselves. To free them by will was both the least difficult way and the way which afforded most protection to the slaves (or ex-slaves) themselves.

  2. I have read in the distant past, (therefore unfortunately cannot site the source) that Washington would take slaves with him to Philadelphia and teach them to read and write and then ‘forget’ to take them back to Virginia during his lifetime.
    Thoroughly enjoy the blog.
    In Christ
    Dennis McCutcheon

  3. Thank you Dennis. All of us are children of the times in which we live and the evils that are accepted in those times most of us tend to accept. Washington ultimately decided that negro slavery, which had existed in Virginia for more than a century prior to his birth, was an evil, and he did what he could in his will to lead by example in order to attack the evil.


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