Following the Revolution, Washington continued to be exposed to arguments about abolishing slavery, expanding on his wartime experiences. He was approached directly, both in person and through correspondence, by abolitionists in Britain and the United States, who often sent him copies of their writings. As a result, by the end of his life, Washington’s library contained a small collection of works by such authors as Anthony Benezet, George Buchanan, Thomas Clarkson, Bryan Edwards, and Granville Sharp. In responding to them, Washington stated over and over his conviction that the best way to affect the elimination of slavery was through individual state legislatures, which he hoped would set up a program of gradual emancipation, and for which he would gladly give his vote.
In 1786, Washington assured his friend and Pennsylvania Senator Robert Morris that he hoped that no one would read his opposition to the methods of certain abolitionists as opposition to abolition as a concept:
I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. 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, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.
A few months later, he told another friend, “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.”
Unfortunately, while other states to the north had either abolished slavery entirely or set up plans for gradual manumission, Virginia did not. Thus, Washington would eventually have to act privately to free the 123 enslaved people who belonged to him personally, as opposed to those who were part of the Custis estate. In his will, Washington made arrangements to free his longtime valet William Lee immediately upon his death. The document also required that the remainder people Washington owned be emancipated following the death of Martha Washington.