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 French years provided Franklin’s detractors precisely what they needed: proof that the ur-American was un-American. Franklin was the Founding Father who had come the furthest, which makes him today the most compelling; he was also the Founding Father who traveled the farthest, which in his own century made him the most suspect. Few other homes in Philadelphia sported both Réaumur and Fahrenheit thermometers. The story goes that when Franklin proposed that Congress open its meetings with a prayer, Alexander Hamilton quipped that that body had no need of foreign aid. The story may be apocryphal but the sentiment was real. The expatriate patriot, Franklin was associated in many minds with the dependent chapter of American independence, one better expunged from the record.

Stacy Schiff
A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (2005)