George Washington, In Retiring From Public Service and Not Seeking Re-Election, Reveals He Always Intended to Free His Indentured Servants When He Left the President’s House

He references just having “retired from public life”; Letters of Washington referencing his retirement from public life are very uncommon

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The indentured servant had months of service left, but Washington instead freed him to his life in America;  Public records list no other letters of Washington relating to freeing his servants having reached the market

 

He also pays for the clothing of his adopted son, George Washington Custis, using interest from...

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  1. G: Washington - Washington's signature is bold on this letter, a fine example of his stereotypically bold autograph
  2. Washington's great retirement - The President had only recently resigned his office and retired to private life. Washington's retirement is one the great acts in the history of the Presidency
  3. Washington and Freedom - We have found no other letters of Washington freeing any servant, either identured or a slave. Likewise, letters of Washington even referencing freedom are nearly impossible to find
  4. Retirement to Mount Vernon - We have found no other letters of Washington freeing any servant, either identured or a slave. Likewise, letters of Washington even referencing freedom are nearly impossible to find

George Washington, In Retiring From Public Service and Not Seeking Re-Election, Reveals He Always Intended to Free His Indentured Servants When He Left the President’s House

He references just having “retired from public life”; Letters of Washington referencing his retirement from public life are very uncommon

The indentured servant had months of service left, but Washington instead freed him to his life in America;  Public records list no other letters of Washington relating to freeing his servants having reached the market

 

He also pays for the clothing of his adopted son, George Washington Custis, using interest from his Treasury certificates, while Custis was at Princeton

John Cline arrived in Philadelphia in August 1794 aboard the ship Holland from Amsterdam. At that time Washington paid $57.10 “for the passage &c. of John Klein for which he is to serve three years” as an indentured servant to the President. He would then be free and a resident of the United States. Martin Klein, likely John’s brother, already worked there. The practice was that foreigners would find a sponsor and then work their way to freedom. In this case, Cline secured the sponsorship of America’s first president, and would work in the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia.

Washington was in office from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797. His retirement to private life, and returning to his life on the farm at Mount Vernon, was not merely something he longed for, but was one of the great acts of precedent in the young country. He established a peaceful transition to the next elected President. He set about running his property and tending to family affairs.

The Washingtons brought George Washington Parke Custis, then 8 years old, to New York City in 1789 to live in the presidential mansion. Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia, the original “First Family” occupied the President’s House from 1790 to 1797. GWP Custis attended (but did not graduate from) the Germantown Academy in Germantown, and then the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

Washington cared for him and paid his bills, including clothing the young college student. James McAlpin was his Presidential tailor in Philadelphia. In an order to McAlpin, dated at Mount Vernon, April 7, 1797, these “Cloaths” were listed: “1 Dress coat 1 common coatee 2 pr small cloaths 3 pr pantaloons 4 waistcoats 2 under d[itt]o 6 pr cotton stockings 2 silk d[itt]o.” Washington then wrote: “Sir, Procure and make the above articles of clothing for Mr Custis and the Acct shall be duty paid by Go: Washington.”

On May 28, 1797, Washington asked Clement Biddle to act as his agent in Philadelphia, now that he was retired and no longer there, using money from the “Interest of my certificates at the Treasury, or Bank of the United States; amounting to about one hundred dollars pr quarter; one of which became due the 31st of Mar. last, and the rest will be so in succession…”

Autograph letter signed, Mount Vernon, July 3, 1797, to James McAlpin, with the integral address leaf in Washington’s hand. McAlpin was aware that Cline left – ran away – from Washington’s employ, prior to expiration of his term of service, which entitled Washington to seek his return. This remarkable letter shows that Washington had always intended to free these servants once he had fulfilled his term as President. And in it we can see how differently Washington treated his black and white servants.

“Sir, if you will present your account of the things furnished young Mr. Custis (on his return to College in May last) to Col. Clement Biddle, he will pay you the amount thereof.

“I thank you for the information respecting John Cline, but shall give myself no further concern about him; for it was always my intention to have given him his freedom (as I did the other servants under similar circumstances) when I retired from public life, had he remained with me.”

Public records list no other letters of Washington relating to freeing his servants – no less his having a policy to do so – having reached the market; letters of Washington referencing his retirement from public life are very uncommon.

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