The emancipation of Washington’s slaves was complicated by the fact that he only owned 123 of the 317 slaves at Mount Vernon. Some had been leased from nearby plantations. The rest were at Mount Vernon because of Martha Washington’s first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. Custis died without a will, and under Virginia law, that meant that Martha got a life interest in one-third of his estate, including his numerous slaves. Two-thirds of the estate went to their four children. The slaves that came to Mount Vernon with Martha would revert to the Custis estate when she died. Neither George nor Martha could emancipate or sell them.
The Washington and Custis slaves were not segregated at Mount Vernon, and the Mount Vernon exhibits indicate that many marriages (or perhaps that should be “marriages” since the slaves could not legally marry) occurred among them. It is contended that Washington did not free his slaves during his lifetime or even at his death because he did not want to break up those married families. However, questions remain. Surely not all his slaves were married to Custis slaves. Presumably some Washington slaves were married to other Washington slaves. Why weren’t these people freed? And, of course, the odds are high that some of his slaves were adults or near adulthood and not married at all. Yet they remained enslaved.
We can, therefore, question Washington’s stated reasons for delaying manumission. Even so, Washington was the only founding father, as Mount Vernon notes, who emancipated his slaves. However, Mount Vernon is using a different definition of “founding father” from one that I might use. Surely, Benjamin Franklin is a founder, and he freed his slaves before the Revolutionary War. (Oh, yes, Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. So, did, New Yorker and founding father John Jay. Slaves were legally held in New York until the 1820s.) We can agree, however, in granting emancipation in his will, even if the manumission was delayed, Washington did an act that was extraordinary for its time.
(Trivia quiz. Who was the last American President to have owned a slave? Answer: Ulysses S. Grant. Something to contemplate about American history: Of the seventeen Presidents before Grant, eleven owned slaves at some point in their lives. Eight of those eleven owned slaves while President.)
While Washington may have been concerned about breaking up slave families and did provide for emancipation in his will, he was not necessarily a more humane slaveholder than others. Some of his guests indicate in letters that he was a relatively gentle slave master while other visitors noted that stern discipline was enforced at Mount Vernon. Certainly Washington expected hard work. The exhibits indicate that his slaves had to toil without shirking from sunrise to sunset no matter what the weather. (Concluded on March 26, 2018)