As a postscript to the story of Ona Judge Staines, it is revealing to consider the words and actions of her owner, the president of the United States, in regard to her enslavement and escape. In September of 1796 (Oney had fled in May), George Washington sent a letter to Secretary of State Oliver Wolcott in which he described the girl. “She has been the particular attendant on Mrs. Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy and useful to her being perfect Mistress of her needle.” Having learned that Oney was in New Hampshire, Washington asked Wolcott to seek the help of that state’s collector of customs Joseph Whipple in retrieving her.
To seize, and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria which I should like better, seems at first view, to be the safest and leas[t] expensive [option]. . . .
I am sorry to give you, or anyone else trouble on such a trifling occasion, but the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant (and Mrs. Washington’s desire to recover her) ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.
Whipple managed to meet with Judge and found himself sympathizing with her. He was surprised and pleased when Oney offered to return to President Washington if he would promise to manumit her in his will. But when Whipple reported this proposal to the President, Washington was affronted.
I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.
After his retirement to Mount Vernon, when Oney thought she would be safe, Washington continued to press for her return, as has been noted in the previous post. He sent Martha Washington”s nephew Burwell Bassett to accomplish this; Bassett even considered taking her by force, but, forewarned, Oney managed to slip away yet again.
Washington’s attitude and behavior show him to be very much a man of his time (and place—the South) with regard to slavery. A slaveholder who was ambivalent at best about the morality of enslaving human beings, he was more than willing to pursue and capture the fugitive Oney. She was, after all, valuable property and a dower slave for whose loss he would have to reimburse Martha’s heirs by her first husband. What is really rather remarkable is that Oney’s desire to be free seemed to be totally incomprehensible to the Washingtons, both George and Martha. To his credit, Washington, in his will, did manumit his own faithful slave and valet, William Lee, who had accompanied him throughout the Revolution.
Several quoted passages appear in Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll (New York: Crown Archetype, 2013), 29-31. The paragraph from George Washington’s letter to Joseph Whipple, November 28, 1796, is from The Writings of George Washington, 35:297, as quoted in an article titled “William Lee & Oney Judge: a Look at George Washington & Slavery” by Mary V. Thompson that appeared in Journal of the American Revolution.