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George Washington’s Abolitionism

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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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