Some have severely criticized George Washington for owning slaves and not freeing them until his death. Easy to say from the perspective of a 21st century American, but the matter was complicated in our 18th century.
Slavery had existed on every inhabited continent from the earliest times. Slavery or death was the accepted fate of those defeated in battle. There were no serious scruples against it until the 18th century Enlightenment. The idea that rulers had absolute power was challenged by the English barons in 1215, and the 1688 Glorious Revolution reinforced the idea that the people held important power, but slavery continued in the British Empire until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, and its ending was gradual.
Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732 into a society that accepted slavery as natural. He became a planter who depended on slave labor. He did recognize and reward ability: four of his five overseers were slaves. Trained male slaves became expert craftsmen and artisans. However, Washington’s account books revealed that his costs for the slaves’ food, clothing and shelter exceeded his income from farming. About the same time ideas of freedom circulated in Virginia as English rule became more burdensome. His close friend George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights which was adopted on June 12, 1776, the same day Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution for independence in Philadelphia, and Jefferson, using Mason’s drafts, wrote our Declaration of Independence. If “... all men are born equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty ….”, then slavery was morally wrong.
Washington wanted to end slavery for moral and practical reasons but doing so posed insolvable problems. His slaves had intermarried with the Custis dower slaves he could not free, and he refused to split families. He needed workers for his various other businesses, including fishing and running his gristmill and distillery, which were lucrative, and his household. He doubted freed slaves would find employment because other planters feared they would give their slaves “bad ideas.” Later, he feared his example of manumission would put so much pressure on other slaveholders to do so that the union would dissolve.
He chose not to sell or buy slaves and prepared his for eventual freedom. He bought the honey he enjoyed with his breakfast hoecakes so his slaves would experience earning, spending and saving money. He provided them with guns, fishing gear and time off so they would perfect skills to feed their families. They had plots for growing vegetables and herbs. They were taught to read so they could read the Bible and given time off on Sundays to attend church and enjoy chosen pursuits, including making salable items.
Washington recognized the services of slaves like James Armistead, a spy who supplied him and Lafayette with crucial information that helped them win the Battle of Yorktown.
Washington’s will freed his slaves and provided money for the education of the young and support for the elderly.
This Alexandrian led us to independence and the laying of a sound foundation for our national government; the solution to the slavery problem eluded the best minds of his day and afterward. Let’s focus on our common heritage of freedom rather than refusing to honor the Father of our Country for failing to solve this problem.
I hope the city libraries will restore the custom of displaying the Washington Birthday Proclamation, having special events for children and featuring attractive exhibits. I would like the schools also to have special programs. There is no reason why only black history should be honored in February in Alexandria’s libraries and schools.
Ellen Latane Tabb