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