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George Washington and the Problem of Slavery

1. THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY IN WASHINGTON’S WORLD

It is important for Americans living over one hundred years since slavery ended in this country to understand slavery in the world of Washington. Slavery has existed in various forms throughout most of the world, and throughout most of human history. Traditionally, slavery had nothing to do with “race” or skin color. Many people were enslaved by neighboring tribes or cities—by people who often looked very similar. For example, natives in North America had enslaved each other long before Europeans arrived. And at the time of the American founding, and for long after, slavery existed throughout Africa, where blacks were enslaving blacks. America was one of the few places where, by chance, most of the free people looked different than most of those who we enslaved. But even in America, on the eve of the Civil War, there were almost 4,000 black slave owners—blacks who owned black slaves—living in the southern United States.

By these examples we come to understand that the injustice of slavery does not depend on the color of the skin of the master any more than the color of the slave. Slavery was not wrong only in America, where whites enslaved blacks. Rather, slavery is wrong in all places, by all people, at all times because of the principle of human equality. The difficulty is that this principle has been unknown or denied throughout most of human history.

Thus we begin to see the real challenge of eliminating slavery. Slavery was so established in most of the world that it was thought to be part of the natural order of things, and there were few if any public arguments made against it. In his 1995 book, The End of Racism, Dinesh D'Souza points to a powerful example from Africa:

Perhaps the fairest generalization is that no Africans opposed slavery in principle, they merely opposed their own enslavement. One English activist, who led a campaign to suppress slavery in the Sudan, found Africans unreceptive to his pleas and pressures. "It was in vain that I attempted to reason with them against the principles of slavery – they thought it wrong when they were themselves the sufferers, but were always ready to indulge in it when the preponderance of power lay upon their side." (p.106)

Unfortunately, what was true in Sudan in the 17th and 18th centuries is still true today: It is reported that slavery continues to this day in that part of the world.

That slavery existed at the time of the Founding, then, did not make America unique. Indeed, in this America was like most countries of the world. What was unique in America, however, was the fact that America was founded upon the principle that every human being possesses equal rights by nature, thus making the elimination of slavery a moral and political necessity.


2. WASHINGTON’S WRITINGS ABOUT THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY

Washington explained his views on slavery in several different writings. In two letters to the Marquis de Lafayette, who had assisted the United States during the Revolutionary War, Washington expressed his desire to see the emancipation of the slaves in America. In 1783 Washington wrote, "The scheme, my dear Marquis, which you propose as a precedent, to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this country from the state of Bondage in which they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work…." Later Washington wrote in 1786, “your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country…”

In 1786, Washington wrote to two Americans expressing his desire to see the lawful end to slavery. In a letter to Robert Morris he wrote, "I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. 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; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority…" To John Francis Mercer he wrote that it was among his “…first wishes to see some plan adopted, by the legislature by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.”

In a letter on slavery from about 1788, Washington reflected personally on slavery: "The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labor in part I employ, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the adults among them as easy and comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit, and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator."
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