After the American victory in the Revolution, George Washington repeatedly voiced opposition to slavery in personal correspondence.

He privately noted his support for a gradual, legislative end to slavery, but as a public figure, he did not make abolition a cause. He was wary of overstepping his constitutional authority, violating slaveholders’ property rights, and igniting sectional conflict that would divide the young nation. He chose instead to focus on a solution to his personal entanglement with slavery.

Constitutional Compromise

I am fully persuaded [the Constitution] is the best that can be obtained at the present moment, under such diversity of ideas as prevail.

-GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1787

When Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he said little as he witnessed bitter debates over slavery. Ultimately, antislavery delegates agreed to compromises that protected the property rights of slaveholders, strengthened the political power of southern states, and delayed debates over the abolition of the slave trade. Washington saw these concessions as a necessary price to keep the union intact.

The introductions of the (Quaker) Memorial, respecting Slavery, was to be sure, not only an ill-judged piece of business, but occasioned a great waste of time.

-George Washington, 1790

Public Neutrality

The introductions of the (Quaker) Memorial, respecting Slavery, was to be sure, not only an ill-judged piece of business, but occasioned a great waste of time.

–George Washington, 1790

As president from 1789 to 1797, Washington did not advertise his antislavery views. He believed the union was too fragile to push for major change, growing impatient when Quakers brought antislavery petitions to Congress. Washington signed just two pieces of slavery related legislation: the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which guaranteed the right of slaveholders to recover escaped slaves across state lines, and the 1794 Slave Trade Act, which restricted U.S. participation in the trafficking of human cargo.

Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The seal of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, founded by British Quakers in 1787. This image was widely circulated on medallions and abolitionist pamphlets. Washington encountered many Quaker abolitionists in Philadelphia. Though he sympathized with their cause, Washington found their tactics too aggressive.

Seal of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Purchased by the A. Alfred Taubman Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2001. Conservation courtesy of the Life Guard Society of Mount Vernon.

Solutions

South East Corner of Third and Market Streets, Philadelphia, by William Birch and Sons, 1799, Yale University Art Gallery. Mabel Brady Garvan Collection.

South East Corner of Third and Market Streets, Philadelphia, by William Birch and Sons, 1799, Yale University Art Gallery. Mabel Brady Garvan Collection.

TO BE LET…The Farms appertaining to the Mount Vernon Estate, in Virginia...

-George Washington, 1796

Even as he skirted the topic in public life, Washington tried to extricate himself from slavery. In the 1790s, he devised several plans to sell or lease property at Mount Vernon and elsewhere, hoping to use the proceeds to finance the emancipation of his slaves and allow him to retire comfortably on his remaining land. He also considered purchasing the Custis slaves (whom he controlled through his marriage but did not have the legal authority to free) in order to manumit them. Washington did not succeed in executing any of these schemes.

Ona Judge

Ona Judge

Lady’s maid Ona Judge escaped from the presidential residence in Philadelphia in May 1796 and made her way to New Hampshire. Despite George and Martha Washington’s efforts to recapture her, she lived the rest of her life as a free woman.

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Personal Deception

...the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist.

–George Washington, 1791

Though he was critical of slavery, Washington continued to use enslaved labor during his presidency. When the national capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington realized that the eight enslaved workers in his presidential household might take advantage of Pennsylvania’s emancipation law, which allowed the slaves of visitors to claim their freedom after six months’ residence in the state. Washington was especially concerned because most of the household’s enslaved staff were owned by the Custis estate. If they escaped, Washington would have to reimburse the value of the of the lost “property.”

To evade the statute, Washington sent the enslaved cook, waiters, and maids out of state every six months, instructing his secretary to move the slaves “in a way that will deceive both them and the public.”

The First President

Unanimously elected twice, President Washington established many crucial presidential precedents.

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