Martha's views on slavery reflected the attitude of other women in her social class in Virginia at the time. Learn more about Martha's complex interactions with the institution of slavery.
It is impossible to understand Martha Washington without appreciating the importance of slavery in her life. In the Virginia society in which she lived, slaves provided the most crucial source of labor in the economy, a significant portion of a person’s wealth, and a visible symbol of a family’s social status.
Although her father owned only fifteen to twenty slaves, her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, owned nearly three hundred, making him one of the wealthiest men in the Virginia colony. Custis’s untimely death meant that his and Martha’s eldest male child, who was at that time a minor, would inherit two-thirds of the slaves when he became an adult.
The remaining one third of the slaves (totalling more than eighty) were for Martha’s use during her lifetime. These were the so-called “dower slaves.” After her death, these slaves, and their progeny, were to be distributed among the surviving Custis heirs.
When Martha remarried, George Washington took over the task of managing all the slaves—the fifty or so he brought to the marriage, her dower slaves, and those of the Custis children. He was, however, always aware of the distinction between his slaves and the Custis slaves. He was not allowed to sell or manumit the Custis slaves, and was responsible for making sure that their rightful owners would eventually receive their full inheritance.
In her daily life, Martha had the most constant contact with house slaves, rather than those who worked in the fields. A dozen or so African Americans worked in the Washington home. Although Martha was responsible for supervising the household, the domestic slaves actually did most of the chores: preparing the food, serving the meals, cleaning the house, and making, washing, and ironing the clothes. While considered members of the Washington “family,” the slaves’ status as property was never in doubt: they could be sold, exiled to less-desirable jobs, or punished on Martha’s command.
Martha had a reputation as a fair, and even as a kind, mistress. It was said that when Martha left Mount Vernon to join her husband in New York in 1789, many of the older slaves wept in sorrow at her departure. In 1793, a slave seamstress named Charlotte received what she considered to be an unfair beating from an overseer. Afterward, she threatened to complain to Mrs. Washington about the overseer.
The fact that Charlotte thought Martha would be willing to listen to her complaint indicates a certain level of trust and expectation about the treatment she routinely received. Both George and Martha believed that slaves should not be punished without sufficient cause, and then, only in proportion to the misdeed.
However, neither George nor Martha was willing to free their slaves during their lifetimes. This was an especially delicate issue during Washington’s presidency. The national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in late 1790. Pennsylvania had passed a law stating that slaves would become free after residing for six months in the state.
Although Washington did not believe the law pertained to him, since he was not a permanent resident of the state, he did not want to take any chances. He and Martha decided that before a six-month period elapsed, they would find some pretext on which to send their slaves out of the state and back to Virginia. When the slave returned, his or her clock would start anew and the slave would have no basis on which to claim freedom.
The incident that is most revealing about Martha’s attitude toward slavery involves the escape of a slave named Ona (or Oney) Judge. When Martha first left Mount Vernon to assume her role as the president’s wife, she brought with her a slave girl, perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, to act as her personal attendant.
Ona Judge assisted Martha in the most intimate details of her life: helping her bathe, dressing her, and doing her hair. Accompanying her to many social events, she listened to Martha’s queries, complaints, and personal confessions. She and Martha spent many hours engaged in Martha’s favorite leisure activity, sewing. Judge was known to be an excellent seamstress.
Sometime in May 1796, right before the Washingtons were to return to Mount Vernon for the summer, Ona Judge escaped. By this time, Philadelphia supported a thriving free black community whose members undoubtedly welcomed Judge, protected her, and facilitated her escape. At some point, Judge slipped aboard a ship which took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There she made a new life for herself. Judge eventually learned to read and write, converted to Christianity, married, and had her own family.
Martha felt outraged and betrayed by Judge’s escape. From Martha’s point-of-view, the two had developed a close relationship. She favored Judge, indulged her wishes, and, in her view, treated “her more like a child than a Servant.” Martha pressed her husband to recover the slave.
Through a series of chance events, the Washingtons discovered where Judge was living. Despite George’s growing unease about the institution of slavery, he made at least two attempts to bring the young woman back to Mount Vernon, once while he was still president and another in 1799. Only because Judge had strong allies in New Hampshire’s white community was she able to prevent capture and reenslavement. Despite promises of eventual freedom, Judge adamantly refused to consider returning to Mount Vernon.
Although George Washington provided for the freedom of his 160 slaves, he stipulated that the slaves would not gain their freedom immediately, but only after Martha had died. However, a series of suspicious fires at Mount Vernon in the years after Washington’s death convinced Martha and her family that the slaves were restive. It was decided that freedom for George’s slaves could not wait and they gained their freedom at once.
However, because nearly half of the slaves at Mount Vernon were dower slaves and belonged to the Custis heirs, they could not be freed. On Martha’s death, they were dispersed among her grandchildren, even though the action meant splitting up families, dividing husbands from wives and sending children away from their parents.
One final incident presents telling evidence about Martha’s attitude toward slavery. Martha owned one slave, named Elish, outright – not as part of the Custis estate. Although Martha, like her husband, had the option of freeing him, she chose not to do so. In her will she stipulated that Elish would be passed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.
Martha’s attitude toward slavery reflected the attitude of other women of her social class in Virginia at the time. She had an unquestioned belief in white superiority. Although utterly dependent on slave labor for her daily existence, she suspected her slaves’ honesty and work ethic. Although she had close personal relationships with certain individual slaves, she considered slaves as a group to be like children, or lazy, ungovernable wretches. Unlike her husband, Martha never came to doubt the morality or justice of the institution which made her life as a plantation mistress possible.
This article was created out of the collaborative project of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and is made possible through the generous support of Donald and Nancy de Laski.