A fair and determined leader, a skillful politician, a man of strong Christian faith, an innovative farmer, a gifted mathematician. There is still much to celebrate about George Washington, on the 284th anniversary of his birth today.
Washington’s mission as our nation’s founder was singular and successful: free Americans from British rule and unite the states. Although he fathered no children of his own, he was unanimously chosen to father the new nation.
Without Washington, the struggle for sovereignty may have been unsuccessful, for certainly not many men could rally and revitalize the ragtag group he commanded, with little military experience and a farmer’s hands. But command he did, maneuvering 9,000 men to safety during at least one campaign, astounding the British that a provincial planter could summon the courage of a nation. His character kept aflame the spark of revolution.
It helped that he was a big man, well over six feet, bold and brimming with conviction. But his armor held a chink, an exception to an otherwise clear conscience: his growing concerns over his role as slave owner. As this month many celebrate the history of black Americans, it is important to recognize the role of the nation’s first leader in the slave trade.
Slaves Maintain a President’s Plantation
Mount Vernon is one of the great plantations that still stands, protected by one of the first historic preservation programs in the country. The stately white home sits upon a lush green hill, overlooking the rolling Potomac. Two million people walk the stairs of the great house every year. Even more traverse the grounds, passing slaves’ quarters and barns, bulls and goats, fields and graves. More than 1,000 trees mark the thickly wooded trails, including a chestnut oak predating 1683. The site is home to a rich, colorful history.
“It is important that Mount Vernon tell the whole story about the people who lived here,” said Mount Vernon’s research historian Mary Thompson. “George Washington was one of about 30 white other people who called Mount Vernon home and were buried in the soil here, with the people who lived on this plantation, which was also home to a little over 300 enslaved people. It is not possible to tell the story of Washington’s life here without also knowing about all those who died.”
By the time Washington took control of the Mount Vernon property, slaves of African origin made up about 28 percent of the surrounding county’s population. By the end of the American Revolution, that number had increased to more than 40 percent.
“George Washington’s ideas about slavery changed dramatically over the course of his life,” said Mount Vernon’s research historian Mary Thompson. “He began as someone who does not seem to have questioned slavery at all, but simply viewed it as a fact of life. During the American Revolution, his views began to change pretty rapidly. Within three years of the start of the war, he had decided that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner.”
Historians trace this change through a “rich assortment of documents, including George Washington’s correspondence and diaries, financial papers, reports turned in by his farm managers and overseers each week, descriptions written by the many guests hosted by the Washingtons, the correspondence of other family members, including Martha Washington and statements by former Mount Vernon slaves about their life on the plantation,” Thompson said. “He wrote that he hated the idea of selling people ‘like cattle in a market’ and did not want to break up families.”
This change was radical. At a time when plantation owners were often steeped in debt, early nineteenth-century America was not a fruitful time for many of the founding fathers. Washington was working toward a legacy, and his ambition relied heavily on slave labor.
“The next step in his evolution came when Washington made the decision that, unless he absolutely had to, he would not buy or sell any more slaves,” Thompson said.
The cost of housing, feeding, and caring for slaves only enhanced this view.
“Enslaved children continued to be born on the estate, so that by the last months of Washington’s life, he had more than twice as many working slaves as he needed to work the land,” Thompson said. “He wrote to a nephew that he would be bankrupted if he could not find a solution. At the end of his life, he freed not quite half of the slaves at Mount Vernon. These were the people he owned himself; the majority of the others belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, and could not be freed [legally] by either George or Martha Washington.”
Hope for a Future Revolution against Slavery
Unlike many great military leaders who used success to seize power, Washington surrendered his as soon as he had fulfilled his mission. On December 23, 1783, he resigned his military commission to Congress, saying, “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action—and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
He would return to his beloved estate in Virginia and trust the leaders he had led to freedom, while leaving many un-free.
“Politically, Washington hoped that the Virginia legislature would set up a plan to gradually free the slaves within the state, much as legislatures in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were doing,” Thompson said. “He did not feel that he could lead the political fight to bring this about, however, because he was afraid of tearing up the new country he tried so hard, for eight years during the war and eight years during the presidency, to bring into existence.”
After years of sacrifice and suffering, Washington retired to his estate, with the hope the union he had helped form would gradually end the institution of slavery, creating a new cultural norm after years of European tradition.
Along with the signatories of the Constitution, Washington’s historical leadership is celebrated, but it cannot be separated from slavery. He relied on the institution of slavery as heavily as he had strived to knock down the institution of foreign rule.
In a letter written to his wife, Thomas Jefferson said, “It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing.” If his countrymen in Washington’s state of Virginia had followed his example in freeing their slaves as quickly as practicable, who knows the impact it could have had on the South. Instead, the institution held strong after him.
Black history is a part of our collective history as a nation; a history that is still unfolding. Washington was a great man who accomplished much, but fell short of accomplishing all. This month we remember the great burden of black history and the responsibility of great leaders. And we still celebrate Washington’s work toward great American freedoms, which would eventually be realized by people of every color.