This past President’s Day, which granted many in America time off, honors the nation’s first president, George Washington. Washington’s legacy in the annals of history are well known, but it appears he used political trickery to keep slaves at work and in bondage despite laws stating otherwise.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, University of Delaware associate professor of Black Studies and History Erica Armstrong Dunbar found in her research that the Washington family maintained slavery throughout their lifetime. Although many states in the North were slowly distancing themselves from slave ownership, the Washingtons maintained it as a means to maintain wealth and power.
Dr. Dunbar explained that after Washington ascended to the presidency in 1789, he continued to own slaves. In Washington’s later years, he attempted to distance himself from the horrendous practice but it appears to have been all for show. During Washington’s presidency, the family lived between New York, Pennsylvania, and Mount Vernon in Northern Virginia.
In 1780, a Pennsylvania law partly did away with slavery. Every six months, Washington’s wife would travel to Mount Vernon with their human property to avoid the application of the law. In 1793, Washington signed a fugitive slave act into law that would offered protection to slave owners and targeted those who would harbor and help slaves go free.
One of Washington’s slaves, Ona Judge ran away from the Washington estate because she learned that Mrs. Washington intended to give her away as a wedding gift to her granddaughter, a common practice of the time. Judge made it to Portsmouth, N.H. and married a free man.
The couple had three children but all were in danger because Judge remained a wanted woman. For three years, Washington’s men attempted to track down Judge to no avail. Three months before Washington’s death in December 1799, the pursuit for Judge was still in motion.
When Washington died, over 300 slaves lived on the Mount Vernon estate, half of them belonging to the late president. According to a will, the slaves were supposed to be freed after his death. But after Washington’s wife inherited the slaves, they remained in bondage.