Well, it’s President’s Day. But according to the federal government, it isn’t; it is instead Washington’s Birthday. I don’t especially like that. The best thing you can say about our first president is that he wasn’t ambitious. Many people (most notably John Adams) wanted to form a native aristocracy. Luckily, we didn’t get that explicitly in our politics, but we certainly got it implicitly in our society generally. So maybe the country should celebrate Washington, but you will forgive me if I don’t.
Washington is generally considered our richest president (but wait a few years and I’m sure that this will change as income inequality gets ever worse). Like almost all rich people everywhere, he was not rich through work but through owning. And in his case, what he owned were human beings. For 200 years, people have been trying to make out that Washington was against slavery. This is almost entirely by cherry picking statements he made. Any non-psychopath who is doing something evil will occasionally have bouts of moralizing.
What’s more, Washington never seemed to have any problems with slavery as long as his slave population was young and profitable. As they got older, they were less profitable. So as Washington started have economic problems with his slave population, his moral reasoning kicked in. “These slaves are costing me money… And you know, slavery is wrong!” And just look at his slave holding. He started at the age of 11 with ten slaves. And he actively acquired them as he got older, ending with 317.
According to a review of Joseph J Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington, “He concluded that slavery was economically inefficient and that people who were compelled to work would never work hard.” You can just imagine the scene. Washington is looking out the window of his mansion sipping tea. He sees the slaves working in the tobacco fields and thinks, “If only those slaves worked harder, slavery would be a whole lot more morally defensible!”
When Washington was president, he wanted to bring some slaves to work from him at the President’s House in Philadelphia. The problem was that if a slave was in the state for more than six months, he was automatically freed. So Washington just cycled the slaves so they never spent six month continuously at the President’s House. What a great guy, huh?!
One slave working at the President’s House, Oney Judge, escaped. That didn’t please the Washingtons. They spent years trying to steal her back. In The Pennsylvania Gazette advertisement of reward for her capture, they mentioned that they didn’t know what she was wearing. This was true, “As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is…” Yeah, what could have caused her to escape?!
The Washingtons never got Judge back. She died in New Hampshire at the age of 75—older than either of the Washingtons. George Washington did free his slaves in his will. So that’s something. But it is interesting that Judge was one of the Washingtons’ dower slaves who ultimately belonged to the Custis Estate. So she would never have been freed.
If Washington had wanted to free the dower slaves (there were 154 at the time of his death), he could have brought them to Pennsylvania for six months. Of course, that would have required him to lose some of his wealth while he was alive. Anyway, they were all getting such a great deal being one of his slaves. All that “hardly working” and free room and board! When you look at it properly, George Washington was doing a great service to his slaves. And I’m sure he thought that most of the time.