Did George Washington Really Free Mount Vernon’s Enslaved Workers?
The president’s forward-thinking decision is still celebrated, but the reality was more complicated than it appears.
by Erin Blackmore | Feb 18, 2020
Like nearly all wealthy landowners in Virginia, George Washington owned enslaved people who worked his land. He received the first enslaved workers of his own when his father died in 1743. Washington, just 11 years old at the time, was willed 10 enslaved people, and by the time he married Martha Custis in 1759, he had purchased at least eight more.
His new wife was a 25-year-old widow who arrived with enslaved workers of her own. At the time, a young woman’s father was expected to provide a dowry, a gift of money, land and other assets, to her new husband. If he died before she did, a wife was entitled to one-third of his estate, also known as a “widow’s third” or a “dower share,” throughout the remainder of her life. She would live off of the proceeds of her dower share and when she died, the money and assets would revert back to her late husband’s heirs. …
In the words of historian Henry Wiencek, his contradictory attitudes towards slavery are “one of the mysteries of his life.” Those contradictions made it into his will, too. Though the will contained the unheard-of order to free his enslaved workers, it stipulated that they remain with Martha for the rest of her life.
Freeing them, he wrote, would “be attended by such insuperable difficulties by their intermixture with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations…to manumit them.” Translation: It would be too complicated to free the enslaved people, so instead they would be owned by Martha as long as she wished.
Since he didn’t technically own the enslaved people Martha had inherited, he didn’t say they should be freed. Instead, he used them to justify the continued enslavement of the others.
By the time George died, he owned 123 enslaved people outright. After Washington’s death, Martha freed just one person: William Lee, a Revolutionary War celebrity who was the only enslaved person George said should be immediately given his freedom.