George Washington began questioning slavery during the Revolutionary War, when he led the North American colonies’ battle for independence from Great Britain.
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 the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.
-GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1786
When he drafted his will at age 67, George Washington included a provision that would free the 123 enslaved people he owned outright. This bold decision marked the culmination of two decades of introspection and inner conflict for Washington, as his views on slavery changed gradually but dramatically.
As a young Virginia planter, Washington accepted slavery without apparent concern. But after the Revolutionary War, he began to feel burdened by his personal entanglement with slavery and uneasy about slavery’s effect on the nation. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Washington stated privately that he no longer wanted to be a slaveowner, that he did not want to buy and sell slaves or separate enslaved families, and that he supported a plan for gradual abolition in the United States.
Yet, Washington did not always act on his antislavery principles. He avoided the issue publicly, believing that bitter debates over slavery could tear apart the fragile nation. Concerns about his finances, separating enslaved families, and his political influence as president led him to delay major action during his lifetime. Ultimately, Washington made his most public antislavery statement after his death in December 1799, when the contents of his will were revealed.