his slaves is one of Washington's greatest legacies
In the early 1790s, George Washington
built a brick greenhouse at Mount Vernon with wings on the sides
to house slaves, replacing a ramshackle "House for Families."
new structure was meant to take slavery into the next century,
woven into an architecture of great beauty and permanence," said
Henry Wiencek, an independent scholar who's writing a book on
Washington and slavery.
when the first president drafted his will a few years later, he
specified that his slaves be set free.
by Robert C. Lautman from"George Washington's Mount
Vernon," 1998. The Monacelli Press.
greenhouse at Mount Vernon was built to include slavesą quarters.
pronouncements on the subject of slavery could be contradictory.
It's one of the mysteries of his life," said Wiencek,
a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities who gave
a talk there in December. "You could say slavery was something
he inherited, a part of the system. But he also had to learn how
to be a master."
a child, Washington couldn't have helped but absorb a distinction
between the treatment of black and white children, said Wiencek,
the author of several books, including the critically acclaimed
The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Whereas
white illegitimate children of indentured servants, who were often
prohibited from marrying, had to be taught to read and write and
apprenticed in a trade, their mulatto counterparts were typically
indentured for 33 years, "a big chunk of a person's life then."
Washington also grew up with slavery. When she met George, she
was the widow of the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis, whose father
almost willed his estate to a young black boy who was possibly
his child, which would have left her husband-to-be penniless.
"She knew the dangers of racial mixing, of getting too close to
slaves," he said.
the Revolutionary War, Washington hesitated to enlist blacks,
but he knew they had been fighting well in New England -- and
that the British were recruiting slaves by promising them freedom
-- so he allowed them in. At the end of the war, when his army
marched to Yorktown, one in four of his soldiers was black, according
to a mercenary German officer's journal.
isn't this woven into our collective memory along with Paul Revere,
Betsy Ross and Ticonderoga?" Wiencek asked.
Yorktown, Washington had a spy in enemy camp, James Armistead,
who served loyally at the risk of his life, but was sent back
to slavery after the war. He appealed to Lafayette, who wrote
a tribute that Armistead took to the legislature, winning his
of the Washingtons' slaves ran away, including Hercules, their
cook, and Ona Judge, Martha's seamstress.
tried to have her kidnapped because Martha wanted her back, though
he was inclined to let her go," Wiencek said. "This suggests a
split in their attitudes toward slaves. Hers was very hard, but
his began to soften."
Washingtons' views about slavery were also probably influenced
by their familial relationships with African-Americans, and may
have impelled George to change his mind, he suggested. Martha
had a mulatto half-sister who lived with her throughout her life
and who had a child with Jackie Custis, Martha's son by her first
marriage. Jackie Custis died a few years later, but Washington's
family acknowledged the child as part of the family. He was free,
but married a slave, and their children were emancipated by the
husband of one of Martha's granddaughters.
"These relationships were everywhere. It's astonishing, the level
of denial that has obscured all of this," Wiencek said.
the descendants of West Ford, a slave owned by Washington's brother
John, claimed George Washington was his father. "The evidence
isn't strong, and the evidence against it is strong. But merely
suggesting that it should be examined enrages some Washington
historians," he said.
defend George, historians argue that one of his brothers or nephews
fathered Ford. "They're admitting that Washington and Jefferson
knew they had enslaved kin," he said. "I think this lies at the
center of the corruption slavery has wrought in this country."
once told a visiting Englishman that slavery was neither a crime
nor an absurdity, noting that the U.S. government did not assure
liberty to madmen. "Until the mind of the slave has been educated
to understand freedom, the gift of freedom would only assure its
abuse," Washington explained.
will, drafted a year later, said otherwise. He wrote that he wished
he could free all the slaves at Mt. Vernon, but couldn't because
some belonged to his wife's heirs, and he didn't want to divide
families. Unless Martha or her heirs freed the Custis slaves as
well, families would be broken up. Wiencek believes George was
trying to persuade Martha to use her influence on her heirs to
free the Custis slaves but she did not. Washington also stipulated
that the freed children be taught reading, writing and a trade.
"His will was a rebuke to his family, to his class, and to the
country. He was well ahead of people of his time and place," Wiencek
said. "This is George Washington's true legacy. He'd said the
slaves weren't ready for freedom, but at last he said they must
have it because of their humanity."