George Washington Purchases Slaves, the Very Slaves He Freed Upon His Death

A receipt for the purchase in his own hand paying for them, kept by Washington and sold by his heirs in the early 20th century

Purchase $80,000

This represents his final such purchase before the convening of the First Continental Congress, to which he was a delegate, in September 1774.

 

The only document of his relating to buying slaves we have found to ever reach the market, and perhaps the only one in private hands

It is the...

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George Washington Purchases Slaves, the Very Slaves He Freed Upon His Death

A receipt for the purchase in his own hand paying for them, kept by Washington and sold by his heirs in the early 20th century

This represents his final such purchase before the convening of the First Continental Congress, to which he was a delegate, in September 1774.

 

The only document of his relating to buying slaves we have found to ever reach the market, and perhaps the only one in private hands

It is the paradox of George Washington and slavery that the man who successfully fought a war in the name of liberty owned slaves his entire adult life. He became uneasy with an institution that was ingrained in the economic and social fabric of his native Virginia, and ultimately provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his will.

Washington inherited his first ten slaves at the age of eleven on the death of his father in 1743. In adulthood his personal slaveholding increased through inheritance, purchase and natural increase, and he gained control of dower slaves belonging to the Custis estate on his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis. Though under his control, these slaves were not his own property, but were to be inherited by Martha Washington’s grandchildren after her death. So numerous were the Dandridge slaves that at the time of Washington’s death, they constituted a majority of slaves at Mount Vernon. Washington’s early attitudes to slavery reflected the prevailing Virginia planter views of the day, and so he demonstrated no moral qualms about the institution. He became skeptical about the economic efficacy of slavery before the American Revolution, and expressed support in private for abolition by a gradual legislative process after the war. Washington remained dependent on slave labor, and by the time of his death in 1799 there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon, 124 owned by Washington and the remainder managed by him as his own property but belonging to the Custis estate and others.

Washington was a typical master of his day. He provided his slaves with basic food, clothing and accommodation comparable to general practice at the time, and with medical care. In return, he expected them to work diligently from sunrise to sunset over the six-day working week that was standard at the time. Some three-quarters of the slaves labored in the fields, while most of the remainder worked at the main residence as domestic servants and artisans. They supplemented their diet by hunting, trapping, and growing vegetables in their free time, and bought extra rations, clothing and housewares with income from the sale of game and produce. They built their own community around marriage and family, though because Washington allocated slaves to farms according to the demands of the business without regard for their relationships, many husbands lived separately from their wives and children. Washington used both reward and punishment to encourage and discipline his slaves, but was always disappointed when they failed to meet his exacting standards.

Washington’s first doubts about slavery surfaced in the 1760s, when the transition from tobacco to grain crops at his Mount Vernon estate left him with a surplus of slaves, prompting him to question the economic viability of slavery. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, he initially refused to accept blacks, free or slave, into the ranks, but reversed this position due to the exigencies of war. The first indication of his moral doubt appears during efforts to sell some of his slaves in 1778, when Washington expressed his distaste for selling them at a public venue and his desire that slave families not be split up as a result of the sale. His public words and deeds at the end of the American Revolutionary War betrayed no antislavery sentiments. Politically, Washington was concerned that such a divisive issue as slavery should not threaten national unity, and he never spoke publicly about the institution. Privately, Washington considered plans in the mid 1790s to free all the slaves he controlled, but they could not be realized because of his failure to secure his own financial security and the refusal of his family to cooperate. His will provided for the emancipation of his own slaves, and he was, very significantly, the only Founding Father to do so. Because many of his slaves were married to Martha’s dower slaves, whom he could not legally free, Washington stipulated that, with the exception of his valet William Lee who was freed immediately, his slaves be emancipated on the death of Martha. She freed them in 1801, a year before her own death.

Looking at Washington’s acquisition of slaves, we find that some were purchased outright by him for cash, some were the dower slaves owned by the Custis estate, and some came into his possession as payment for debts others owed him that they could not pay in cash. According to the slavery database at Mount Vernon, most of Washington’s own slave purchases were in the 1760s, continuing up to April 1773. That latter month he bought a number of slaves; in one purchase from Robert Washington, brother of his estate manager, Lund Washington, he arranged to obtain “two young Negro Men—named James and Isaac,” for £180. Washington completed payment for these two on March 23, 1774, making this the last of the 1773 transactions. His spate of buying slaves ended with this very transaction. He bought no slaves in 1774. In 1775 he accepted a slave name Will in settlement of a debt, plus records suggest that three other slaves may have been purchased that year. No slaves were added in 1776 nor at any time during the Revolution. In 1778 he thought of selling slaves, but was very concerned not to break up any families. In 1787 Washington considered purchasing one slave but in the end was not sure about keeping him. Mount Vernon records show one slave bought in 1793, but with no details it is uncertain whether the acquisition ever took place.

As an example of acquisition as payment for debts he was owed by others, in 1788 some 30 slaves in New Kent County, Virginia, came into Washington’s hands in lieu of payments owed to him by his wife’s brother’s relatives. He obtained 14 slaves in 1786 from John Mercer, who had owed him money. Washington told Mercer he preferred not to take slaves and wanted warrants, but apparently ended up having to accept slaves as Mount Vernon records indicate.

Autograph document signed, March 23, 1774, with an uncommon full signature within the text: “Then received from George Washington the account sum of thirty pounds for the use of Mr. Robert Washington – it being on account of two Negroes sold by him to the said George.” Robert’s relative Lawrence has signed the receipt on Robert’s behalf. On the verso appears the docket, “Mr. Robert Washington, No. 96, Lawrence Washington, 30 pounds, 23rd March 1774.”

Thus this receipt for payment for slaves represents Washington’s final such purchase before the convening of the First Continental Congress, to which he was a delegate, in September 1774. He only purchased four or five additional slaves through the rest of his life, so this transaction seems a landmark in his thinking and in his interests.

In June 1799, Washington listed what is certainly these 2 slaves together, James and Isaac, both carpenters, in his list of slaves. That he listed them together, that their ages match what one would expect, and that Mount Vernon lists only two slaves owned by Washington named Isaac leads one to the conclusion they were the same two represented in this receipt. Washington died just months later, meaning these two were among the slaves freed per his instructions.

To say documents in Washington’s hand relating to his purchase of slaves are rarities would be an understatement, as a search of public sale records going back over forty years fails to turn up even one other example, nor have we ever seen one. There may well not be another in private hands.

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