George Washington and Slavery Research Paper

Pages: 5 (1969 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 16  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: American History

George Washington & Slavery

George Washington and African Slaves in Colonial America thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetic talents." (George Washington's letter to a slave named Phillis Wheatley, upon receipt of her poem; believed to be the only correspondence from Washington to a slave; reprinted in George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal, Hirschfeld, p. 92).

It is a fact of history that the first president of the United States, George Washington, who was also the famed leader of the Revolutionary Army that defeated the British, owned slaves. This paper provides documentation through existing literature as to how Washington treated his slaves and how in general he viewed the practice of slavery. There is no need to make excused for Washington, or to rationalize away Washington's participation in this evil system. The history of that era in the American experience is objective and there for all to learn about. And the fact that Washington was considered the "father of our country" makes reading about Washington, his personal life, his ownership of slaves and his lifestyle all the more interesting.

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In the book, George Washington and the Negro, author Walter H. Mazyck takes readers through Washington's life and explores the culture Washington was born into and brought up in. He was born in the fourth generation of slaveholders in colonial America, and as far as Washington knew, "slavery had always existed," Mazyck writes (p. 7). A careful reading of this book shows that Washington cared deeply about the treatment of his slaves. No one living today was on hand to actually witness Washington's treatment of his slaves, or hear how he related to his slaves orally, so the truth about the first president's interaction with his slaves must lie in the research that has been published in books like Mazyck's, and in scholarly journals.

Research Paper on George Washington & Slavery George Washington and Assignment

Washington indeed gave "much attention to the care and management of his slaves," Mazyck explains (p. 8), in particular to the matter of "safeguarding their health." He wrote orders to his employee who was overseer of the slaves "...to be particularly attentive to my negroes in their sickness," and seemed to complain that his managers tended to "...view the poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draught horse or ox." For Washington, according to Mazyck's research, he was upset that his staff tended to "neglect" the slaves when they are not able to work "...instead of comforting and nursing them when they lie on a sick bed" (p. 9).

It would appear that much of the research included in the Mazyck book shows the caring, positive side of George Washington's relationship with his African slaves. There are other less flattering sides, including several incidents reported in the book Jefferson's Pillow. Author Roger Wilkins alludes to a time towards the end of Washington's second term as president when a slave named Oney Judge "...took her freedom and made her way north" (Wilkins p. 82). Washington was so concerned or upset about it he wrote to the secretary of the Treasury and asked that he put out the word that she made be living in New Hampshire. Wilkins quoted a passage from that letter, which indicates (the author asserts) how much loyalty Washington expected from his slaves due to the fact that he treated them with fairness and humanity.

I am sorry to give you...trouble on such a trifling occasion," Washington wrote to the Treasury secretary, "but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs. Washington's desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided" (p. 82). Washington (at this stage in his life) was certainly by all accounts "a good slave master," Wilkins - a professor of history at George Mason University - explains. The president had stopped selling slaves "because he thought the practice was cruel, even though this new policy made his farms unprofitable and caused him to pile up debt."

On another occasion, Wilkins continues, when President Washington was touring the state of Pennsylvania, he came face-to-face with a legal and moral conflict. Pennsylvania had recently passed legislation, which slaves were to be freed within six months after a slave owner had moved into the state. Even though Washington was a resident of Virginia, and the law did not apply to him, he apparently feared that "...his slaves' exposure to the laws of Pennsylvania might give them an idea above their station: freedom!" (Wilkins p. 76)

So, in order to avoid that problem, Washington crafted a coy plan; he sent his two "most valuable slaves in Philadelphia" back to Virginia on the guise that they were needed by Mrs. Washington. This was a "devious scheme" according to Wilkins, who, while being fair-minded and good-hearted in his treatment of slaves, always saw them as property first "...and then human beings" (Wilkins 76).

When Washington was elected president he brought some of the slaves from his plantation with him to the capital, which was then New York City. "The Washingtons seemed completely at ease about brining slaves to the new capital of a free and enlightened people," according to author Henry Wiencek in his book an Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Wiencek p. 313). To George and Martha Washington, "life without slaves would have seemed impossible," Wiencek writes.

The closeness that the Washingtons felt towards their slaves "formed a cocoon of fidelity, trust, and familiarity," Wiencek continues on page 313. The presence of his family of slaves was for Washington "a psychological bulwark." The servant who attended Martha was that same Oney Judge, alluded to earlier in This paper as a runaway slave. When on duty with the president's family, Oney, light-skinned, "young" and "well-groomed," was "an accomplished seamstress" and was responsible for the tending to Martha's clothes and hair. Every morning, Oney "coiffed" Martha's hair and assisted the First Lady as she dressed "for her arduous social life the presidency imposed."

Clearly, Oney was doing a job that was appreciated by the First Lady, because when the nation's capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790, Martha insisted that Oney continue in her service as "maid in waiting" for the First Lady. In contrast, the household cooks who had handled the Washington means while the First Family was in New York, were not invited to make the move to Philadelphia. Wiencek records Washington quotes on page 314: "The dirty figures of Mrs. Lewis and her daughter will not be a pleasant sight...in our new habitation." While it is true, according to Wiencek, that Washington "barked in rage at his slaves" it's also true that Washington "barked at his white servants as well" (p. 319). Wiencek adds that there is no record of Washington ever whipped at the Philadelphia Executive Mansion, albeit whipping of slaves did occur at Mount Vernon during the time Washington was president. The slaves dearest to the Washington family, Oney, Austin and Hercules, attended the theater by themselves, Wiencek explains on 319.

The author points out that while both Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, they both could see the writing on the wall, that slavery would be abolished one day. "I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union," Washington stated (Wiencek p. 362). Further, Wiencek writes that during his presidency, Washington made "...the startling, indeed, amazing, remark that is the union split apart into North and South, 'he had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern'." That quote attributed to Washington's secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, is found on 362 of Wiencek's book.

In the Journal of Black Studies, author Dwayne Mack reviews Wiencek's book, which leaves no doubt that Washington was deeply involved at one time in the sale of slaves, having "managed lotteries, in which slaves were raffled off to liquidate the debt of their owners," according to Mack (p. 321). "Throughout his life," Mack paraphrases from Wiencek's book, "Washington profited financially from slavery," owning up to 300 slaves at one time, and indeed Washington "knew his field slaves individually" (p. 98 of Wiencek's book). So he made money off slavery, he bought and sold slaves, but he apparently treated slaves with as much dignity and respect as might be possible for a wealthy man in that period of American history.

Meanwhile, the University of Virginia has made available to the public - through digital archives - a number of Washington's papers, including his last will and testament; in this will, he ordered that when his wife dies, "...all the slaves in which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom." He asked that "tho' earnestly wished by me," they not… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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