The Forgotten Emancipator

No matter how much he grew in his appreciation and understanding of blacks as human beings, George Washington remained aware that slavery could not be eliminated without endangering the still-fragile American union. As president, he devoted most of his time and energy to establishing the new office as a key factor in this political enterprise. The nation swarmed with people hostile to a strong executive, and they soon found a leader in Thomas Jefferson, who had been in Paris as America’s ambassador when the new national charter was created. Although Jefferson had agreed to serve as Washington’s secretary of state, he had deep reservations about the wisdom of the new Constitution. He would have preferred simply to update the Articles of Confederation.

When President Washington declared America neutral in the war that erupted between England and Revolutionary France in 1793, Jefferson formed a pro-French political party. His followers were soon attacking the president savagely in newspapers and pamphlets. Pro-French mobs surged through the streets of Philadelphia to demonstrate in front of Washington’s residence. In a letter to a European friend, Jefferson described the president as a “Samson who had allowed himself to be shorn by the harlot, England.” One Jeffersonian journalist, James Thomson Callender, offered a toast at a public dinner “to the speedy death of President Washington.”1

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In the midst of this foreign policy turmoil, over the Allegheny Mountains came an even starker threat to disunion—the upheaval in western Pennsylvania that many people called “The Whiskey Rebellion.” The name was in some respects a misnomer. The western counties had long had a surly relationship to the distant state and federal governments in Philadelphia. When Washington’s secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, imposed a tax on the whiskey western farmers distilled from their grain, surliness rapidly became hostility.

Rabble-rousers denounced the “eastern aristocrats,” and federal agents who tried to collect the taxes became targets for threats and harassment. From Canada, the British watched this development with considerable interest. They had hopes of confining their former colonies to the eastern seaboard, and they were arming and arousing the Indian tribes in the Ohio River Valley to launch a war of terror and murder against the Americans entering these fertile lands. A secession of the western counties of Pennsylvania, and perhaps of Virginia and North Carolina, fit neatly into this nasty plan. Some sort of satellite nation could be fabricated from these malcontents, financed by British pounds sterling.

President Washington soon saw the whiskey rebels as a menace to the Union. He summoned fifteen thousand militia from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and put one of his best soldiers in command of it—Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a brilliant cavalry leader during the Revolution. When this well-armed host descended on the whiskey rebels, their bravado vanished. In a few days they were pleading for mercy. The president pardoned them all, satisfied that he had made a very large point: the federal union was perpetual and its laws were to be obeyed by everyone in the nation.

Jefferson and his followers pointed to the lack of resistance and claimed that Washington had made a political mountain out of this local molehill. President Washington let them talk. He was content to have set an example to which other presidents could turn. It fit nicely into the central purpose of his presidency—to create an office that had the power to deal with crises without waiting for an indecisive Congress to make up its collective mind.2

Unfortunately, this foreign and domestic turmoil convinced Washington that it would be a grave mistake to bring an issue as divisive as emancipation before the public. Recently, historians have found evidence that the president was seriously considering it. In 1794, he discussed with his confidential secretary, Tobias Lear, the possibility of selling his western lands to enable him to “liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings.” But he reluctantly abandoned this idea, which might well have given slavery a mortal wound, if not a deathblow.3

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In 1796, the final year of his second term, Washington found himself bombarded with pleas to run for president again. Shrewd politician that he was, he saw this would play into the hands of the Jeffersonians, who would orate about him becoming “president for life.” He was also a very tired man. But he remained deeply concerned about the future of this nation to which he had devoted forty-five years of his life. He decided to issue a statement explaining why he chose not to seek a third term—and also advising the American people on the course he hoped they would pursue to reach that elusive goal proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence—happiness.

The result was a document instantly christened “The Farewell Address” and printed in virtually every newspaper in the nation. It contained a great deal of good advice, based on Washington’s experience as a general and president. He urged everyone to avoid “passionate attachments” to foreign nations. He praised “morality and religion” as the “great pillars of human happiness.” But at the head of his list of concerns was the issue that remained central to his vision of America’s future—the federal union.

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people . . . is a main Pillar. . . of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.” It must be guarded with “jealous anxiety” to shatter “any attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.” Washington admitted that the South, the North, the East, and the West might have special interests or strengths. But they must be first of allAmerican “by an indissoluble community of interest as one nation.”4

None of the other large topics Washington touched on came close to inspiring the emotional intensity he poured into the passages exhorting Americans to preserve this bedrock foundation of his hopes for America—and his vision of a nation united by “fraternal affection.”

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Two years after Washington left the presidency, Thomas Jefferson challenged this principle of the primacy of the Union. President John Adams and the Federalist Party majority in Congress, enraged by the abuse Adams was receiving from the Jeffersonian press for his refusal to alter the policy of neutrality in the ongoing war between Great Britain and France, passed two laws that have become known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. One gave the federal government the power to deport any alien whom it deemed dangerous to the security of the republic. The second empowered the government to prosecute anyone who libeled the president and other officers of the government.

Federalist-appointed judges soon had several Jeffersonian newspaper editors on trial. None of them could prove the insults and wild accusations they had flung at the president. The idea that a newspaper was supposed to tell the truth would not be accepted by most editors and reporters for another hundred years. The newspaper remained the “political engine” that President Adams had said it was twenty-five years earlier, on the eve of the Revolution.

Jeffersonian-Republican outrage soon produced an excess to counter this Federalist assault on a free press. Jefferson persuaded James Madison to join him in writing letters to the legislatures of Virginia and the new state of Kentucky, urging them to protest this federal edict. Madison was temperate in his appeal. Jefferson was extreme. He assured the Kentucky legislature that a state could “nullify” any act of Congress, whenever it felt the law impinged on the rights or interests of its citizens.

Washington was so appalled, he appealed to Patrick Henry to emerge from retirement and persuade Virginia to disavow her allegiance to this ruinous doctrine. Henry died before he could respond to the summons. While Washington sought another spokesman, the grim reaper began stalking him too.5

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In 1786, the Marquis de Lafayette had informed Washington that he had bought a plantation in the French South American colony of Cayenne (later French Guiana), where he planned to free a group of slaves and educate them to demonstrate to the world that blacks could live and work independently. He hoped Washington would join him in this enterprise. The older man wrote his adopted son a letter, praising “the benevolence of your heart,” and warmly approved the experiment. But he did not accept Lafayette’s invitation to become his partner. Instead, Washington sadly wished that “a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country but I despair of seeing it.”6

The cascade of violence and passion that the French Revolution unleashed in France soon claimed Lafayette as one of its victims. Parisian radicals—the infamous Jacobins—seized power and made him a candidate for the guillotine. The Marquis’s property was confiscated and his plantation in Cayenne collapsed. He was forced to flee France, hoping to find refuge in America. But the Austrians, at war with the French, flung the Marquis into prison and ignored Washington’s attempts to free him.

The Marquis’s harsh fate almost certainly influenced Washington’s attitude toward the French Revolution—and slavery. It reinforced his decision not to make a public statement about slavery while French extremism was dividing America. His desire to free his slaves was regretfully shelved for the foreseeable future.

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As president, Washington displayed a grim realism about slavery when the issue intruded on his administration. In 1792, Southerners persuaded Congress to pass a bill requiring the federal government to help capture runaway slaves. Washington signed it without a comment. When Quakers, more and more militant about slavery, presented an emancipation proposal to Congress, Washington did not say a word in its support. Instead he made an approving comment to a friend when Congress ignored the plea.

The president apparently shared the negative opinion of Quakerism that most Americans had developed during the Revolution. The Quakers had refused to participate in the war, to the point of declining to pay taxes. To those who were risking their lives and property in this struggle for liberty, the sect seemed either cowardly or hypocritical or both. These mistakes had ruined any hope of the Quakers becoming an effective voice for emancipation.

Not even Benjamin Franklin, a man whom Washington admired, changed the president’s mind about publicly backing emancipation. In the last year of his life, Franklin had become the leader of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and sent an emancipation plea to Congress. When Senator James Jackson of Georgia sneeringly dismissed it, claiming that American blacks were perfectly contented as slaves, Franklin responded with one of his best hoaxes.

He published a letter in the Federal Gazette saying that Jackson’s speech reminded him of a similar argument by a Muslim ruler of Algiers a hundred years ago, as recorded in “Martin’s Account of his consulship, anno 1687.” The Muslim was responding to a plea to release the thousands of Christians toiling as slaves in his country. His reply marvelously paralleled Jackson’s speech. He insisted that the slaves were needed to keep Algiers prosperous. He also maintained that the Christians were all perfectly happy and much more contented with their lives as obedient well-fed bondsmen than they had ever been in their Christian birthplaces, where they were required “to cut the throats of their fellow Christians” in their frequent wars. President Washington may well have chuckled about the jest in private; he enjoyed a good joke. But he said not a word in public. A year later the eighty-four-year-old Franklin’s voice was silenced by death.7

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During Washington’s retirement years, an English visitor to Mount Vernon discussed slavery with him, off the record. The ex-president admitted black bondage looked like a crime, even an absurdity, in the light of the Declaration of Independence. But it was neither. “Till the mind of the slave has been educated to perceive what are the obligations of a state of freedom . . . the gift would ensure its abuse. No man desires . . . this event . . . more heartily than I do. Not only do I pray for it on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”

Those words reveal that George Washington had travelled from complacent slave owner to believer in the humanity of black people to would-be emancipator. But he still saw no practical way to make emancipation work in Virginia or any other southern state.8

Several months later, the ex-president had an unnerving dream. He was sitting with Martha, chatting about their happy memories, when a “great light” suddenly surrounded them. From it emerged an angel who whispered in Martha’s ear. Martha “suddenly turned pale and began to vanish” from his sight. The obvious interpretation was Martha’s early death. But Washington told her that dreams often have opposite meanings. “I may soon leave you,” he said.

Martha tried to make a joke of the dream, but Washington remained haunted by it. Soon Martha came across scraps of writing in his study that indicated he was composing his will. The document began with a very predictable sentence. He directed his executors to care for “my dearly beloved wife Martha” for the rest of her life. The second sentence revealed why Washington had made this abrupt decision, now. “Upon the death of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom.” Following that declaration were three pages of extremely explicit directives for his slaves’ emancipation. He wanted them to be educated and trained to earn a living. Aging or ill slaves who could not leave Mount Vernon were to be supported there until their deaths.

The ex-president did not mince words. “I do hereby expressly forbid the sale . . . of any slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever.” Summing up, he commanded all concerned “to see that this clause respecting slaves and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled without evasion, neglect or delay.”

In a South where many thought blacks should not be taught to read and write, or worse, that they could not be taught, Washington was calling for their education. He was also emancipating all his slaves in one stroke of his pen—something he clearly sensed his heirs would not like. If Martha had not been alive, he may well have freed them all immediately. Out of consideration for her, he delayed their emancipation until her death because so many of his slaves had intermarried with slaves that belonged to her.9

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Six months later, in December 1799, Washington awoke with an alarming constriction in his throat, which made it extremely difficult for him to breathe. He awoke Martha and asked her to send for their family doctor. But there was little the physician or other doctors who were summoned could do with the primitive medical skills of their era. Already suffering from a bad cold, Washington had contracted an infection of his epiglottis, a cartilage just below his larynx. At the end of an agonizing day of struggling for breath, which he endured with remarkable stoicism, he died with Martha weeping beside him.

The news of Washington’s death fell like a thunderclap from on high across the entire nation. The loss was so huge, so absolute, it seemed to alter everything from the nation’s politics to its confidence in the future. The fact that he had emancipated his slaves dwindled to a blip in the context of the other meanings of his departure. His act of emancipation excited little or no comment. Part of the reason may have been the fact that the slaves all had to remain at Mount Vernon until Martha’s death. There was no opportunity for newspaper stories of an exodus to freedom.

A year later, Martha freed all Washington’s slaves unilaterally, and allowed them to leave Mount Vernon. Why? When President Adams’s wife, Abigail, visited Mount Vernon on the first anniversary of Washington’s death, Martha told her she feared one of the freed slaves might poison her to hasten their emancipation. Abigail, who described Martha’s anxiety in a letter to her sister, thought it was doleful proof of “the banefull [sic] effects of slavery.” Abigail’s dislike of the institution had been visible in her letters to John even in 1776, when he was persuading the Continental Congress to vote for independence.10

Martha Washington’s reaction revealed that emancipating slaves could be a complex business. Martha and most of her grandchildren (her four children were dead) did not agree with Washington’s decision. Only her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, honored Washington’s example and freed his slaves at his death.

This disagreement was the reason for the tone of command in the emancipation pages of Washington’s will. Even if Martha had agreed with her husband, she could not have freed her slaves. Under the terms of her first husband’s will, they belonged to her only during her lifetime. At her death these “dower slaves” were to be handed on to her Custis descendants.11

George Washington’s inability to convince the people closest to him, above all his beloved wife of forty years, was an ominous omen for the future of black freedom in the South. The second Emancipation Proclamation was as ignored and forgotten as the first one.

Fifty-eight years later, Washington’s example would have an ironic resurrection. When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, the man who was responsible for freeing his slaves was his son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. The impact of the experience on this already famous soldier became a tragic turning point in American history.

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