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George Washington

George Washington

George Washington: Washington's Slaves

Ever since he had led the Continental army, Washington had been meaning to do something about his slaves. While a general, he had commanded free blacks in his army and saw that they were the equals of whites. His military ally and surrogate son, the French Marquis de Lafayette, was a firm believer in equal rights, and, during the war, he lobbied Washington to free his slaves. But more compelling than Lafayette's arguments were Washington's own convictions. He had concluded that slavery was inefficient: people, he believed, worked better when they owned what they produced. And Washington had a hunch about the direction history was moving. Slavery, he felt, was probably on the wrong side. So Washington decided to free his slaves.

There were complications, though. Many of the slaves on Washington's plantation didn't actually belong to him. As part of Martha Washington's estate, they belonged to her and her children, not to George. He couldn't free them even if he wanted to. More impassable than the legal difficulties, however, were the political ones. After he became president, Washington's personal actions carried national significance. If he had freed his slaves then, the South would have read it as a blanket condemnation of slavery. It would have reignited the politically explosive slavery question and might have destabilized the slave state—free state compromises that had made national government possible.

But Washington could only put off the slavery question for so long. After serving out his second term, he returned to Mount Vernon, where he promptly drafted his will. In it, he didn't just free his slaves upon Martha's death; he set up a trust to provide for the ill and elderly among them and to sponsor education for the young. It was a significant statement: Washington was the only slave-owning Founding Father to free his slaves, let alone provide for them.

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