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George Washington and the Problem of Slavery


Finally, Washington’s actions demonstrate his devotion to the principles of freedom and equality. George Washington risked life and fortune to command the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War in an effort to secure liberty. Later he served as President of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to establish a government through which the principles of the Declaration of Independence could best be secured. According to James Madison, the problem of slavery was the most divisive at the Constitutional Convention. Even though slavery violated the principles of human freedom and equality that Washington and the other Founders had articulated and fought to defend, they had no other reasonable alternative but to compromise. Demanding an immediate end to slavery rather than agreeing to compromise on the issue would certainly have caused the slave states to reject union altogether, and establish a separate country more committed to continuing the institution of slavery. If that had happened, not one slave from a southern slave state would have been freed, and, perhaps worse, any prospects of ending slavery in the South would have been grim.

On the other hand, by securing the union upon the basis of human equality, the principles of the Revolution gradually influenced public opinion and political action. By 1798, slave importation had been outlawed by all thirteen states. Between 1777 and 1804, eight Northern states abolished slavery altogether: Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. In the South, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina amended their laws to make it easier to free slaves. Largely as a result, between 1790 and 1810, the number of free blacks in the South grew from 32,000 to 108,000.

Before having a public debate about ending slavery, first a union had to be formed in which such a debate could take place. In commanding the Continental Army, and presiding over the Constitutional Convention, George Washington did more than any other man to make that happen.

In addition to these heroic public acts are his actions as a private citizen. It was illegal in every slave state to simply let one’s slaves go free. Each state had laws regulating “manumission,” the legal process by which a slave owner could free his slaves. It was an expensive thing to do, requiring slave owners to pay fees and provide certain amounts of money, materials and education for the slaves. Thus many slave owners were unwilling to bankrupt their family because of a principle. Even for Washington, financial difficulties were an obstacle to the manumission of his slaves.

Nevertheless, in his Last Will and Testament, Washington ordered that his slaves be freed upon his wife’s death and that his heirs clothe and feed those slaves who were incapable of supporting themselves due to age or infirmity. Washington personally drew up his will in July 1799 and he died in December 14, 1799. His slaves were freed in December 1800, even before his wife died, and his estate cared for the aged and infirm for over three decades.

Discussion Questions:

How did Lincoln show his agreement with the Founders in relationship to the issues of freedom and equality?

How was the principle of human equality regarded throughout most of history?

Why is slavery wrong?

What does the D’Souza example indicate about African views of slavery?

Was slavery unique to America?

What was unique about the American Founding?

Why was there no reasonable alternative to the slavery compromises included in the Constitution by Washington and the other Founders?

What instructions regarding his slaves did Washington give in his Last Will and Testament?

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