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FORGOTTEN TRUTH: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson & Slavery in Virginia

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It is ironic that two prominent Founding Fathers who owned slaves (Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) were both early, albeit unsuccessful, pioneers in the movement to end slavery in their State and in the nation. Both Washington and Jefferson were raised in Virginia, a geographic part of the country in which slavery had been an entrenched cultural institution. In fact, at the time of the Founders, the morality of slavery had rarely been questioned; and in the 150 years following the introduction of slavery into Virginia by Dutch traders in 1619, there had been few voices raised in objection. That began to change in 1765, for as a consequence of America’s examination of her own relationship with Great Britain, there arose for the first time a serious contemplation of the propriety of African slavery in America. As Founding Father John Jay explained, this was the period in which America’s attitude towards slavery began to change:

Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority . . . of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it. 1

As the Colonists increasingly recognized that they themselves were slaves of the British Empire, and were experiencing the discomforting effects of such power exercised over them, their commiseration with those enslaved in America began to grow. As one early legal authority explained:

The American Revolution. . . . was undertaken for a principle, was fought upon principle, and the success of their arms was deemed by the Colonists as the triumph of the principle. That principle was. . . . an ardent love of personal liberty, and hence, the very declaration of their political liberty announced as a self-evident truth that all men were created free and equal. 2

Notwithstanding this emerging change in attitude, the response across America on how to end slavery differed widely according to geographical regions. As Thomas Jefferson explained:

Where the disease [slavery] is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the northern States, it was merely superficial and easily corrected. In the southern, it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process. 3

As a middle colony, Virginia experienced the stress from the divergent pull of both northern and southern beliefs meeting in conflict in that State. Several northern States were moving rapidly toward ending slavery, while the deepest southern States of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia largely refused even to consider such a possibility. 4 Virginia contained strong proponents of both attitudes. While many Virginia leaders sought to end slavery in that State (George Mason, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, etc.), they found a very cool reception toward their ideas from many of their fellow citizens as well as from the State Legislature. As explained by a southern abolitionist, part of the reason for the unfriendly reception to their proposals proceeded from the fact that:

Virginia alone in 1790 contained 293,427 slaves, more than seven times as many as [Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey] combined. Her productions were almost exclusively the result of slave labor. . . . The problem was one of no easy solution, how this “great evil,” as it was then called, was to be removed with safety to the master and benefit to the slave. 5

As Jefferson and Washington sought to liberalize the State’s slavery laws to make it easier to free slaves, the State Legislature went in exactly the opposite direction, passing laws making it more difficult to free slaves. (As one example, Washington was able to circumvent State laws by freeing his slaves in his will at his death in 1799; by the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, State laws had so stiffened that it had become virtually impossible for Jefferson to use the same means.) What today have become the almost unknown views and forgotten efforts of both Washington and Jefferson to end slavery in their State and in the nation should be reviewed. Consider first the views of George Washington. Born in 1732, his life demonstrates how culturally entrenched slavery was in that day. Not only was Washington born into a world in which slavery was accepted, but he himself became a slave owner at the tender age of 11 when his father died, leaving him slaves as an inheritance. As other family members deceased, Washington inherited even more slaves. Growing up, then, from his earliest youth as a slave owner, it represented a radical change for Washington to try to overthrow the very system in which he had been raised. Washington astutely recognized that the same singular force would be either the great champion or the great obstacle to freeing Virginia’s slaves, and that force was the laws of his own State. Concerning the path Washington desired to see the State choose, he emphatically declared:

I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage [vote and support] will go, shall never be wanting [lacking]. 6

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