George Washington addressed the issue of slavery in his will, when he ordered that his slaves be freed at his wife’s death. This emancipation provision was a powerful public statement of Washington’s antislavery views.

Unfortunately, it applied to fewer than half of the people in bondage at Mount Vernon. Those owned by the Custis estate were inherited by Martha Washington’s grandchildren after her death. Many Washington and Custis slaves had married and formed families together. For them, separation from loved ones tainted celebrations of newfound freedom.

Enslaved People at Mount Vernon

List of enslaved people at Mount Vernon, by George Washington, MVLA.

List of enslaved people at Mount Vernon, by George Washington, MVLA.

Shortly before drafting his will, George Washington compiled a list of all the enslaved people on Mount Vernon’s five farms. He included their names, work assignments, ages, spouses, and children. He listed these people in two columns: “G.W.,” referring to those he owned directly, and “Dower,” indicating those owned by the Custis estate.

This distinction was important. Neither Washington nor his wife had the legal authority to emancipate the Custis slaves. The manumission provision in Washington’s will applied to only those in the “G.W.” column—123 of the 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon. Washington predicted that freeing his own slaves would have “painful consequences” because of their “intermixture by marriages” with the Custis slaves. He was right.

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“Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom.”

-George Washington’s Will, July 9, 1799

Freedom for Some

In his 29-page will, Washington directed that the enslaved people he owned directly be freed at his wife’s death. He also emancipated his former valet, William Lee, immediately and provided him a $30 annual pension. Washington was the only founding father to enact a large-scale manumission in his will.

Washington made several provisions in his will for the financial support and education of Mount Vernon’s freed people. As required by Virginia law, he ordered his executors to establish a permanent fund to provide clothing and food for those too elderly or sick to support themselves. He specified that young children without parents be placed under the guardianship of the court, taught to read and write, and apprenticed in a “useful occupation.” He also sternly forbade his executors from selling or transporting out of state any enslaved people before the terms of the manumission went into effect.

"He has watched over us, and viewed our degraded and afflicted state with compassion and pity — his heart was not insensible to our sufferings."

-Richard Allen, Eulogy for George Washington, Delivered in Bethel Church, Philadelphia, on December 29, 1799

The Death of Washington

Death of Washington, Published by James Baillie, MVLA.

Death of Washington, Published by James Baillie, MVLA.

Freeing his slaves in his will was George Washington’s solution to a problem that had plagued him for 20 years. It was also his most public antislavery act, coming after years of keeping his views private. Believing (correctly) that slavery would cause problems for the nation in the future, Washington hoped that other American slaveholders would follow his example. In the face of criticism from abolitionists, he also wanted to safeguard his legacy by confirming his opposition to slavery.

Washington’s emancipation provision was widely publicized and celebrated by abolitionists and African Americans. Richard Allen, the formerly-enslaved founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, delivered a eulogy praising Washington’s bold decision. “Unbiased by the popular opinion of the state in which is the memorable Mount Vernon,” Allen declared, Washington “dared to do his duty, and wipe off the only stain with which man could ever reproach him.”

Windsor Chair

Windsor Chair, 1770-1800, Gift of Mrs. George Hearst, Vice Regent for California, 1892, W-198.

Windsor Chair, 1770-1800, Gift of Mrs. George Hearst, Vice Regent for California, 1892, W-198.

This Windsor chair was purchased in 1892 from Lucy Harrison, a free African American woman who had been enslaved at Arlington House, the home of Martha Washington’s grandson. Harrison was the granddaughter of Mount Vernon housemaid Caroline Branham, who was one of four enslaved people in the room when George Washington died. This chair was believed to be part of the Washingtons’ furnishings at Mount Vernon.

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A Community Divided

When George Washington died he freed all of the enslaved people he owned. However, he could not free the enslaved people from Martha Washington's first marriage.

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The content on this page was adapted from Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2016–2020.

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