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George Washington’s Abolitionism


Christopher Cameron has an interesting post at the U.S. Intellectual History blog about George Washington’s growing abolitionism. Historians ignored this side of Washington for a very long time, but in recent years, they have paid increasing attention to it. Washington certainly benefited from slavery and signed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, a weak law compared the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but one that still nonetheless gave slaveowners the right to reclaim their human property from free states. He freed his own slaves after his death (though this did not apply to Martha’s slaves, whose ancestors came into the marriage with her), something that Jefferson quite pointedly did not do, despite his public statements of discomfort with slavery.

Anyway, Cameron points us toward looking at historians of the book to help gain a window into Washington’s evolving thoughts on abolition. It’s hard to pin Washington down sometimes. He was not an easily knowable figure, not as literate or profound as his revolutionary colleagues, and was the ultimate early Republic patrician.

One thing this made me wonder was whether Washington’s growing identification with Federalism and northern capital influenced his growing abolitionism. As he saw the nation’s future tied to business and money rather than Jeffersonian agrarianism, perhaps he began to view slavery as an anachronism that should be phased out. This is pure speculation on my part and I am not a historian of the revolutionary period. But I think it’s a good question.

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  • Washington had the great fortune of dying at the right time, after the big tobacco boom, which was the first reason for importing slaves, and before the cotton gin, which made such a marginal crop profitable in a slave economy. Even during the height of King Cotton, slaves in the border states were profitable only insofar as they could be sold to cotton growers in the deep south. Abolition was a lot easier to contemplate when slavery wasn’t profitable.

    • Very true. Had Washington died in 1809 instead of 1799, he may well have retreated from abolitionism. Others did.

  • I don’t think historians should be playing the role of mind readers. I do not know what existing evidence there is regarding the motives behind Washington manumitting his slaves in his will. But, what ever these sources are that is all we have. We can’t speculate on his unexpressed thoughts regarding the role of slaves in greater economic trends if we have no sources pointing in that direction. I have seen an awful lot of bad speculation about motives for other leaders based upon insufficient evidence and its not actually history. So maybe somebody could expound upon what actual documentary sources exist regarding Washington’s attitudes on this matter?

    • Read the WMQ article linked in the original link.

    • Bruce Vail

      The headline of this post is hasty and misleading.

      Washington was not an abolitionist and there is no such thing as Washingtonian Abolitionism. It is interesting to speculate on his reasons for freeing some of his slaves, but not others (I wonder how many of the slaves he owned died, or were sold, before Washington himself passed away: Why didn’t his ‘abolitionist’ views apply to any of them?). But it was a private matter for Washington, and his public greatness is diminished because of it.

      • Anonymous

        Did he not free all his slaves in his will? Only some? Martha’s don’t count; he had no legal power to do so.

        • Anonymous

          His will specified that those slaves which he could legally manumit would become free upon his wife’s death.

          However, Martha Washington freed her husband’s slaves before she died. Not out of any kind of charity – she never even freed her own slaves – but because she became terrified at the prospect that those slaves wanted to kill her in order to “speed up” their own emancipation.

          • Snarki, child of Loki

            Ah, so George took out a hit on his wife in his will! Crafty bugger.

            • firefall

              Revenge for that flag, no doubt

  • partisan

    Meh. There are some books in his library which he may have read and may have agreed with. I think this is a typically unenlightening example of a certain pro-Federalist tendency. The right naturally supports the Federalists, and naturally supports a politics in which we all genuflect before the glorious Washington and whatever ideas Hamilton can get him to say. The centre and left look nicely at the Federalists to show they’re not sentimental Parringtonians. Whatever virtues of some Northern Federalists and Whigs, both parties are pro-business and slavery is the biggest business in the country. Both parties only won with the support of southern slaveholders, and they were as bad or worse as southern Jeffersonians and Jacksonians.

    • burritoboy

      Well, that Washington was open to the arguments of Hamilton on slavery is a positive aspect of both Washington and Hamilton’s actions: that Hamilton was dubious of slavery and that Washington was swayed by Hamilton’s correct (or much more correct than Jefferson’s) position in opposition to Washington’s own self-interest.

      There’s no doubt that the Federalists were complicit in slavery – everyone in the United States was. But that doesn’t negate that the Federalists had a substantively different opinion of slavery than the Democrats, and their entire economic (and thus also their political) theory drove them more and more over time to avoid slavery.

  • Matt McKeon

    There are a couple of books focused on Washington’s rejection of slavery. I’ve been drinking this afternoon, and the titles are not coming to mind. “Inperfect God?” Anyway, the sense is that Washington was motivated by the ideology of the Revolution, and his freeing of his slaves was a public rebuke to the nation.

    The recent bio of Jefferson, “Master of the Mountain” makes the point that slavery remained quite profitable in the upper South. King Cotton being preceded by “Prince Wheat.” Both Washington and Jefferson grew wheat on their plantations. Jefferson’s slaves produced a great deal of income, just not enough to catch up with the free spending Jefferson.

  • Paul

    Maybe Hamilton nagged at him and it started to impact his thinking

  • cpinva

    perhaps washington, like jefferson, was struck by a nagging sense of hypocrisy? having spent years fighting a war for freedom, they recognized that slavery was the very antithesis of what they purportedly stood for. it didn’t stop them from continuing the practice in their lifetimes, they just felt really badly about it.

    • Matt McKeon

      I think Jefferson became a true believer in slavery and worked to maintain and expand slavery. Washington became disenchanted with slavery and made a public demonstration of emancipation. They moved in opposite directions.

      • cpinva

        for a “true believer”, he had a funny way of showing it. i believe he was the one who asserted that slavery might well be the death of the new nation in the future. as i said, it didn’t stop him from availing himself of the economic advantages of the institution, he just intellectually recognized that it was ultimately doomed, and morally repugnant.

        • Sly

          Jefferson fought against every realistic constraint on slavery since almost the dawn of his political career, and well into his retirement. As did people like Madison, Patrick Henry, and George Mason; all of whom said a great deal about the evils of slavery, but did a great deal to further its continuance. These weren’t passive men who simply threw up their arms and rode along on the slavery bandwagon because, hey, what could they do.

          For Virginia “antislavery” planters in particular, slavery was the height of human evil that always had to be solved by the next generation, less fixing it destroy the nation. Funny how that worked out.

          • cpinva

            again, for those of you on drugs: jefferson expressed intellectual concerns about the institution of slavery, several times, during the course of his public lifetime. having expressed those intellectual concerns, he went right on taking advantage of said institution. i never suggested otherwise. as to the others (aside from washington), i’m not aware that any of them expressed concerns about slavery. they were all members of the va planter aristocracy, so it wouldn’t at all surprise me to learn they very much supported it, since they made a healthy living from it.

            cognitive dissonance isn’t a new thing.

            • witless chum

              Jefferson’s actions actually follow pretty logically from his beliefs, which were that blacks and whites could never live together under any system but slavery because blacks were so danged inferior. He feared that freeing slaves was asking for the Haitian Revolution to played out in the Virginia.

              He described slavery as being like “having a wolf by the ears” where it might not be a good situation but that letting go was the most dangerous thing.

              Freeing his slaves would have been the height of irresponsibility, from Jefferson’s perspective, and not even good for the slaves, because he thought they’d all run in circles and starve without him to tell them what to do.

            • Lyanna

              He didn’t just “take advantage” of it, though; he promoted and protected it.

  • I’m less interested in this for how it reflects on what kind of man George Washington was, than on how it reflects the way the slave holding elite of the time faced the challenge that the Enlightenment posed for an institution that predated it. Young people grew up in slave families in a slave society, but now doubt found these radical new ideas, so connected to the republicanism to which they passionately adhered, extremely convincing. So now they’re negotiating, and it gets very messy.

    • Dave

      The harder you look at “The Enlightenment” in practice, the more you see that it was mostly about economic rationality, in which context “freedom” meant freedom from religious hierarchies and aristocratic mediaevalism. The greatest thinkers of “The Enlightenment” were just fine with slavery, AND factory labour, AND absolute monarchy for that matter. A younger generation of proto-Romantic thinkers began to shake things up a bit from the 1780s, but by then “The Enlightenment” was over, and people were already arguing about what it had been.

      • The tricky part with intellectual and moral revolutions is that you don’t know where they’re going to end up.

        Enlightenment thinkers brought into the world a set of values and ideas that were completely incompatible with slavery – whether those early thinkers realized it or took it that far, or not.

        Also, about that ‘economic rationality, in which context “freedom” meant freedom from religious hierarchies and aristocratic mediaevalism,’ what could more offensive to such values than stopping someone from selling his own labor and pursuing his own economic self-interest as he saw fit, because of stringent caste rules based on circumstances of birth?

        • Dave

          Well, then, when you say “the Enlightenment” you really mean “those bits of what I choose to called ‘The Enlightenment’ that I think were a Good Thing in light of my current historical position and views”; which is totally your choice to make that act of definitional precision. OTOH, it has very little to do with the general package of ideas and practices that fell under the label of “The Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century itself, outside the heads of a few idealists.

          • No, when I say “the Enlightenment,” I mean “the Enlightenment,” sum total of the intellectual and historical shift in thinking that took place at that time.

            Even the aspects, and contributors, that did not directly oppose slavery helped to seed a broad cultural and intellectual shift that ultimately rendered slavery indefensible according to the values that became mainstream.

            This is not a difficult point to grasp, unless you are equally baffled by the concept of a Living Constitution. Hey, the Founders never anticipated that their ban on state-sponsored churches would someday lead to the modern Establishment Clause doctrine!

            • Lyanna

              Even the aspects, and contributors, that did not directly oppose slavery helped to seed a broad cultural and intellectual shift that ultimately rendered slavery indefensible according to the values that became mainstream.

              Quoted for truth. It is not merely cherry-picking to say that Enlightenment values oppose slavery; it is an accurate description of the historical effect of that intellectual revolution.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    for me, it’s enough that he did something very unusual for a man of his time and place – though if he had let go of the slaves *before* his death, when he would have had to answer questions about his motives… well,t hat would have been a truly brave thing

    • cpinva

      it would also have been a financially disaterous thing, those crops and livestock aren’t going to tend to themselves.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        true. though he could have opted to get out of farming, period. i wonder what % of washington’s net worth was comprised of slaves, though

      • Crops and livestock didn’t tend themselves in Ohio, either, yet those farmers got by without slave labor. Certainly Washington would have taken a financial hit from losing the value of his slaves and having to compete in a free labor market, but it probably wouldn’t have been as much of a hit as you would think.

    • Dave

      What makes you think that post-mortem manumission was “very unusual”? There was a substantial population of “free blacks” all across the slave-holding territories of the New World. They didn’t get that way by magic.

      • Blacks could buy their own freedom (where it was allowed by law), and many did so by performing extra work in whatever free time that their masters allowed for them.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        dave: tell you what, i’ll strike the “very” but “unusual” stays, because manumission sure wasn’t the norm, now was it

        ploeg: would ohio farmers have used hired labor? i don’t think they did here

  • It’s likely one major influence on Washington was his experience in Massachusetts as General of the Continental Army in 1775-76. In particular, two experiences:

    1 – Meeting and conversing with poet Phyllis Wheatley;
    2 – Receiving a delegation of black soldiers and their petition for equal treatment within the army.

    These may well have been the first encounters with Africans and/or African-Americans Washington had when both parties were (more or less) social equals, and the experience seems to have shaken up his earlier notions about the innate inferiority of black folk.

  • Joe

    nonetheless gave slaveowners the right to reclaim their human property from free states.

    A constitutional provision gave them this right. The ultimate point here is that there were many ways to put it in place and a Prigg-like result where a state law that guarded against wrongful kidnapping was not a necessary interpretation of the Constitution.

    The law here is telling since the same part of the Constitution deals with retrieving other sorts of fugitives but the law didn’t make it as easy for states to reclaim them.

    • Joe

      a state law that guarded against wrongful kidnapping [was ruled unconstitutional] was not a necessary interpretation of the Constitution.

  • Socraticsilence

    I’ve often thought Jefferson’s singular genius leads scholars and intellectuals to essentially excuse he fact that the man himself was a massive hypocrite and that his agrarian philosophy was both fundamentally flawed (myopic beyond belief to name but one problem) and and amazingly self-centered: what’s that an uber-rich planter thinks decentralized governance and an agriculturally based economy is the most moral form of self-governance, why that’s shocking. Disappointingly few of those who cite Jefferson as the central figure in the birth of the American experiment have actually read his writing outside of the church-state stuff (which granted was awesome).

    • Lyanna

      I’m much more of a Hamiltonian than a Jeffersonian myself—the more I read about Jefferson, the less I think of him.

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