George Washington’s Impact on Black Relations
During the Colonial Era there was much debate regarding slavery. The north was primarily against slavery while the south was economically dependent on slavery. When colonist started to settle North America they had come from England for religious and political freedom. Many were subsistence farmers (raising just enough food to survive on, with perhaps a little surplus to sell or trade). There was no need for slaves. Later, in Virginia indentured servants were being used by land owners.
These people could not pay their own way to the new world, so land owners would pay their way to the new world and the indentured servants would work four to seven years without pay for the person who paid their passage. Later, in the 1600’s, fewer indentured servants were coming to the colonies and planters were in need of workers. To solve the problem, planters adopted slavery. Under this system, workers belonged to their owners for life.
Plantation owners from the south began buying slaves from Africa in large numbers. There were also some slaves in the northern colonies but, most of the colonist in the north were still subsistence farmers. Religious convictions did not condone one man owning another man or his family for life. When George Washington was born in 1732 slavery was already over one hundred years old. “In 1743 George Washington inherited ten slaves at his fathers death (Washington Post).” By the time of his own death he owned over three hundred slaves. George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, was in Virginia, and it still stands today. Virginia was considered a southern colony during this time. Although George Washington did own slaves there are many documented accounts of him expressing his disapproval of slavery. George Washington had owned slaves from the time he was eleven years old. He did not start speaking out against slavery until later in life and during his presidency and he stayed neutral during the controversy between the northern colonies and the southern colonies over slavery. George Washington’s silence regarding slavery lead to him having very little impact on Black relations during the colonial era and throughout his entire life. Do not mistake this with him not caring about the Black slaves that he owned.
During the early years of George Washington’s life there are no documented statements regarding his stance on slavery. The first statement I found in which Washington talks about his slaves is in 1761, four slaves had run away from his plantation in Fairfax County Virginia (Mount Vernon). He writes a description of the four slaves, Peros; 35, Jack; 30, Neptune; 25-30, and Cupid; 23-25. He wants them all returned and is willing to pay a substantial reward for these slaves because he considered them and investment and would loose money on them if they were not returned. The next writing I found was written in 1766. George Washington had written a letter to Josiah Thompson. “With this letter comes a Negro (Tom) which I beg the favour of you to sell, in any of the Islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch, & bring me in return for him….(Washington’s Writings p. 118).” Washington goes on to write a list of goods, and then tells Mr. Thompson that Tom is a “Rogue & Runaway,” but he is also healthy and strong. Washington at this time shows no conviction towards slavery and the selling of his own slaves. He also has not spoken out against slavery and therefore I believe at this time he is supporting the institution of slavery.
Washington did treat his slaves well, let them marry, and took good care of their needs, he also let them take sundays off and work for money if they wished. Washington’s view towards slavery was conventional, reflecting those of a typical Virginia planter of his time. If he was more concerned about his slaves than other plantation owners regarding the welfare of his slaves, it was due to his interest in their contribution to the economic survival of the plantation. Throughout Washington’s life his main concerns were first the economic welfare of his plantations and second the welfare of his slaves. In a letter to Lund Washington (his son) he tells him that he needs to cut costs on the plantation. He suggested that Lund to buy cheaper “linnen” for the “Negroes” without making “the poor Negroes suffer too much (Washington’s Writing p.259) in another letter to Lund he writes tell him that he does not approve of selling slaves that are married with children. Washington felt that it was not right to separate families. He goes on to state, “if these poor wretches are to be held in a state of slavery, I do not see that a change of masters will render it more irksome (W.W p. 335).” This is the first statement that I found in which Washington actually show compassion for his slaves who are bond in slavery. Virginia did not recognize slave marriages, but George Washington upheld the bonds of marriage between slaves. During the pre-Revolutionary years Washington is still a slave owner and has made not attempts to speak out against slavery therefore he has made no impact on Black relation other than on his plantation of which is does not condone the separating of slave families, and recognized the bonds of marriages between slaves.
In a letter to Bryan Fairfax and one to George William Fairfax, his father figure after his oldest brothers death, he describes the colony as being enslaved by the British and compares Black slavery to that of British colonist. In another letter he suggest that if they do not defeat the British that the land would be inhabited by slaves, he is once again referring to the British colonies. This is a turning point for George Washington. He is starting to see the injustices of slavery because of his and the other colonists situation with the British Government.
In 1772 during the colonial period George Washington made his first impact on Black Relations in the colonies. He became a member of the House of Burgesses which drafted a petition to the throne labeling the importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa “a trade of great inhumanity” that would endanger the “very existence of your Majesty’s American dominions.” And, in July 1974 Washington was involved in a composition in Fairfax which recommended that no slaves should be imported into the British colonies. The resolutions declared “that their most earnest wishes to see and entire Stop forever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade. (John P. Kennedy p. 10: 119-28).” At the same time George Washington was petitioning the throne to end the importation of slaves to the colonies he had bought five additional slaves for his plantations.
George Washington did make a small impact on Black relations during the colonial period when his was a member of the House of Burgesses. He was also involved with the composition in Fairfax. His contribution did not go unnoticed it was his hypocrisy that went unnoticed.
From my point of view Washington is contradicting himself. He says one thing but then turns around and does another. He is a hypocrite. I believe that the role George Washington is playing during the colonial period regarding his stance on slavery is confusing. He has for the first time spoken out publicly against slavery but continues to have not only slaves working on his plantation, but buying more slaves, and also renting out skilled labor slaves. The colonial period was a turning point for George Washington.
George Washington was the Commander of the Continental Army from 1775-1783. During this time he had to make some very important decisions regarding Blacks serving in the continental army. In June of 1775 Washington signed orders to exclude Blacks as recruits for service because “they would be unfit to endure the fatigues or the campaign (Benjamin Quarles 643-52).” Lord Dunmore in 1775 encouraged indentured servants and free Blacks to enlist in the British Army. Many Blacks both free and slaves fled to the British lines thinking that their beliefs regarding slavery varied from those of their masters. They were wrong and many Blacks who had fled to serve in the British Army worked as military laborers (Sylvia r. Frey p. 383-85). Washington and Congress had changed their view regarding Blacks serving in the army by December 1775 due to Dunmore’s plan to enlist slaves and offer them freedom. Washington stated, “the number of Negroes are desirous of inlisting, he gives leave to the recruiting Officers, to entertain them, and promises to lay the matter before the congress, who the doubts not will approve of it (General Orders 2:620).”
In 1778 Washington suggests to Congress not to let slaves serve in the continental army because they are unreliable and, “could not be sufficiently depended on, they would frequently desert the enemy to obtain their liberty, and would carry off their waggon-horse with them (Pete Maslowski 2-6). During this time it is obvious that Washington feels that slaves are not worthy to serve in his Army. Was his turning point during the colonial period a real turning point or was it just a brief cover? At the end of the war Washington did make a small attempt to send back slaves who were run away’s and enlisted in the Army. Washington also objected to British plans to take slaves with them who had served in the British army, Washington told them that the articles of peace prohibited them from taking slaves back with them to Britain.
In a farewell address Washington resigned as commander-in-chief and states,
“The policies of the states shall adopt at this moment they will stand of fall….It is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse…(and) not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved. He goes on to say that it is essential to the well being United States that its citizens forget their local prejudices and policies, and to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community (Washington Paper 9).”
Here once again Washington speaks out about slavery.
Although George Washington has spoken out against the inhumanities of slavery he still refers to them as slaves who could not turn out productive work, but has kept them working on his plantations. He has by this time written many letters stating that slaves are unable to produce productive work on his plantations and feels that it is because of the institution that they are bound to as slaves. Washington is against slavery due to economic reasons rather than the institution of slavery. There is a letter where Washington talks about the terrible and inconsistent work the slaves put out on the plantation. He also states that slavery is not good for the economic reasons. This is another reasons Washington starts to speak out against slavery. His main concern once again is for the economic survival of his plantation rather than the institution of slavery.
George Washington spoke out against slavery during the Confederation Period (1783- 1789). On April fifth 1783 Washington wrote to Lafayette stating,
“The scheme, my dear Marqs. which you propose as a prcent, to encourage the emancipation of black people of this country from that state of Bondage in sch. They are held, is a striking evidence of the striking benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work; but will defer going into a detail of business, ‘till I have the pleasure of seeing you(W.W. 510).”
This is the first written statement that I found where Washington actually speaks about the emancipation of Black people. Washington never does join Lafayette in his venture he ended up only lending him moral support. I believe Washington realized his own economic dependence of slaves interfered with his principles. In April 1786 Washington writes to Robert Morris regarding the abolition of slavery, but states that it is not in the best interest of the slave and the owner because some “slaves are happy and content to remain with their present masters….When masters are taken at unawareness….his purse will not measure that of the Society, & he looses his property….it produces more evil than it can cure (W.W. 593-94).” One could probably say that Washington is blinded with the “stalk-home theory.” Washington does cut back on his purchases of slaves during the Confederation years but he occasionally continued to acquire them. In 1786 he accepted five slaves in payment for a dept and requested Henry Lee to purchase a bricklayer for him because he had a lot of work to do in the Summer.(w.w. 659). Once again Washington states that he is against the institution of slavery, but feels that the abolition of slavery would cause economic chaos, and at the same time he is saying all of this he is purchasing and acquiring more slaves. It is hard to tell what Washington’s feelings are regarding slavery.
Washington served as President of the United States from 1789-1797. He realized the fragile framework that held the states together. There had not been a successful revolution up until this time. The Russian Revolution and the French Revolution both failed because the people could not agree on how the Government should work or how it should run. Washington was fully aware of the division between states were regarding slavery. During the Constitutional Convention I found no evidence of him speaking out against slavery. Then again Washington never did say much about any controversial subject. All in all there was little support from anti- slavery spokesmen during the Constitutional Convention. In matter of fact the laws that were drafted during the Constitutional Convention were in favor of slavery. There was only one exception, in the trade clause, which guaranteed the right to import new slaves for at least twenty years.
Publicly no comments came from Washington regarding slavery during his presidency Washington’s strongest objection to the institution of slavery was the buying and selling of broken up families. He does not take a stance against slavery, he just feels that slave owners should not brake up families. . In November of 1794 Washington writes to Alexander Sportswood tell him that he is not “principled to selling Negroes, as you would cattle in the market (ww 900).” This is not the first time he speaks of his opposition to selling slaves like cattle. He has said it many of time before. Like I mentioned, Washington’s strongest objection was the buying and selling slaves that broke up families. This is just one of the only letters that I found that he wrote during his presidency where he actually mentions something about being against slavery.
It is hard to decipher how deep Washington’s sentiments ran regarding slavery. Washington’s achievements during his presidency in regard to slavery were not impressive. In April 1791, fearing the impact of a Pennsylvania law freeing slaves after six months residence in that state, he instructed his secretary Tobias Lear to ascertain what effect the law would have on the status of slaves who served the presidential household in Philadelphia. In case Lear believed that any of the slaves were likely to seek their freedom under Pennsylvania law, Washington wanted them sent home to Mount Vernon in Virginia, were slavery was still legal. In 1795 when one of Washington’s slaves ran away he told his overseer to take measures to apprehend the slave “but I would not have my name appear in any advertisement, or other measure, leading to it (48).” There was a letter written in 1797, after he had retired, to Lawrence Lewis. He states that he “wishes from my soul that the Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery; It would prevt. much future mischief (W.W 1002).”
In George Washington’s Diary I found that he spoke of his slaves the same way he spoke of them in his letters, but I found his letters to be more useful because of the fact that they were more detailed. During the end of the colonial period is when Washington’s view regarding the institution of slavery changed, not his attitude towards Blacks. Washington’s occasional comments on slavery expressing his desire to see it disappear from the United States it is difficult to decipher how deep his sentiments ran. It is likely that he had come to disapprove of the institution on moral grounds and that he considered it a serious impediment to economic development. Although he did not make sufficient comments on the institution of slavery to be certain, it appears that his opposition dealt more with the immorality of one man holding ownership over another, than with the abuses of slavery in term of cruelty and abuse to individuals. Washington did, unlike most of his peers, free his slaves in his will and during much of his public life he gave at least private support to the idea of emancipation. If the laws were not so stringent regarding the freeing of slave Washington might have freed more slaves during his life time. Since the laws were stringent regarding the freeing of slaves it made it difficult for anyone to free slaves during the colonial era up until his death.
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