I’m currently making a case to debate a pastor to keeping a Chicago statue where it is. I went to my local library and started doing research. Pouring through George Washington’s own writings I was able to reconstruct something that the people trying to take the statue down are ignorant to: George Washington was in the closet about his views when it comes to slavery.
In the book George Washington, Selected Writings page 403 states:
I direct that all of them who are forty years old & upwards, shall receive their freedom; all under that age and above sixteen, shall serve seven years and no longer; and all under sixteen years, shall serve until they are twenty five years of age, and then be free.
Now this seems like a selfish move, why wouldn’t he just free them all at the same time? However, place it next to a caption from the book George Washington The Writer A Treasury of Letters, Diaries, and Public Documents
In his will, he insisted that his younger slaves be taught to read and write. At the time of his death, Washington’s library was filled with nine hundred volumes, many on practical subjects.
George Washington The Writer- Carolyn P. Yoder pg 12
All who were older would have already learned how to read and write, so they were freed and were free to go about their business. Forty was considered old for that time, so they were essentially retiring. Washington cared for his slaves, which is why he made this policy. Slaves were protected because they were considered property, meaning you had to feed them and keep them healthy. If they were freed they would have to get jobs and make lives for themselves. Older slaves would have had to support their children and the children would likely not get free educations. The slaves would have perished if he had released them all at once.
Slaves at Mount Vernon were treated fairly well and felt free to complain when they weren’t. Washington was one of the few planters who provided for the freeing of his own slaves after his death.
George Washington The Writer-Carolyn P. Yoder, pg 65
The reality is the only way to save the slaves was to be a slave owner, buy slaves, keep them safe from the bad ones, educated them, and free them. However, even after freedom there was still real danger that a slave could be put back into chains. Thus, being a slave to a good owner meant you were safe from the bad owners.
But George Washington signed the horrible 1793 Fugitive Slave Act which made the kidnappings possible in the first place. Yet, many in the south complained it wasn’t forceful enough which led to a reform. Even though Washington signed the bill into law doesn’t mean he supported its content. The Bill was passed by Congress, and since George Washington didn’t want more outrage over him vetoing it, he signed it into law. He was more worried about the stability of the young nation and figured moral conflict over such an emotional issue would break the nation in two. Especially if the move were made by its representative. The United States were still recovering from the Revolutionary war from England and they did not need a civil war. George Washington inclined to remain neutral in his professional position for the sake of the newborn nation, while supporting the freedom of all men in his private life.
Although he seemed to be privately opposed to slavery, Washington did nothing to end it in his public roles as a burgessman, member of the Continental Congress, or president. He never publicly spoke out against the institution, largely because of the destructive effect such a controversy would have on the fragile young republic.
George Washington- The Writer: A Treasury of Letters, Diaries, and Public Documents pg65
A letter from Robert Morris, friends with George Washington, before Washington’s feelings were public reveals Morris’ views. If Washington’s views were not yet public, we can only conclude that they shared a mutual distaste for slavery and that any letters written back to Morris were destroyed on purpose because of Washington’s position.
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, l to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it-
George Washington The Writer- A Treasury of Letters, Diaries, and Public Documents pg 66
However, more solid proof that George Washington was in fact against slavery comes in a letter written by himself to Lawrence Lewis.
I wish from my Soul that Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual abolition of Slavery;
George Washington Selected Writings- Pg 383 To Lawrence Lewis
It wouldn’t be until July 9, 1799 when Washington’s Last Will And Testament publicly revealed his opinion on slavery. He felt his opinion was so important that he published, printed, and distributed it throughout the country! For an official of his stature to make such a move on a controversial subject is like Donald Trump being open about illegal immigration and saying let’s put a wall up in 2017. This would have cost him money to publish because it would have been done by simple printing press, and money to distribute because it would have all been done on horseback. With the subject being taboo, it was unnatural for someone of his status to even speak on behalf of slaves.
If Washington hadn’t been one of the people to make one of these moves openly against slavery, others may not have had the courage to follow in his footsteps.