Composed by his own hand in relative secrecy in early July 1799, George Washington’s “Last Will and Testament,” in addition to the dispersal of his estate, recognized the freedom of his enslaved workers upon his wife Martha Washington’s death. Washington’s provision for this emancipation represented the final view of a slaveholder who had been grappling with a moral dilemma and a desire “to get quit of” slavery at Mount Vernon as early as the American Revolution.1 As one of the first founding fathers to take a tangible action against slavery, Washington’s will served as an example of hope for the future of abolitionism.
At the time, 317 slaves lived and worked at Mount Vernon. However, of those individuals, Washington legally owned 124 people. Because of Virginia law, Washington was only able to liberate those enslaved people that were his personal property. While 40 people were rented from nearby plantations, Martha owned the bulk of Mount Vernon's enslaved African Americans. One hundred and fifty dower slaves had come into Martha’s possession for her lifetime through her late first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, and were to revert to her grandchildren's legal property after her death. Washington, as her second husband, could control and profit from these people, but he accepted it was “not…in my power…to manumit them.”
Although people enslaved by Washington himself could have been freed upon his death on December 14, 1799, he chose to delay their release until Martha’s death for two reasons: the stability of his wife’s finances and their slaves’ “intermixture by Marriages.” He wanted to avoid the “most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences” over the separation of families—for the enslaved and for Martha. Washington made one exception for his longtime manservant William Lee, to whom he granted “immediate freedom” and an annuity as a reward for his “faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” Those who could not effectively care for themselves (the elderly, infirm (including Lee), and the young) could continue to be provided for by the estate; in addition youths would also be given a basic education and released at age twenty-five.
As evident by the will’s initial concealment, Washington’s language reflected his anxiety over the manumission’s incendiary nature. Fearing subversion, he commanded that the will’s terms had to be followed “without evasion, neglect or delay” and that he “expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever.”2 On January 1, 1801, Martha voluntarily freed all of her husband’s slaves early. Washington’s widow seemingly feared that otherwise she would be murdered to enact the will’s terms.
Despite the lack of immediate manumission or official presidential policy, Washington’s will and its unconditional emancipation illustrated the personal commitment he had against slavery. Though its existence did not trigger an instantaneous societal conversion on slavery, its clauses preventing the removal of slaves from Virginia also went drastically against the prevailing abolitionist ideology of repatriating slaves to Africa. Instead based on the slaves’ status in the will, Washington boldly suggested that America had the potential to become their home as well.
Craig Bruce Smith, Ph.D.
1. GW to Lund Washington, 15 Aug. 1778, Digital Papers of George Washington.
2. George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 9 Jul. 1799, Digital Papers of George Washington.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.
Furstenberg, François. “Atlantic Slavery, Atlantic Freedom: George Washington, Slavery, and the Transatlantic Abolitionist Networks,” The William and Mary Quarterly, April 2011 Vol. 68 (2), p. 247-286.
Furstenberg, François. In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Stratus, and Giroux, 2003.