Got Slaves, General Washington?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.)