When I used to think of George Washington, I usually thought of the guy whose picture was on the one dollar bill. Most everyone else I know thinks of Washington in the same way, which is sort of sad. In the past few years, I’ve read more about George Washington and have grown to admire him. During his lifetime, he was revered by his countrymen for his courage in leading the Continental Army to victory against the most powerful military in the world, and he drew even greater praise for his willingness to give up power and respect the spirit of republican government of the early United States. He was a good man and a wise leader, and nothing shows Washington’s character more than his evolving views towards slavery. Though he started out having the same views on race as his fellow Southern plantation owners, Washington’s views evolved to the point where he was a strong voice against slavery and wished that some means for the country to rid itself of the institution.
At the start of the Revolutionary War, Washington had over 200 slaves and he held conventional views of race for the time. He found himself, though, in charge of a multi-racial army that included over 5,000 free African Americans, and necessity forced Washington to accept the services of all his troops. In 1781, Baron Von Closen visited the Continental Army and noted that one our of every four Continental soldier was African American. The valor of these African Americans in times of battle began a slow change in Washington’s views on race. In the assault that eventually ended the war, Washington handpicked the Rhode Island unit, which happened to be 75 percent black, to carry out the most important military assignment. Washington’s friend, Lafayette, was full of enthusiasm of the Revolutionary spirit and urged Washington to enact emancipation plans in the spirit of the American Revolution. In March, 1776, Washington met the African American poet, Phillis Wheatley, whose poems he admired. At the war’s end, George Washington was firmly favoring of someone coming up with some sort of plan to gradually emancipate slaves.
Washington’s slow change in attitude on race was not perfect. Washington was against a Quaker petition that was sponsored by Benjamin Franklin to ask the Congress to debate for emancipation plans because of fears of Southern secession. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act as President in 1793. In 1796, when one of his slaves, Oona Judge, escaped to New York, Washington tried discreetly to lure her back to his plantation. Henry Wiencek, in his book, Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, notes that Washington was contemplating the freeing of his slaves during his Presidency, but backed away from those plans. Wiencek felt this was a great missed opportunity for Washington and the nation. Washington was the one person with the prestige and respect to possibly persuade the South to accept gradual emancipation plans. As Joseph Ellis wrote in his book, Founding Brothers:
“First, the arguments of the Deep South were unanswerable because there was sufficient truth in the fatalistic diagnosis to persuade other members of the House that the slavery problem was intractable; and second, whatever shred of possibility still existed to take concerted action against slavery ws overwhelmed by the secessionist threat from South Carolina and Georgia, since there would be no national solution to the slavery problem if there were no nation at hand to implement a solution. Perhaps, as some historians have argued, South Carolina and Georgia were bluffing. But the most salient historical fact cannot be avoided: No one stepped forward to call their bluff.”
George Washington wrote his will in secret in July 1799, to conceal his emancipation plans from the disapproval of his family. Henry Wiecker notes in his book that Washington owned only 123 of the 316 slaves in Mount Vernon. The rest were Martha’s slaves. He put in his will that the slaves that he owned would be freed upon the death of Martha Washington, as a way to appeal to Martha to follow his lead and emancipate her own slaves. The old and the infirm freed slaves would be taken care of until death by their heirs. The freed children would be bound by the Court until they reached 25 years of age, and they would be taught to read and write and be brought up to some useful occupation. To ensure that the executors of the will would not try to find some way to evade his wishes to free the slaves, Washington wrote:
“…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 solenmly 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…”
For me, it’s important how Americans view George Washington. He was viewed since his lifetime as the Father of our nation, and in some sense that is an appropriate title. Historians have swung the spectrum in evaluating him, putting him on a pedestal in one extreme and tearing him down in the other extreme. Washington was a human filled with the same mixture of virtues and flaws as we all have, one filled with the same contradictions as our nation. Washington grew in his racial attititudes and was against slavery, yet it is true that he didn’t do enough to use his stature to persuade the South to adopt a gradual abolition plan. Yet he achieved great things in leading our nation to its founding, and he earned the respect and adulation of his countrymen. It may seem hard nowadays to picture someone with the stature that Washington once had with our nation. Roger Wilkins, in his wonderful book Jefferson’s Pillow, compared Washington to a leader today with the same stature in his country. He wrote:
“Those who think Washington elusive, as I once did, and find his greatness heard to define might look to a contemporary figure whose virtues seem very similar to Washington’s. In 1990, shortly after he was released from prison, Nelson mandela troued the United States to raise both consciousness and cash for the African National Congress and the freedom struggle in South Africa. i was fortunate enough to be asked by his host, the entertaier Harry Belafonte, to coordinate that trip, so I had the opportunity to be with Mandela for ten days as he traveled across America…
Like Washington, Mandela led through character, not through eloquence; like him, he had a strong ego on which he kept a firm grip. Mandela’s self-reliance and rock-hard intertiry were likewise formed in adversity, outside the normal fountains of privilege that so often bear people up to positions of critical prominence and power. Like Washington, Madela was able to curb his normal human need for self-aggrandizement in order to devote himself to a larger cause. And like Washington, Mandela, in choosing to subordinate his ego to serve his country, earned immortality.”