SAN JOSE, Calif., Feb. 22, 2016 – Today is George Washington’s birthday. However, in a purely technical provision, the nation already celebrated George Washington’s birthday on “Presidents’ Day” Feb. 15, the federal holiday to honor the first president of the United States. If it seems confusing, it is confusing.
What is much more confusing is the fact that the birth of the Father of his Country falls within the month that has been designated as Black History Month, yet few Americans have a clue that George Washington took bold action to ensure his slaves would be set free as a provision of his will after he died.
The fact that both Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s birthday fall within Black History Month provides a great opportunity to teach American young people that both of these presidents in their time freed slaves. Especially, it could be viewed as an obvious teaching opportunity to help American young people learn that not all of the Founding Fathers were just a bunch of old white men who did not give a damn about freeing the slaves.
Certainly, Abraham Lincoln had to deal with such a false charge as he ran against Democrat Stephen Douglas for the Illinois senate seat in 1858. Lincoln caught his opponent Douglas attempting to pass on the same propaganda about the founders not caring about slaves that is being perpetrated in some quarters in the United States today – especially by leftists and progressive revisionist instructors on college campuses and recently by Bernie Sanders. The lie spewed by Sen. Douglas and the one spun today was simply a perpetuation of a lie that had been spun by white Democratic leaders to defend their power in the Deep South. Lincoln dispelled the lie in his debates with Douglas by using the facts in law, specifically contained within the Northwest Ordinance, as well as other clear examples.
One extraordinary example that contradicts the lie that the founders did not care about freeing slaves in the post-Revolutionary years occurred when George Washington created provisions in his will for the manumission of his slaves at Mt. Vernon. This is one of the most significant of George Washington’s achievements, but little notice of this is made in studies of American history. It would not fit the contemporary narrative that can be traced back to colonial slave owners. Although many Americans would never learn of this, Washington freed all of his slaves through a provision of his will. This is not normally considered within the contemporary progressive narratives – it is an inconvenient truth.
Although the memory of George Washington’s manumission of his slaves is even more obscure than the problems surrounding his legally designated birthday celebration, it should be carefully examined due to false presumptions perpetuated by those who prefer to divide Americans over issues of race, like contemporary Democrats. The revisionist perspective has become pervasive in recent years, and the poison of the pen can be formidable. The damage is substantial, for the effort of diminishing the real value of the Father of our Country or of the Founding Fathers can take a serious toll upon young people.
George Washington owned slaves and sold slaves throughout his life and had seemingly not thought much about slavery one way or another except as a farmer and businessman. To impose 20th or 21st century values upon Washington’s generation is not only unfair, it is intellectually dishonest. Yet, it is a habit of many who teach U.S. history to young students in American schools.
Despite the revolutionary fervor at the time of the War for Independence, not all the colonies were on the same page when it came to the issue of slavery. In Washington’s Virginia, a 1723 law stated that slaves may not “be set free upon any pretence [sic] whatsoever, except for some meritorious services to be adjudged and allowed by the governor and council.”
Of course, in colonial Virginia, the governor was an appointee of the king, and the governor’s councils were normally made up of slave-owning land-owners who rarely had much intention of approving manumission of slaves in their domain.
The new state government in the infant United States repealed this law. The legislature also granted freedom for any slaves who had fought against the British during the war.
British courts in 1772 determined that Parliament had never passed legislation to determine that slavery was legal; thus slavery in England was ended by a court decision, and all slaves in England became free. However, the British government continued to support slavery in the American colonies. The Virginia House of Burgesses was blocked from banning the continued importation of slave into the colony by the king’s vetoes.
On Oct. 19, 1781, the British surrendered at Yorktown, and the leaders in Virginia genuinely debated the full meaning of “liberty.” Thomas Jefferson served as governor from 1779 to 1781, and ultimately, in 1782, the legislature relaxed the old colonial limits on manumitting slaves.
The law passed on May 6, 1782 and allowed owners to free their slaves of their own accord, without approval of the governor and the advisory council. The prior colonial law had virtually eliminated the practical possibilities of freeing slaves in Virginia. The new law provided that slaveholders could manumit their slaves under two conditions: either at the sale of their land or through their will. Upon the sale of land, slaves could go free without the transfer of the deed to the land. One limitation established that slave owners had to take responsibility for their “property” until the slave died, rather than try to dump the costs of caring for an old or unproductive freed slave upon the rest of the taxpayers.
This law, however, did not seem to go far enough for George Washington. Richard Norton Smith, in his book on Washington, “Patriarch,” surmised that Washington “had hoped that Virginia’s legislature would take the decision out of his hands by providing for a gradual emancipation” on a statewide level. Four years after the easing of restraints on manumission, Washington wrote his friend Robert Morris:
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.
Certainly, there are those who would argue that Washington had made no attempt to take a stand against the institution of slavery as president, and it stimulates the general argument from the ardent revisionist historians that examines Washington’s “hypocrisy” as a Founding Father. The accusative narrative condemns Washington since he didn’t free his slaves immediately after the Revolution or while he was president; thus, he did not honestly believe in genuine freedom.
Such logic is quite superficial and neglects the times in which Washington lived. The hesitation to publicly lead any effort to abolish slavery was probably a result of his concern that the issue could tear apart the infant nation that he had risked his life to build.
With the fundamental ideals and values for which he fought still so fragile and uncertain within the new republic, Washington would not have diminished the foundation for which he worked as a key leader. Instead, after struggling with the issue of ownership of human beings for quite a long time, Washington decided upon setting another precedent, to lead by example. Also in 1786, the old general had admitted to Lafayette:
Some petitions were presented to the Assembly [sic] at its last Session [sic], for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarcely obtain a reading. To set them [the slaves] afloat at once would, I really believe, be productive of much inconvenience & mischief; but by degrees it certainly might, & assuredly ought to be effected & that too by Legislative [sic] authority.
Yet, Washington would persist, and, despite being unable to sell some of his land or to lease land to engage in an experiment similar to Lafayette’s in French Guinea in 1796, he began to create provisions in his last will and testament to free his slaves. Finally written several months before Washington died in December 1799, he left specific instructions for the manumission of all the slaves who belonged to him after Martha Washington died. The provisions stipulated that slaves needed to learn a craft or a skill to be sure they could earn a living after emancipation. He made sure the young would be educated.
According to Joseph Ellis in “Founding Brothers,” George Washington’s “action on this score as usual, spoke louder than words, for they suggested an obligation beyond the grave to assist former slaves in the transition to freedom.”
Before the war, George Washington had been just another Virginia landowner who looked upon slavery as a normal part of life, but the Revolution transformed the old general.
One needs to ask the questions: What did he have to gain by freeing his slaves after he was dead and gone? Why did he care? The reality is that he did care!
George Washington attempted to break that cultural or social gravity of the Southern slave empire, but his hopes and ideals hit the sharp blades of the “fan of reality.” Yet, if one seriously considers what Washington did in the broader scope of things, students of U.S. history should view it as another precedent from the Father of the Country.
Washington’s true intentions and efforts can be viewed as the foundation for another president in another time, freeing the slaves on a national level.
The truth of Washington’s freeing his slaves should not be buried with this great man.