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

George Washington ordered his overseers to begin the 1767 wheat harvest on June 24, a hot, cloudy Saturday at the end of a dry week. Thus began twenty days of unrelenting exertion for Mount Vernon’s slaves and no little anxiety for their master, who for the first time had given over his holding almost entirely to the cultivation of grain. Much depended on the success of this experiment, which was a crucial element in Washington’s scheme to free himself of the debts he had accumulated over the years of failing to produce tobacco that would sell on London’s finicky market. Rich as he was in land, he feared that, like so many of his fellow planters, he too would become permanently dependent on his English merchant creditors. It was a fate he dreaded above all, for to suffer it meant that he would lose the essence of a gentleman’s character, independence, and with it the capacity to behave in a truly virtuous way.

Fred Anderson
Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754 - 1766 (2000)