” to my … man William … I give immediate freedom”

The subject of the Washington slaves still piques me so I decided to look further into the matter. At the time of George Washington’s death in 1799 there were 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon. Of that number 123 belonged to Washington himself. The others were dower slaves from the estate of Martha’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Since he died intestate Martha received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Upon her death, the dower slaves and other property were to revert to the Custis estate to be shared by the heirs.

Although recent posts have been concerned with the escape of Oney Judge Staines and Hercules, other slaves had “absconded” from Mount Vernon. In April of 1781 eighteen slaves fled to the British whose warship the HMS Savage was anchored in the Potomac. Washington employed a slave catcher to retrieve seven of them. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a post in 2012 on another of Washington’s slaves, Harry, who tried to escape but was caught. He succeeded in his second attempt and was one of the many slaves the British evacuated from New York in 1783.

In his will drawn up several months before his death Washington made provision for the eventual emancipation of the 123 slaves he owned. This was to take place after the death of Martha. Here is the section of the will that deals with this subject:

Upon the decease [of] my wife, it is my Will & desire th[at] all the Slaves which I hold in [my] own right, shall receive their free[dom]. To emancipate them during [her] life, would, tho’ earnestly wish[ed by] me, be attended with such insu[pera]ble difficulties on account of thei[r interm]ixture by Marriages with the [dow]er Negroes, as to excite the most pa[in]ful sensations, if not disagreeabl[e c]onsequences from the latter, while [both] descriptions are in the occupancy [of] the same Proprietor; it not being [in] my power, under the tenure by which [th]e Dower Negroes are held, to man[umi]t them. And whereas among [thos]e who will recieve freedom ac[cor]ding to this devise, there may b[e so]me, who from old age or bodily infi[rm]ities, and others who on account of [the]ir infancy, that will be unable to [su]pport themselves; it is m[y Will and de]sire that all who [come under the first] & second descrip[tion shall be comfor]tably cloathed & [fed by my heirs while] they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that th[is cla]use respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the [u]ncertain provision to be made by individuals. And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which ha[v]e befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, whic[h] shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test[im]ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

Several points are worthy of note. Washington thought it would be too difficult to free his slaves upon his death as many had intermarried with the dower slaves so he specified that they should be freed when Martha died. Secondly, as was frequently the case with slaves who were freed by their owners, provision was made for the care of emancipated slaves who were too old or disabled to manage on their own as well as care for those who were too young to do so. Washington specified that the latter should be taught to read and write and be equipped with skills which would allow them to make a living. Finally there is the case of William Lee whom Washington had purchased and who had attended him in various capacities in the course of his life, both during war and peace; Washington freed him outright and bequeathed him an annuity.

Martha Washington decided to free her husband’s slaves before she died and had the legal papers necessary to do so drawn up in December of 1800. On January 1, 1801, the slaves that belonged to George Washington were freed, some two years before Martha’s own death. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams suggested that Martha Washington’s action may have been motivated by self-interest. “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,” Adams wrote, “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her.” Did Martha fear for her life? I think not. More likely, as has been suggested, she may not have liked to be reminded of her death in this manner.
George Washington’s will, in its entirety, can be found HERE. See this WEBSITE for information about Washington’s slaves. Read Henry Louis Gates’ article HERE. In John Trumbull’s portrait of Washington painted in 1780 (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) William Lee can be seen on the right.

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