- 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.
George Washington, Slave Catcher
Washington was imperfect. In strictly military terms, he does not merit comparisons that have sometimes been made between him and generals like Marlborough, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, or Robert E. Lee. Yet he remains a remarkable man, one of those Tolstoyan figures whose acts determine the course of history. James Thomas Flexner has called him
the indispensable man. Nobody — not Nathanael Green or Henry Knox, and certainly not Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or John Adams — united the military, political, and personal skills that made Washington unique ... without George Washington there could have been no victory in the Revolutionary War, no United States. As a soldier he was erratic but competent. As a man he was impulsive, vindictive, brave, hardworking, intelligent, and virtuous. And as a leader he was great. Those who mourned Washington’s passing in 1799 were right to regard him, for all his flaws, as the savior of his country.