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Tremendous in His Wrath

A review of the most detailed examination yet published of slavery at Mount Vernon.
Washington speaks to a white overseer while enslaved laborers work in the background.
Library of Congress

Visitors to Mount Vernon often ask whether Washington was a ‘good slave owner’. This language ought to be retired. Slaves themselves recognised that treatment varied considerably from owner to owner, but that was really irrelevant. During a visit to Richmond soon after the end of the Civil War, the Scottish minister David Macrae met a slave who complained of past mistreatment while acknowledging that he had never been whipped. ‘How were you cruelly treated then?’ Macrae asked. ‘I was cruelly treated,’ the freedman answered, ‘because I was held in slavery.’

Thompson ends with an account of the evolution of Washington’s attitudes on slavery. Before the American Revolution, he seems to have had no qualms about the institution. Thompson believes that the revolutionary experience changed him. He came to recognise what the historian Edmund S. Morgan called ‘the American paradox’ – the contradiction between the language of liberty invoked by the patriots and the reality of slaveholding. While Washington at first did not allow black men to enrol in the revolutionary army, by the end of the conflict several thousand had served. (The army he commanded was more racially integrated than any American fighting force until the Korean War.) He emerged from the war with his views on slavery ‘radically altered’. ‘There is not a man living,’ he wrote in 1786, who wished to see a plan for abolition adopted ‘more than I do’. In the interim he decided to stop buying and selling slaves.

Yet he did nothing to promote the end of slavery and rejected any suggestion that he publicly call for Virginia or the country generally to adopt a plan for abolition. In Philadelphia, as president, he practised what Thompson calls outright ‘duplicity’, moving slaves back and forth between Mount Vernon and the city, ‘under pretext’, he wrote, ‘that may deceive both them and the public’. His purpose was to circumvent Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law of 1780, which provided that any slave brought into the state who remained there for six months could claim freedom. Washington signed the first national law for the rendition of fugitive slaves and his administration pressed Britain to abide by the Treaty of Paris, which ended the War of Independence and required the return of property, including slaves, seized from Americans.

Thompson offers various explanations for Washington’s refusal to speak or act publicly against slavery. She points out that freeing his slaves would have meant financial disaster for his family. Like other Virginia planters, Washington was chronically in debt, largely because of a taste for luxury goods imported from Britain. Indeed, in 1789 he had to borrow money to pay for his journey to New York where his inauguration as the first president was to take place. She speculates that, having presided over the Constitutional Convention and witnessed bitter debates inspired by slavery, he feared that airing the question of abolition would destroy the new country. However, Benjamin Franklin also took part in the convention, and that didn’t prevent him from adding his name to an abolition petition presented to Congress in 1790.