1st president eventually chose emancipation, speaker says

LEWISBURG – George Washington went from slave holder to a man who wanted the African Americans he owned at his death to be free.

Everyone knows Washington for his leadership decisions in the battle against the British and election as the first U.S. president following the Revolutionary War.

What some may not be aware of is he and his wife, Martha Washington, were slave holders, an accepted culture of the day. Details of Washington’s transition from slave owner to a man favoring emancipation and his change of heart before his death in 1799 were shared by Jeannette Lasansky, a speaker at a Union County Historical Society presentation held Sunday at the Dale/Engle/Walker House on Strawbridge Road.

Inside the house, which has its own history of slave ownership, Lasansky laid out the highlights of Washington’s life as a slave owner to one favoring freedom for African Americans and no longer considering them property.

While much has been written of Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and prejudice, less is known of Washington’s position on slave holding.

Earlier in life in Tidewater, Va., Washington brought 49 slaves to his marriage with Martha Custis, who had 84 slaves. In his early 30s, Washington attended a raffle for slaves.

When he died, he had 123 slaves of his own right.

The house where Lasansky spoke once was owned by Samuel Dale, who gave his wife a slave to manage.

In those years, slaves were traded for molasses, rum, limes, sweetmeats and spirits. Individuals were categorized as those who could work in households or who would be sent to the fields.

Washington once sent a troublesome slave to Barbados, which at the time was considered a hard labor camp and meant an early death for slaves.

As much as the Revolutionary War became a turning point for the foundation of a new nation, the battles involving large numbers of African Americans fighting in regiments made Washington pause.

“These were black men taking an active role in winning the war,” Lasansky said.

Some regiments were more than half or three-quarters populated by blacks. More integration occurred during the war of the colonies than was present during Vietnam, she added.

Washington was a close friend of Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who proposed a model of emancipation for his and the nation’s slaves.

Washington also took to heart statements by his friend, George Mason, who said, “Every master of a person is a petty tyrant.”

“He’s always been known as measured and he assesses the situation,” Lasansky said of Washington. Then, “he flips.”

No more is that philosophical difference more evident than in his will, written five months before his death.

In the 29-page document, after mentioning Martha’s share, Washington wrote: “Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all the slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom.”

In three pages of explicit instruction in how they and their children should be freed, educated and trained so they could support themselves as free people, Washington also expressly forbid the sale of any slave – under any pretense whatsoever.”

Washington’s will set him apart from most of his peers and all of his family.

Toward his end, Washington viewed slavery as repugnant and was at peace with the concept of emancipation, Lasansky said.

Uncertain of what might happen to his slaves, Washington wanted his will to be “religiously fulfilled without evasion, neglect or delay.”

Washington did not want slaves to be separated from their children and families broken apart.

“In the journey he took, he got to the end hoping the right person would implement what he felt he needed to do with his own property,” Lasansky said.