04/21/04 — Belk lecturer explores Washington and slavery

View Archive

Belk lecturer explores Washington and slavery

By Don McLoud
Published in News on April 21, 2004 2:12 PM

Americans know George Washington as the father of our country and the one who could not tell a lie, but an image of him as a slave owner is not one that often comes to mind.

Not only did Washington have slaves -- a total of 120 -- but he was the only Founding Father who freed all of the ones he owned, according to Henry Wiencek, the author of "An Imperfect God -- George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America."

Wiencek was this year's speaker for the Henry Belk Lecture on Tuesday, which is sponsored by the Goldsboro Rotary Club and the Wayne County Public Library. The lecture is held for National Library Week and to remember Belk, a former News-Argus editor.

This year's lecture was also attended by State Librarian Sandra Cooper, who spoke on the advancements being made at the State Library. Wiencek was introduced by Wayne County Library Director Jane Rustin.

Wiencek praised Washington as a leader. "Through his heroism and his resolve he almost single-handedly won the Revolutionary War," he said.

Washington's army had black soldiers, and they had also exhibited heroism in the war. Wiencek says America owes a great debt to them, many of whom were slaves. They had been told they would be freed after the war, but they weren't.

So why hadn't Washington rewarded that heroism?

Wiencek said that early on, when it came to slaves, Washington's handling of them was similar to that of most Virginia slave masters. He viewed slaves as property.

His family had owned slaves for generations, and he married into a slave-owning family. Wiencek said he learned that Washington had actually raffled slave children to pay his wife's family debt.

But later Washington began to regret slavery and began to secretly hatch plans to free his slaves before, during and after his presidency.

But simply freeing his slaves was not easy. When Washington married Mary Custis, he had 120 slaves and her family had 150 slaves who worked on the Mount Vernon estate.Many of the slaves from the Custis family had intermarried with the Washington family slaves.

Wiencek said that Washington wanted to avoid breaking up the families. So he tried to persuade the Custises to also free their slaves, but the family refused. Wiencek said the family was making too much money in trading slaves.

Wiencek explained that many slave family histories have shown that the most heartbreaking element of slavery was not the harsh conditions but the separation of loved ones, and this was what Washington was also most upset about.

Wiencek also said that Washington may have had an affair with a slave, and she had a child. This assertion got his book banned for a while from the Mount Vernon park site.

As Washington grew older, his views on abolition grew stronger. He believed that slavery would one day bring a catastrophe on the United States. Washington said that "nothing but the rooting out of slavery could preserve the union."

Wiencek also said he found a statement by Washington that said if the union split apart into north and south, he had made up his mind "to remove and be of the north."

Then late in his life, he had a vision that he would die. The next day he wrote out his will. While most of it is couched in legal terms, the part in which he frees his slaves is emphatic that they will all be released upon his and his wife's death. Those under age 25 are to be educated and helped to find work.

Washington died in 1799. Martha Washington died in 1802. The family's slaves were freed in 1801, a year earlier than was required in the will.

The reason for the early emancipation, says Wiencek, was more for self-preservation than altruism. Mrs. Washington, he said, was afraid that the slaves might try to hasten her death to win their freedom.