The True George Washington: Master and Employer: Emancipation

Updated September 23, 2019 | Infoplease Staff


By his will Washington gave Lee his "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 cloaths he has been accustomed to receive; if he chuses the last alternative, but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first, and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War."

Two small incidents connected with Washington's last illness are worth noting. The afternoon before the night he was taken ill, although he had himself been superintending his affairs on horseback in the storm most of the day, yet when his secretary "carried some letters to him to frank, intending to send them to the Post Office in the evening," Lear tells us "he franked the letters; but said the weather was too bad to send a servant up to the office that evening." Lear continues, "The General's servant, Christopher, attended his bed side & in the room, when he was sitting up, through his whole illness.... In the [last] afternoon the General observing that Christopher had been standing by his bed side for a long time—made a motion for him to sit in a chair which stood by the bed side."

A clause in Washington's will directed that

"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 of 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 of 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 & 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 cloathed 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.... The negroes thus bound are (by their masters and mistresses) to be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation."

In this connection Washington's sentiments on slavery as an institution may be glanced at. As early as 1784 he replied to Lafayette, when told of a colonizing plan, "The scheme, my dear Marqs., which you propose as a precedent to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in wch. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work; but will defer going into a detail of the business, till I have the pleasure of seeing you." A year later, when Francis Asbury was spending a day in Mount Vernon, the clergyman asked his host if he thought it wise to sign a petition for the emancipation of slaves. Washington replied that it would not be proper for him, but added, "If the Maryland Assembly discusses the matter; I will address a letter to that body on the subject, as I have always approved of it."

When South Carolina refused to pass an act to end the slave-trade, he wrote to a friend in that State, "I must say that I lament the decision of your legislature upon the question of importing slaves after March 1793. I was in hopes that motives of policy as well as other good reasons, supported by the direful effects of slavery, which at this moment are presented, would have operated to produce a total prohibition of the importation of slaves, whenever the question came to be agitated in any State, that might be interested in the measure." For his own State he expressed the "wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery; it would prev't much future mischief." And to a Pennsylvanian he expressed the sentiment, "I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say, that there is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting."

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