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Got Slaves, General Washington?

February 22, 2010

On the corner of Sixth and Market Streets here in Philadelphia, less than a home run’s distance from Independence Hall, archaeologists a few summers ago dug through two centuries’ worth of dirt and rubble to uncover the ancient foundations of the President’s House. On this very spot, between 1790 and 1797, George Washington lived, slept, struggled with his false teeth and conducted his duties as our first president. Further examination of the hallowed ground revealed that the Father of Our Country also kept humble lodgings for his retinue of nine slaves.

The President's House excavation: George Washington (and his slaves) slept here.

The shock of that discovery is still reverberating in the hearts of history-minded Philadelphians, especially within the city’s black community. Imagine… the Great Liberator himself, the righteous dude whose face decorates the dollar bill, deliberately and callously held enslaved Africans within earshot of the Liberty Bell.

Now, on Washington’s Birthday, A.D. 2010, a historian at Mount Vernon has revealed that the president’s celebrated chef, a slave named Hercules, escaped from bondage precisely on February 22, 1797 — yep, a birthday surprise for George! It had long been known that General Washington’s favorite kitchen-master surreptitiously made his way to freedom in 1797. But everyone assumed that he had escaped from the President’s House in Philadelphia, as Washington was journeying home to Mount Vernon at the end of his second and final term in March of that year. 

A presumed portrait of Hercules, esteemed chef and escape artist.

Hercules’ sense of timing was exquisite enough, but even more stunning were the circumstances of his getaway: newly discovered plantation records reveal that he absconded from Mount Vernon, where it turns out he had been demoted to field work because of Washington’s suspicions that he planned to seek his freedom.   

The new findings tell us, first of all, that Hercules was no ingrate, ditching an indulgent master who treated him to a life of privilege that the average  Philadelphian could only dream about. (Hercules dressed elegantly, enjoyed an elevated reputation and was trusted to roam the city at will). Instead, the story of Hercules now acquires an epic grandeur. He was treated shabbily, he undoubtedly bristled at the indignity, and he trekked through miles of Virginia countryside to make the perilous scramble to freedom (while symbolically thumbing his nose at his former master).  

Washington probably deserved his comeuppance, but we shouldn’t be too hasty in condemning the Father of Our Country. He was far from heartless.

What kind of slave-owner was George Washington? Contemporary reports can’t seem to agree: one account portrays him as a severe taskmaster, a perfectionist who kept a tight rein on his slaves and punished them when they didn’t meet his exalted standards. Another report depicts him as unusually benevolent and liberal in his relations with his slaves. In all probability both accounts are accurate; it’s possible to envision Washington as fundamentally kind and decent but irascible when crossed (or, as in the case of Hercules, suspecting that he was about to be crossed).

Back to Philadelphia. At noon today, members of the African American community and their friends were scheduled to celebrate “Hercules Freedom Day” at the site of the President’s House. Naturally the celebration obscures the other notable event that used to be commemorated today (in the years before the advent of “President’s Day,” anyway).

Poor George can’t seem to catch a break. When the proposed memorial to the President’s House is completed on the original site later this year, it will include a prominent tribute to Washington’s slaves. That much is fitting and proper.

The Father of Our Country: humanitarian or slave-driver?

What isn’t so fitting and proper is the aura of infamy now swirling about our first president’s  noble white head. As nearly everyone knows, George Washington was an eighteenth century Virginia planter.  And, as nearly all those knowledgable people know, eighteenth century Virginia planters kept slaves.

We’re not questioning the immorality of that system. Of course it was unjust, inhumane and often brutal, a permanent stain on America’s egalitarian conscience.  But slavery was the basis of the Southern agricultural economy, and it would have been virtually impossible to operate a Southern plantation without it. Within that tradition-bound system, it would have taken an individual of extraordinary insight and compassion to oppose slavery. By the end of his lifetime, George Washington was that man.

Among the Founding Fathers who hailed from the South, only Washington came to detest slavery in principle and in practice. It was a gradual process, aided by the general’s friendships with enlightened souls like the Marquis de Lafayette.

The historical record points to the evolution of Washington’s conscience during the last decade of his life. One year into his presidency, Washington had signed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which kept nonwhites from becoming citizens (and which wasn’t entirely revoked, believe it or not, until 1953). He also signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed slave owners to recapture escaped slaves in the free Northern states.

These oppressive measures weren’t proposed by Washington himself; he merely stamped them with the presidential seal of approval. Though his own heart was already drifting toward abolitionist sentiments, he felt it essential not to alienate half the country with anti-slavery measures. The Union was still new and fragile, and Washington felt duty-bound to keep it from fragmenting.

For those skeptics who might doubt the president’s personal views on slavery, I submit the evidence in his own words:

I never mean … to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.

In other words, Washington was a moderate abolitionist… just as he was a moderate on most other matters (other than independence from Great Britain).

Is it enough to take a moderate stand on an institution that most of us regard as reprehensible? The difficult answer, in Washington’s case, is yes. A presidential decree to abolish slavery would have precipitated an immediate and bloody rebellion. (The mere fact of Lincoln’s election, seventy years later, proved sufficient to dissolve the Union and ignite the Civil War.) In the world of the 1790s, gradual abolition would have been the soundest and most effective strategy. Just as important, it would have prevented the bloodshed that eventually ravaged the nation and engendered a lasting rift between the North and South.

Washington didn’t simply talk the talk; he walked miles farther than most slaveholders of his time. After having witnessed the degrading spectacle of a slave auction, he staunchly refused to engage in the slave trade — even though he could have reaped significant financial rewards by unloading surplus Mount Vernon slaves. He wrote:

To sell the [surplus of slaves] I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse [break up] the families I have an aversion.

In 1794, Washington made an effort to sell or rent his extensive land holdings in western Virginia, at least partly so he could afford to free his slaves and provide for their well-being. The scheme fell through only because nobody stepped up to acquire the land.

Finally, in Washington’s will, the aging patriot did something that few Southern planters, including Thomas Jefferson, would have considered even in their more hallucinatory moments: he decided to free his slaves upon the death of his wife. Not only free them, but provide for their welfare and even their education. Washington wrote:

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… And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this [document], 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…
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.

The humane provisions of Washington’s will should pacify those who would portray the first president as a ruthless slave-driver and hypocrite. But I doubt if anyone will be pacified; the politics of grievance and the opportunism of idol-bashers are just too hot and urgent to be swayed by mitigating evidence. A political agenda is a terrible thing to waste.

The master of Mount Vernon came through in the end.

Washington’s will was so unconventional and potentially disruptive that he most likely crafted it in secret, not disclosing the terms to his family. It’s safe to guess that his heirs wouldn’t have warmed to the idea of liberating some 275 Mount Vernon slaves, caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves, and educating the children among them. But those were Washington’s terms, and they speak volumes about the character of the man.

Yes, the intrepid Hercules richly deserves his special day of commemoration here in Philadelphia on the 22nd of February. But so does the admirable George.

I’ll leave the final word to independent scholar and Washington expert Henry Wiencek, who said of the first president:

His will was a rebuke to his family, to his class, and to the country. He was well ahead of people of his time and place.

Amen. (All right, I had the final word.)

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2010 12:40 am

    People are judged by the legacy they leave behind. (duh…) America’s legacy is a mixed bag; Puritans fleeing religious persecution, Puritans burning Quakers and “Witches” alive, oppressed poor fleeing unjust monarchs, and then proceeding to enslave and oppress Africans as slaves. It’s only fitting that our founding fathers had such a mixed legacy too. Washington is a near perfect reflection of the country, a slave owner yes, but also a thoughtful leader, with the sense to see something was wrong and not overreact. Moderation is the true American Spirit, and in these times of gross excess and poverty, it’s no wonder the country is in the trouble it’s in.

  2. February 24, 2010 11:05 am

    Nice summation, TK. I have to laugh (a sad, cynical laugh) at the level of indignation here in Philly that Washington actually kept slaves (oops, the correct term now is “enslaved Africans”) at the President’s House. This is political correctness run amok. Come on, folks, we all know that Southern planters kept slaves. It was a bad system, obviously. But Washington deserves credit for eventually coming to realize that the system was evil, even though he was brought up in that system stood to profit from it.

  3. valdobiade permalink
    February 24, 2010 3:54 pm

    I associate slavery more with the Ancient and part of the Middle Ages era. I am not very good at history, but I think that in the Europe of the Middle Ages, the slave labor was rare. At that time the Europeans started the way to new technological discoveries and had a more “modern” perspective of the world.

    When conquistadors went in South America, they used the Natives as slaves for silver and gold mining, but it was for a short period.
    In South of North America, the slavery was an idea of rednecks ancestors (English also, I think) for serving England with cheap cotton. The idea came because it was cheaper to bring slaves from Africa than to invent some machines. Later on machines were invented, but it was too late. The population of slaves had increased and it seems, that despite technological advantages, slaves were kept just for some kind of masochism South culture.

    Because the technology started get more “out in the world”, abolition of slavery was a natural outcome. However, slavery is still existent in the US. For example if I work and the money are just to pay my rent, food, clothes and transportation – then at 67 (age for retirement) I die with nothing, then it is just slavery with “human face”. My master (CEO) did millions, billions in profit without using force. Ain’t nice those “modern” times?

    • February 24, 2010 4:45 pm

      Valdo: The condition of the average working stiff who can’t get out of debt is pretty close to slavery, with one major distinction: he or she is free to change jobs. (OK, so the new job won’t pay enough, either.) But I remember seeing a short documentary about orange pickers in Florida who lived at the orange grove and were charged slightly more for room and board than they were paid in wages. In other words, they could never earn enough to escape. THAT’s slavery.

  4. February 24, 2010 4:59 pm

    Slave labor wasn’t exactly in short supply in the middle ages, look at the serfs. In the Americas, natives were too easily worked to death and escaped too frequently, so Africans were brought in to do labor intensive jobs on the cheap. When America industrialized, slavery boomed. That was the result of the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney. (who was black, irony is a bitch.) When industrialization killed slavery it was because the industrial north became more important than the agricultural south. America abolished slavery when it was no longer profitable enough to overcome people’s ethics. The most infamous trait of American slavery is the racial justification for it. The racial justifications for keeping people in poverty gave way to “social Darwinism;” They’re poor because they’re less fit as humans, and the “Gospel of wealth;” We have money because God is rewarding us. They’re are always more poor people, and more ways to keep them poor without losing sleep at night. That’s why a large middle class of moderately wealthy people is ideal.

    • February 24, 2010 5:38 pm

      TK: You’re right about the racial justification for slavery, though of course numerous white ethnic groups have been used as slaves through history. (That’s how the Slavs earned their name.) But Eli Whitney, sorry to say, was a white guy. It WOULD have been the ultimate irony if he had been black.

      • February 24, 2010 6:23 pm

        Damn it! Who am I thinking of? I know there’s somebody who built something used in field work to make slaves’ lives easier. To Wikipedia, for a brain boost.

  5. February 24, 2010 6:36 pm

    Henry Blair, the Cotton planter?
    (I guess I thought Whitney had invented the cotton gin because lots of people claim he got the idea from a device slaves used. I should remember to do fact checks…)

  6. valdobiade permalink
    February 24, 2010 9:08 pm

    TK, I wanted to associate the slavery with “old times”, as in “classic” slavery. I think that Industrial Revolution actually put and end to “classic” slavery. In a sense, abolition of slavery as we know it, was naturally to came after advances in technological knowledge. I know that even in Pre-Industrial and Industrial era, it was cheaper to kick somebody in the behind than to buy a machine, but this is “modern” slavery.
    The invention of the cotton gin is not exactly a major contribution to open an industrial trend for the ending of “classic” slavery to occur.
    If you want to talk about “contemporary” slavery, it was up until 1970-75 in the Soviet Union (Gulag and Siberia forced labor camps). Also, if you include child labor, you have “up-to-date” slavery.
    The form of slavery I described above, it will exist as long as humanity will exist. Rick tried to appease this kind of slavery by saying that you can change the job 🙂
    However, if I have to pay debt for a credit card that surpass my life expectation then I am a modern serf for the banks.
    (BTW: now banks have to include the period you have to pay at the minimum payment they show)

  7. February 25, 2010 1:14 am

    At least “classic” slaves had some hope of being freed, the Romans and Greeks were fairly good about freeing slaves. (better still at taking them) This new, “lifelong indentured servitude” has but one advantage, no whips. (Unless you’re stuck in the Chinese version of those Gulags you mentioned.) The more things change the more they stay the same, I guess 😦

  8. February 25, 2010 1:11 pm

    Oh, I agree that the banking industry (including credit cards) has a sizable chunk of America in financial slavery. I don’t know how they’re allowed to get away with interest rates of 29% — that’s usury by anyone’s standard. And of course, it’s the people who can least afford it who are slapped with the highest rates.

    At least there’s some much-needed reform going on right now: two-month “grace” periods for paying bills, prior warnings about interest rates going up, and so on. I was sick of getting hit with $35 late fees because I didn’t pay up within three weeks of receiving my credit card statement. (Long ago I got into the habit of paying my bills once a month. Clearly that wasn’t enough.)

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