While teaching freshmen history classes, I would frequently remind my students that no matter when and where people had lived, our commonalities were more numerous than our differences. It is only a lack of knowledge of their surroundings and their customs that prevents us from understanding why people of the past did what they did.
Even as I said this, I knew there were a few people I had trouble understanding, myself. I have a little trouble understanding the Nazi leaders of World War II. Frankly, I don’t want to read any more about them. About halfway through Inside the Third Reich, by Albert Speer, I was, for at least a few chapters, almost sympathetic to the author’s desperate pleas for sympathetic understanding. Then I suddenly remembered exactly who and what the author truly was, and the sympathy vanished. I’ve spent enough time trying to get inside the heads of these madmen, and I’m finished with trying.
Similarly, I have trouble understanding the mindset of Southern slave owners. I have read endless excuses about prevailing customs, misplaced religious convictions and so forth. I understand these arguments, but I still have trouble understanding how men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington could condone the owning of people. I have not given up trying, so I was eager to read Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s new book, Never Caught, the story of Oney Judge Staines, a young slave woman who escaped from her masters, George and Martha Washington.
The book is excellent, and any failures I have to understand the peculiar institution of slavery are entirely mine, and not due the work of Erica Dunbar. I have read enough books that tend to excuse Washington for owning slaves; thankfully, this work is far more honest.
George Washington was not kind to his slaves, though most biographies take great pains to show that other slave owners were crueler. The comparisons just don’t work. Washington inherited slaves at the age of eleven and he owned slaves for over 56 years. There is ample documentation—frequently from his own journals—of the mistreatment that the president’s slaves received.
There is no doubt that Washington had his slaves whipped, that he had them worked in freezing weather when Washington himself refused to leave the comfortable warmth of his home, that he forced elderly and crippled slaves to perform demanding physical labor, and that as a punishment designed to strike fear in his slaves, he sold slaves to the West Indies—a virtual death sentence. While it is true that Washington did not break up slave families by selling a husband or wife to another plantation, he frequently split the families by sending spouses to different farms that he, himself, owned.
There is ample proof that Washington forced a one-armed slave to hoe weeds with his remaining arm, that he forced women to dig out stumps in a frozen swamp, and that he traded one slave for a quantity of wine. Despite the inevitably harsh punishments that awaited them if they were recaptured, dozens of his slaves attempted to escape bondage by running away.
Some biographies point out that in his will, Washington "freed" his slaves. While true, this is only part of the story. Only one slave was immediately freed at the president’s death. The rest of Washington’s slaves were promised eventual freedom—meaning that they were to remain slaves until the death of Martha Washington, his wife. (However, upon his death, Martha wrote Abigail Adams that she feared his slaves might murder her to gain their freedom early and after several suspicious fires at Mount Vernon, she freed them early.)
This gradual emancipation was only for the 123 slaves that George Washington had personally owned and it did not affect the majority of the slaves at Mount Vernon, who were dower slaves, making them the property of the Daniel Parke Custis estate, from Martha Washington’s first husband. Upon her death, the dower slaves were divided up among her heirs (In many cases, husbands were separated from wives and children separated from parents). George Washington could not have freed those slaves without compensating the Custis estate—something the president could not financially afford to do. And while Martha couldn’t legally manumit those slaves, either, it is evident from reading her letters that she would have refused to do so even had it been within her power. (She even refused to associate with Benjamin Franklin, who from benign neglect allowed all of his slaves to escape and then helped found an abolitionist group.)
Perhaps the best evidence for Washington’s harsh treatment of his slaves came during the Revolutionary War when a British Frigate, the H.M.S. Savage, anchored near Mount Vernon and threatened to burn the estate unless given food and supplies. While Lund Washington, the general’s cousin and temporary estate manger, eagerly met the British terms and furnished chickens, sheep, hogs and other supplies, seventeen slaves fled to the warship and asked to be ferried to freedom. Among the slaves were several elderly men who, despite their age, were eager to leave the comparative safety of the plantation for freedom.
When Washington became president, he took slaves with him, first to New York, then to Philadelphia, which served as the nation’s temporary capital. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, Washington was dismayed to learn that while he could take slaves into Pennsylvania, if they remained there for six months, they could claim freedom. Washington immediately took steps to keep this information secret from his slaves, and when this proved futile, spent the next six years carefully shipping his slaves either back to Mount Vernon or to New Jersey every five months for a short “visit”. While this did not satisfy the spirit of the law, it did meet the letter of the law and prevented his slaves from establishing a legal residence that would lead to their freedom. Washington's slaves were not unaware of his subterfuge.
Oney Judge was Martha Washington’s “body servant”, who was a trusted slave who prepared the First Lady’s clothes and attended to her personal needs. As a member of the extended family, Judge got better treatment than most slaves—the work was less physically demanding, she had better clothes, and she received kinder treatment. Judge might not have ever run away from the Washingtons had not Martha decided to “gift” the young slave as a wedding present to her granddaughter. Insulted and fearful of a new master well known to be temperamental, Judge made the courageous decision to escape.
While the Washingtons ate supper, Judge fled and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she remained for the rest of her life. While Judge and her children were technically still slaves, and subject to being physically returned to Mount Vernon (a course of action Washington knew could not be taken because of bad publicity), Judge eventually married and made a life for herself in a small town. It is a fascinating story and I urge you to read Dunbar's book.
Meanwhile, George Washington never accepted the loss of his "property" and not simply because he was financially responsible to the Custis estate for the loss. For the rest of his life, he attempted to convince Judge to return to Mount Vernon, refusing to believe that anyone would prefer the impoverished life of a freed slave to being the personal servant to the president of the country. Washington refused to believe that Judge preferred freedom, convincing himself—despite all evidence to the contrary—that Judge had been enticed to escape by a mythical white French abolitionist.
Nor would Washington allow his agents to negotiate terms with the escaped slave. Washington knew exactly where Judge lived, and sent agents to try to convince her to return, but refused to allow those same agents to promise her eventual emancipation, stating that such action would be “impolitic & dangerous precedent.”
There is no doubt that throughout the 1780’s and 1790’s, Washington’s views about slavery slowly changed. As president, he once told a British diplomat that the issue of slavery had “to be rooted out” for the nation to survive. And as the only Founding Father to "free" his slaves—a deliberate message to the nation—he should be commended. But, there is also no doubt that those theoretical views on slavery were secondary to his very real attempts to recapture all of his escaped slaves.
I have heard all the arguments attempting to explain Washington’s attitude about slavery. Feet of clay, the culture he was born into, the prevalent customs, a product of his time and so forth. Yes, Washington was a complex man—he was an essential element in the Revolutionary War and a great president. But, I still can’t quite climb into the man’s mind and I still can’t understand his participation in something he privately came to know as wrong.