First President – George Washington
Series #1 on Presidential Slavery
George Washington’s stand on slavery was what he believed in and politically supported. He never publicly talked against slavery, or for it.
Washington had a strong work ethic and demanded the same from both enslaved and hired workers. He provided his slaves with basic food, clothing and somewhere to live which was not always adequate, and with medical care. In return, he expected them to work diligently from sunrise to sunset over the six-day working week. Some three-quarters of his slaves labored in the fields, while the remainder worked at the main residence as domestic servants. They supplemented their diet by hunting, trapping, and growing vegetables in their free time, and bought extra rations, clothing and house wares with income from the sale of game and produce.
His slaves built their own community around marriage and family, though because Washington allocated slaves to farms according to the demands of the business without regard for their relationships, many husbands lived separately from their wives and children on other plantations. Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage and discipline his slaves, but was constantly disappointed when they failed to meet his standards. Slaves resisted enslavement by stealing food and clothing, pretending to be ill and running away.
Washington’s first doubts about slavery were entirely economic, prompted by his transition from tobacco to grain crops which left him with a surplus of slaves. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, he initially refused to accept African-Americans, free or slave, into the ranks, but reversed this position due to the demands of war.
Privately, Washington considered ending his ownership of slaves in the mid-1790s, but could not realize this because of his economic dependence on them, the refusal of his family to cooperate toward emancipation of the dower slaves(slaves fathered by owners), and his own principled aversion to selling slaves like cattle.
Some of George Washington’s slaves legally became free on Jan. 1, 1801. Martha did not choose to free these people. George Washington’s Will provide for the emancipation of his slaves, he was the only slave-owning Founding Father to do so.
Because many of his slaves were married to Martha’s dower slaves, whom he could not legally free, Washington stipulated that, with the exception of his valet William Lee, who was freed immediately, his slaves be emancipated on the death of Martha. Martha Washington freed some of the slaves in 1801, a year before her own death, but her dower slaves were passed to her grandchildren and remained in bondage.
It is not surprising as civil war loomed on the horizon, that both North and South would claim Washington as their patron of democracy. Throughout the antebellum period he was beloved by Northerners and Southerners alike and by 1861 had come to symbolize all that was virtuous and heroic about the American Revolution.
Not opinion, fact!
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