George Washington’s Tangled Relationship With Slavery

Annual lecture during namesake’s birthday celebration sheds light on his ties to the topic.

Dr. Philip Morgan
George Washington's life was "inextricably entwined with slavery," said Philip Morgan, the Harry C. Black Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. (William Atkins/GW Today)
February 23, 2015

By James Irwin

His life synonymous with impressive titles—president and general among them—George Washington’s longest-standing designation was rather infamous: He was a slave owner. And the tangled web of slavery in the late 18th century was a topic he constantly struggled with, said Philip Morgan, the Harry C. Black Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University.

Speaking Thursday at the fourth annual George Washington Lecture—the intellectual component of GW’s recognition of its namesake’s birthday—Dr. Morgan called slavery a system “that enmeshed master and slave” and one Washington sunk further into as he aged, despite his personal desires to eliminate it from his life.

“He was inextricably entwined with slavery,” Dr. Morgan said in a lecture that focused on slave life and the traps it created. “Wrestling with issues of productivity, grappling with the familial aspirations of his slaves and dealing with runaways all helped to convince him gradually—some would even say glacially—that slavery was an iniquitous, evil, tragically flawed system.”

Still, Washington, despite undergoing this personal transformation, remained a slave-owner until his death in 1799, when he freed his slaves in his will. The reasons are many, Dr. Morgan said.

Washington inherited his first slave at age 11 upon his father’s death. The institution was “part of the natural order,” Dr. Morgan said, for a boy landowner in the 1740s. Washington later rented and purchased slaves. He acquired them through marriage. Slaves under his control formed families. By the late 1780s, as the Mount Vernon Estate grew in size, Virginia tax records indicated Washington was the fifth-largest slave owner in the state.

The result was a dense, interwoven and complex community that lived on a conglomerate of farms on more than 8,000 acres of land. Today, through Washington’s meticulous penchant for keeping records, the estate is constructing a database of slaves who lived on the grounds. Halfway through their research, Dr. Morgan said, they have identified more than 600 people and 13,000 points of data.

Washington, Dr. Morgan said, “was a demanding, often querulous master” and Mount Vernon “a place of unremitting toil.” Washington kept detailed notes and observations of his farms, complained that his slaves were careless and deceitful and lamented at his struggles to exact from them efficient, productive work. From a slave's perspective, Dr. Morgan said, Washington could be intrusive and meddling.

“Slavery, above all, was a system of work, an economic enterprise,” Dr. Morgan said. “Since slaves had precious few incentives to labor industriously, a stern taskmaster such as Washington was forever finding fault, even though they toiled long and hard for him.”

Mount Vernon, he said, became even more complicated as slaves formed families on the estate. Martha Washington’s family owned more than half the slaves at Mount Vernon. Her family was against the freeing of slaves, and George Washington was against the separation of families. It added another layer to an already thorny problem, said Denver Brunsman, associate professor of history in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Washington abhorred runaway slaves and attempted to catch them, Dr. Morgan said. Living in Philadelphia in the late 1790s and aware that any adult slave who resided in Pennsylvania for more that six months became free, Washington deliberately sent slaves out of the state to circumvent the law. Many of his actions, Dr. Morgan said, do not reflect well under a contemporary lens.

Washington, of course, was not alone among the founders. Fellow presidents and Virginians Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe were slaveholders. Though all wrote about emancipation, none implemented it personally in life or led the charge for national abolition. Slavery, Dr. Brunsman said, was “one of the most difficult and important subjects related to Washington’s life” and a reminder that for all his brilliant leadership, Washington was an imperfect man of his times.

“It is a complex legacy,” said President Steven Knapp, noting that the university’s birthday week events are intended to recognize Washington’s inspiring but also flawed pedigree. “It reflects the complexity of the nation’s origins and the regional, political and moral tensions that would eventually erupt in civil war.”

Over his life, as he became further immersed in the system and his slaves became ever more entangled with one another, Washington grew weary of and frustrated with the institution altogether. For him, slavery was as much a failed, exhausting enterprise as it was a moral problem.

“The lived experience of slavery, its messy realities and the entanglements to which it gave rise help to explain his actions in 1799,” Dr. Morgan said. “He wanted to extricate himself from slavery’s corrosive effects.”


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