How Did George Washington Treat His Slaves?

Associate curator Jessie MacLeod talks in depth about how George Washington treated his enslaved workers at Mount Vernon. She explains how Washington followed the Virginia slave codes, which dictated how slave owners treated their slaves, and how slaves could live their lives.

George Washington: Role Model for Giving Up Power

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is going on here if we could have pulled
the soldiers in the Army and Potomac at
Gettysburg right after Gettysburg and
said what did you accomplish here they
would have talked all about Union that
is what they would have talked about
first to last first to last it was a war
about Union it was a war about Union
that also killed slavery and most white
Americans eventually supported
emancipation but they but not for the
reasons we’d want them to they don’t
care about black people
wish they did they didn’t they saw
emancipation as a tool to defeat the
rebels to punish what they considered
oligarchy slaveholders they didn’t think
slaveholders believed in democracy they
saw them as oligarchs they call them
oligarchs all the time the South is not
what the founders had in mind and they
could work it out in their mind that
even though a lot of the founders are
prominent slaveholders the documents and
the traditions that they bequeath
unionists in the loyal States would have
said the oligarchic slaveholding south
is totally out of step with this they
are inimical to the intent of the
founders and if they succeed in tearing
the nation apart oligarchs everywhere
can point to the United States and say
see we told you people are not capable
of self-government look at them they
can’t even have a presidential election
can’t even do that they rip their nation
apart that’s what’s at stake that’s what
and if the Union gives you those things
what is your obligation as a male a
white male of military age your
obligation is you pick up a musket and
you go do your small R Republican duty
and who is your model there who is the
model for disinterested Republican
service Stuart’s Washington George
Washington didn’t even take a salary
during the American Revolution and
George Washington did something twice
that absolutely blew people’s minds at
the time he didn’t do it once he did it
twice at the end of the Revolutionary
War
he gave up power he was the
Generalissimo they couldn’t believe it
in Europe he what did he show he’s not
Julius Caesar he’s not Oliver Cromwell
he is a man with small our Republican
virtue he went back to Mount Vernon then
he’s made president he would have been
president for life if he wanted to be
FDR had to think about it Washington
didn’t they would have just elected he
until they hauled him out of the
Executive Mansion but he did it again
he gave up power a second time and it
just absolutely mystified most people in
Europe how that could happen
didn’t mystify Americans they said this
is that’s the point
he’s the point he’s the model so in our
own little way each of us were all
members of the third Vermont in our
little way we are emulating George
Washington

Washington as Land Speculator: Library of Congress

In 1752 Washington made his first land purchase, 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, Virginia. This act inaugurated the second and more profitable phase of his cartographic career, in which he assumed the role of land speculator. Over the next half century Washington would continue to seek out, purchase, patent, and eventually settle numerous properties. His will, executed in 1800, lists 52,194 acres to be sold or distributed in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley. In addition to these properties, Washington also held title to lots in the Virginia cities of Winchester, Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), and Alexandria, and in the newly formed City of Washington.

In 1758 Washington left military service and returned to civilian life and in January 1759 married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow. No sooner had the couple settled at Mount Vernon, which had become Washington’s home, than he begin to expand the estate. In 1760 a neighbor, William Clifton, approached Washington with an offer to sell a 1,806-acre tract on the northern border of the estate, and the two men settled on a price of £1,150 sterling. Shortly afterwards, however, Clifton agreed to sell the same tract of land to another neighbor, Thomson Mason, for a slightly higher price. Despite Clifton’s original agreement and a series of angry letters, Washington eventually paid £1,250 sterling to secure the land for himself.11 The area became the Washingtons’ River Farm.

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Western Lands and the Bounty of War

Washington’s lifelong interest in land speculation is illustrated in the fight over bounty lands promised to the veterans of the Virginia Regiment who fought with him in the French and Indian War. In this episode Washington acted on behalf of his fellow veterans as well as vigorously, sometimes aggressively, in staking out his own land claims.

In 1754, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie issued a proclamation designed to encourage enlistment in the local militia for the war against the French. In addition to their pay, those who enlisted in Lieutenant Colonel George Washington’s fledgling Virginia Regiment were offered a share in two hundred thousand acres west of the Ohio River. Unfortunately for the men who fought under Washington in the Braddock and Forbes expeditions against the enemy at Fort Duquesne, they were not to see these bounty lands until more than twenty years had passed, during which time Washington led the struggle to secure their title.

At first, the formal conclusion in 1763 of the worldwide war between Britain and France, of which the French and Indian War had been a part, aroused hope that the land would be quickly granted. These expectations were overshadowed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which (among other provisions) forbade colonial governors from issuing land grants west of the Allegheny Mountains. Yet Washington chose to forge ahead, as evinced by a September 1767 letter to William Crawford, a Pennsylvania surveyor:

. . . I can never look upon the Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands. Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges surveying and patenting the same . . . . By this time it be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity.12

Washington was clearly willing to take considerable risks in seeking out choice land for himself. In the same letter, however, he warned Crawford “to keep the whole matter a secret, rather than give the alarm to others or allow himself to be censured for the opinion I have given in respect to the King’s Proclamation.” He concluded by offering Crawford an alibi should his behavior be called into question. “All of this can be carried on by silent management and can be carried out by you under the guise of hunting game, which you may, I presume, effectually do, at the same time you are in pursuit of land. When this is fully discovered advise me of it, and if there appears a possibility of succeeding, I will have the land surveyed to keep others off and leave the rest to time and my own assiduity.” In fact, the letter marked the beginning of a very profitable fifteen-year partnership. Less than two weeks after he had received it, Crawford informed Washington about several tracts in the vicinity of Fort Pitt, and the two men continued to collaborate until Crawford’s death in 1782.

George Washington’s Fugitive Slave: Ona

A little-known story of how one woman stood up to one of the most powerful men in American history. Her story comes to us from Uncivil, a history podcast from Gimlet where they go back to the time our divisions turned into a war, and bring you stories left out of the official history.