This past President’s Day, which granted many in America time off, honors the nation’s first president, George Washington. Washington’s political legacy is well-known, but not the fact that he used his office to keep slaves in bondage despite laws prohibiting it.
In an 2017 piece in the New York Times, University of Delaware associate professor of Black Studies and History and author Erica Armstrong Dunbar found that the Washington family owned slaves throughout their lifetime.
She wrote about one of them Ona Judge, who escaped the Washington household in a book “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.” Although many states in the North were slowly distancing themselves from slave ownership, the Washingtons continued to use it as a means to maintain wealth and power.
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Dr. Dunbar revealed that even after Washington ascended to the presidency in 1789, he continued to own slaves. Though Washington attempted to distance himself from the horrendous practice in his later years, at the end of his life, he still owned 300 slaves at his Virginia estate. During his presidency, Washington lived between New York, Mt. Vernon, Va. and Philadelphia, Pa.
In 1780, a Pennsylvania law partly did away with slavery. Washington argued that as a resident of the state of Virginia, the law didn’t apply to him as he only resided in Philadelphia because of the presidency. Every six months, Washington’s wife, Martha, would travel to Mount Vernon, Va. with their human property to avoid the law. Although that was also illegal, the law was not enforced. In 1793, Washington signed a fugitive slave act into law that offered protection to slave owners and targeted those who would harbor and help slaves go free.
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. Helped by free blacks in Philadelphia, Judge made it to Portsmouth, N.H. and married a free man.
The couple had three children, though their freedom remained at risk because Judge was still a wanted woman. For three years, Washington’s men attempted to track her down to no avail. Three months before Washington’s death in December 1799, the pursuit for Judge was still on.
Washington’s famed chef, Hercules Posey, also escaped to New York City. Washington was reportedly distressed over his departure because of Posey’s renowned cooking skills. He also felt that Posey was privileged, citing the example, according to historical records, that Posey had been gifted three bottles of rum after his wife’s death.
Though Washington tried to find him as well, Posey is believed to have lived as a free man in New York. In 2019, The Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered some records that seem to indicate that Posey died of consumption at the age of 64.
When Washington died, over 300 slaves lived on the Mount Vernon estate, half of them belonging to the late president. Though the slaves were supposed to be freed after his death. Washington’s wife inherited them. When she later died, they remained in bondage, including Posey’s three children, as the inheritance of Martha’s grandchildren.