Baldrick: I still can’t believe you’re leaving me behind.
Blackadder: Oh don’t you worry. When we’re established on our plantation in Barbados I’ll send for you. No more sad little London for you Balders. From now on you will stand out in life as an individual.
Baldrick: Will I?
Blackadder: Indeed. All the other slaves will be black.
Black Adder Amy and Amiability 1987
Ben Franklin: First things first, John … Independence. America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?
The final in my series of post on Why Washington Matters don’t miss Part one (Washington the Revolutionary) Part two (Washington the General) and Part three (Washington the leader/president)
If there is any post title that would cause confusion among readers it’s this one. George Washington the Emancipator? For most of his life, Washington owned slaves. When he married his wife, she brought even more slaves to the marriage and at the time of his death the number of slaves he owned was considerable.
In this modern age where slavery exists only in Africa and parts of Arabia where Blacks and Muslims enslave other blacks (to the silence of the media) and the sex trade (where slavery by other names is an international scourge and also pretty much ignored) this concept doesn’t wash, but in the age of Washington Slavery was not only a norm but had been a norm in the world for the history of…the entire world.
And in addition to full slavery, there were indentured servants bound to masters by contract for years and other systems by which men were held by other men. From Morocco to the Americas slavery and forced servitude was a norm of convenience and profit wherever you went.
To this world Washington was born and raised, in a culture where slavery was a total norm, yet look at the record as commander in chief:
In his General Orders of 30 December 1775, he gave “leave to the recruiting Officers to entertain … Free Negroes [that] are desirous of inlisting” should Congress approve the new policy. Writing to John Hancock the next day he couched his order in terms of military necessity: “free Negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded. As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial Army, I have … given license for their being enlisted.”
It would have been remarkably easy for Washington the Virginia planter and slaveholder to let this be.
At the Constitutional convention he spoke very little, how easy would it have been for Washington, slaveholder and southern to push for slavery, to argue against the constitutionally mandated end to the slave trade. How much of a pull on the delegates would his voice have been if he choose to make the case?
As president although he singed a fugitive slave law he also signed a law he signed a law affirming the ban on slavery in the Northwest territories. How easy would it have been for a unanimously elected Washington to argue against such affirmation? How many of his friends and fellow slave holders, involved in land speculation would have wanted to bring their “property” to those lands?
Then in the final act in his will. He freed his slaves.
While it was acknowledged even by Confederate leaders such as Alexander Stephens that the founding fathers considered Slavery wrong:
The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away.
It was he and he ALONE of the slaveholders who would occupy the White House that would free his slaves. After carefully steering the ship of state that was in danger of splitting apart on its maiden voyage he took the act, which has great symbolic meaning at a time when it was least likely to produce an argument against but would shine as his final example at the period when an entire nation would be in mourning for him.
Some in the 21st century might look at this 18th century man’s act as trivial? Why not do this BEFORE death? One might as well condemn Lincoln for not pushing for women’s suffrage. Consider this. Just two years after Washington’s death William Henry Harrison who would later be 9th president was appointed governor of the Indiana Territory. The slaveholding Harrison pushed vigorously for the legalization of slavery there and his allies in congress managed to get article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance/ forbidding slavery suspended for ten years.
Imagine the difference in the close debate if Harrison won, imagine what the country would look like if Harrison’s foes in the debate didn’t have the example of Washington as emancipator to use?
Washington’s act was extraordinary and the proof is that Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk and Taylor did not copy it. Lincoln among president might have been the great emancipator but Washington was the first emancipator.
In summary for all of these reasons:
Washington the revolutionary
Washington the General
Washington the Leader/President
Washington the Emancipator
I argue President’s day once again be known far and wide as Washington’s birthday. I further submit and suggest that George Washington is and remains the greatest American who ever lived.
and I don’t think it’s even close.