George Washington, Slave Catcher

  • George Washington, Slave Catcher is the provocative title of an opinion piece by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (The New York Times, 16-Feb-2015). Although nothing new is revealed, it is a sharp reminder that Washington and his wife Martha were typical and not in any way unexceptional slave-owners. When Martha’s personal attendant, Ona Judge, ran away in 1796, Washington discreetly pursued her until his death in1799. Famously, Washington arranged to have his slaves freed upon his wife’s death, and, per Virginia law, he set up a fund to support them. But when Martha died in 1802 all of her human property went to her inheritors. She emancipated no one.
JDN | 16-Feb-2015

The Revolutionary leaders never intended to create an original and peculiar indigenous culture. Despite all their talk of American exceptionalism and American virtue in contrast with European corruption, they were seeking not to cut themselves off from Europe’s cultural heritage but to embrace it and in fact to fulfill it. It is a mistake to view America’s post-Revolutionary emulation of Europe as a legacy of helpless dependence passed on from colonial days. Americans imitated European styles and forms not because in their naïveté they could nothing else but because they wanted to.... Their revolution was very much an international affair, an attempt to fulfill the cosmopolitan dreams of the Enlightenment.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)