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Frees Slaves in Last Will and Testament

Frees Slaves in Last Will and Testament 1799

Like every other leading Founder, George Washington came to oppose slavery as utterly inconsistent with the principles of the American Revolution. In 1786 he wrote, "I can only say there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it."

Born into a slave-owning family, and growing up in rural Virginia, Washington had taken slavery for granted in his earlier years. Indeed, second only to the family, slavery is the oldest institution in human history. At the time of the American Founding, its existence was the norm not only in America, but around the world, in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America. In this light, it is not so remarkable as we might think today that some of those who founded America on the principles of human equality, unalienable rights, and government by consent, also owned slaves. What is remarkable is that these slave owners founded the first nation in human history based on principles that explicitly condemned slavery. These principles would lead ultimately to the abolition of that barbaric practice, and for that they deserve a fair portion of honor.

Here as in other areas, Washington lays claim to an extra portion of such honor. Even before the Revolution, he felt deeply the inhumanity of the slave trade, and resolved never to sell his slaves without their consent. He was also rare among slave owners by encouraging his slaves to marry and have families. During the Revolution he backed the idea of enlisting slaves in the war effort, under an agreement that they would be freed at the conclusion of their service. As president he signed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the territory comprising the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. And on leaving the presidency, he secretly freed several of his slaves by leaving them behind when he returned to Virginia.

The growing influence on Washington of the anti-slavery principles of the Revolution was reflected as well in the nation at large. 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.

Among the latter numbered all the slaves of George Washington, who in his Last Will and Testament, drawn up personally in July 1799, ordered that they be freed upon his wife's death. Washington was the only Virginian among the Founders to free his slaves. This determined attempt to bring his practice into conformity with his principles, however belated in this instance, was in keeping with his lifelong pattern. As so often before, he set an example that his countrymen would have done well to emulate.

Washington died on December 14, 1799. His slaves were freed in December 1800, even before his wife's death. In addition to ordering their freedom, Washington's Last Will and Testament commanded his heirs to clothe and feed those slaves who were incapable of supporting themselves due to age or infirmity. His estate continued to fulfill this responsibility for over three decades.