Talk:Legacy of George Washington

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This is another of the several daughter articles spun out of George Washington after the main article was picked as the Article Creation and Improvement Drive winner for the week of Aug.27-Sept.3

Slavery legacy[edit]

I moved this section here for reference. The slavery section in the GW legacy article should focus on whether Washington had an affect on slavery. After his slaves were freed his wife did not free her slaves. Washington freeing his slaves had no effect on other slave owners releasing their slaves. Cmguy777 (talk) 16:26, 31 August 2010 (UTC)

Washington and slavery[edit]

This 19th century engraving is an idealized depiction of Washington supervising his slaves at Mount Vernon.

For most of his life, Washington was a typical Virginia slave owner. At the age of ten, he inherited ten slaves; by the time of his death there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon, including 124 owned by Washington, 40 leased from a neighbor, and an additional 153 "dower slaves" which were controlled by Washington but were the property of Martha's first husband's estate. As on other plantations, his slaves worked from dawn until dusk unless injured or ill and they were whipped for running away or for other infractions. They were fed, clothed, and housed as inexpensively as possible, in conditions that were probably quite meager. Visitors recorded contradictory impressions of slave life at Mount Vernon: one visitor in 1798 wrote that Washington treated his slaves "with more severity" than his neighbors, while another around the same time stated that "Washington treats his slaves far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia."[1]

George Washington (John Trumbull, 1780), also depicts William Lee, Washington's enslaved personal servant, who for many years spent more time in Washington's presence than any other man.

Before the American Revolution, Washington expressed no moral reservations about slavery, but by 1778 he had stopped selling slaves without their consent because he did not want to break up slave families. Historian Henry Wiencek speculates that Washington's slave buying, particularly his participation in a raffle of 55 slaves in 1769, may have initiated his gradual reassessment of slavery. His thoughts on slavery may have also been influenced by the rhetoric of the American Revolution, by the thousands of blacks who sought to enlist in the army, by the anti-slavery sentiments of his idealistic aide John Laurens, and by the enslaved black poet Phillis Wheatley, who in 1775 wrote a poem in his honor. In 1778, while Washington was at war, he wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon that he wished to sell his slaves and "to get quit of negroes", since maintaining a large (and increasingly elderly) slave population was no longer economically efficient. Washington could not legally sell the "dower slaves", however, and because these slaves had long intermarried with his own slaves, he could not sell his slaves without breaking up families, something which he had resolved not to do. Confronted with this dilemma, his plan to divest himself of slaves was dropped.[2]

After the war, Washington often privately expressed a dislike of the institution of slavery. In 1786, he wrote to a friend that "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." To another friend he wrote that "there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery. He expressed moral support for plans by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette to emancipate slaves and resettle them elsewhere, but he did not assist him in the effort.[3]

Despite these privately expressed misgivings, Washington never criticized slavery in public. In fact, as President, Washington brought eight household slaves with him to the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia. By Pennsylvania law, slaves who resided in the state became legally free after six months. Washington rotated his household slaves between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia so that they did not earn their freedom, a scheme he attempted to keep hidden from his slaves and the public. Two slaves escaped while in Philadelphia: one of these, Oney Judge, was located in New Hampshire. Judge could have been captured and returned under the Fugitive Slave Act, which Washington had signed into law in 1793, but this was not done so as to avoid public controversy.[4]

Washington was the only prominent, slaveholding Founding Father to emancipate his slaves. He did not free his slaves in his lifetime, however, but instead included a provision in his will to free his slaves upon the death of his wife. William Lee, Washington's longtime personal servant, was the only slave freed outright in the will. The will called for the ex-slaves to be provided for by Washington's heirs, the elderly ones to be clothed and fed, the younger ones to be educated and trained at an occupation. Washington did not own and could not emancipate the "dower slaves" at Mount Vernon.

Washington's failure to act publicly upon his growing private misgivings about slavery during his lifetime is seen by some historians as a tragically missed opportunity. One major reason Washington did not emancipate his slaves earlier was because his economic well-being depended on the institution. To circumvent this problem, in 1794 he quietly sought to sell off his western lands and lease his outlying farms in order to finance the emancipation of his slaves, but this plan fell through because enough buyers and renters could not be found. He did not speak out publicly against slavery, argues historian Dorothy Twohig, because he did not wish to risk splitting apart the young republic over what was already a sensitive and divisive issue.[5]

  1. ^ Number of slaves: Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. 46; Ellis, pp. 262–63. Quotes from visitors to Mount Vernon: Ferling, p. 476.
  2. ^ Slave raffle linked to Washington's reassessment of slavery: Wiencek, pp. 135–36, 178–88. Washington's decision to stop selling slaves: Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal, p. 16. Influence of war and Wheatley: Wiencek, ch 6. Dilemma of selling slaves: Wiencek, p. 230; Ellis, pp. 164–7; Hirschfeld, pp. 27–29.
  3. ^ Quotes and Lafayette plans: Dorothy Twohig, "'That Species of Property': Washington's Role in the Controversy over Slavery" in George Washington Reconsidered, pp. 121–22.
  4. ^ Washington's slaves in Philadelphia and the scheme to rotate them: Wiencek, ch. 9; Hirschfeld, pp. 187–88; Ferling, p. 479.
  5. ^ Twohig, "That Species of Property", pp. 127–28.