Throughout the coming months The Patriot Papers will address the issue of slavery during George Washington's time. In view of Washington's many attributes and accomplishments, it is difficult to acknowledge his role as slave owner. Guest historians will share their perspectives; we invite you to share yours. Hopefully, through dialogue, we will increase our understanding.
-F. A. Pulles, editor
- George Washington was only 11 years old when he inherited 10 slaves from his father in 1743.
- By the time he was 22 years old, Washington owned approximately 36 slaves.
- At his death in 1799, Washington had 316 slaves at Mount Vernon, 123 of whom belonged directly to him. The remaining 193 were "dower" slaves-those he acquired through his marriage to Martha.
- Approximately 75 percent of the slaves at Mount Vernon worked in the fields. Of these, nearly 65 percent were women.
- Washington did not buy or sell his slaves after the Revolutionary War.
- Washington allowed his slaves to marry, although such arrangements were not legally binding at that time.
- In his will, Washington freed all of the slaves he owned. His personal valet, William Lee, was released with a payment of $30 per year for the rest of his life, a considerable sum in those days.
RUNAWAY SLAVE. Mrs. Washington is greatly distressed by the loss of Olney Judge, her Mount Vernon servant so skilled in needlework. The girl, we hear, was lured away by a Frenchman who tired of her and left her stranded in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. President Washington has sent word that all will be forgiven if she returns to her mistress, but she has refused to come back unless promised her freedom. This puts the President in an awkward situation. Privately he has said that although he is sympathetic to her demand, setting her free would only reward her for running away and would spread discontent among the rest of his servants (as he calls them), who by being faithful are more deserving of their freedom than the runaway. Above all, the President cautioned that no violent means should be used to bring her back, lest a mob or riot be excited. Rather than risk this happening, he would tell Mrs. Washington she must get along without the services of Olney Judge.
FREEDOM TOO GREAT A TEMPTATION. President Washington has brought a handful of servants from Mount Vernon, but he will be faced with the difficulty of complying with the Pennsylvania law freeing adult slaves who have lived in Pennsylvania for six months in a row. It is believed that the President, therefore, will have to shuttle these servants back and forth and suffer the inconvenience of sometimes being without his cook, Hercules. Asked if he feared his slaves might take advantage of being in the North to run away, the President has privately conceded that the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist.
PRESIDENTIAL RESIDENCE, 190 HIGH STREET, PHILADELPHIA. Senator Robert Morris's dwelling, at 190 High Street, has turned out to be the best house available for the President's use, and Mr. Morris has graciously agreed to move around the corner. Additions will be made to accommodate Mrs. Washington and her two grandchildren, Nelly, who is about twelve, and
George Washington, who is about ten, as well as the President's secretary and numerous servants. The bathing room has been turned into a study to provide for a room in which the President can do business, but unfortunately it will be necessary for visitors to walk up two flights of stairs and pass by the public rooms and private chambers to get to it. The President has insisted that the house is to be finished in a plain and neat manner and has ruled out tapestry or very rich and costly wallpaper. He has also ruled that the back yard be kept as clean as the parlor, since it is in full view from the best rooms in the house.
- He came from a blended family, having two older stepbrothers and one stepsister; he was the eldest of the children by his father's second wife.
- He was actually born February 11, not February 22? England changed its calendar when he was a boy, causing his birthdate to become February 22.
- His father died when he was 11 years old?
- He often had a bad temper but slowly learned to control it?
- He loved horseback riding, dancing, and farming?
- He was not always a good student?
- He did not always get along very well with his mother, who was bossy and controlling?
- His older half-brother Lawrence was one of the most important people in young George's life?
- He had two stepchildren, but no children of his own.
Today, most of us own many more
things than we really need to live on. When George was 11 years old, his family
made an inventory (or list) of their possessions. Here is what they owned, besides
- 16 pairs of sheets
- 17 pillowcases
- 13 beds
- A couch
- A fireplace set
- A looking glass (mirror)
- One silver-plated soup spoon
- 18 small spoons
- 7 teaspoons
- A watch
- A sword
- 11 china plates
- 20 slaves
How many of these same items are owned by your family today? Are you surprised
to see “slaves” listed as part of the inventory of possessions? If
you were to make an inventory of every item in your home, how long do you think
the list would be? How many items would be unfamiliar to George Washington?