George Washington: Emancipation for his Plantation


it is what Washington did with his slaves that spoke volumes about were he stood on the matter and what he saw for the future of the nation. (Library of Congress)

Isaac Fishman, Reporter

George Washington is a great man, a giant of our history, one of the greatest military generals of all time, a champion of the enlightenment and a hero to us all. But like all historical figures he is not perfect, and along with leading his men to a massacre in the French-Indian war he also owned more than 300 slaves. We can all, hopefully, agree today that slavery was wrong, but it is what Washington did with his slaves that spoke volumes about were he stood on the matter and what he saw for the future of the nation.


Washington, by the time of his death, was not only the most beloved man in the United States, but also the richest. His Mount Vernon estate, along with the salary he received from being US president, as well as many business ventures he had partaken in, had made him wealthy beyond any reasonable imagination. At one point, he was the richest, most militarily capable and most powerful man in all of America. But just like every seat at every table he held during his life, he gave it up when thinking about the future. Washington was haunted by the future and what it might entail for his nation and the wellbeing of his people. This is why he was so careful to set as many precedents as he did during his time in office. Everything he did from the way he resigned to the way he conducted his foreign policy we followed to the letter for almost one hundred years and even sometimes to this day.


But one thing that all the founding fathers knew would tear this nation apart was the issue of slavery. Even the founding fathers that owned slaves knew that one day this extremely and clearly defined regional issue was going to rip the nation apart, lest it should be abolished. Jefferson and Adams sent letters back and forth for years on this topic but it was Washington’s foresight of this issue that put him way ahead of the times even on his deathbed. 


The very first item in Washington’s will, discounting him leaving his whole estate to his wife, is him freeing every single one of his slaves. He even provides specific provisions for certain slaves and offers them a salary for the next two years so they can settle into their new lives and jobs. In his very last act, Washington was trying to set a precedent. Even this man, who owned people as his property and made them work for unpaid labor saw the fraudulent nature of it and the need to destroy it. Mind you, Washington was the only founding father to free all his slaves. Next best is Jefferson who freed three. 


The reason why Washington did this though is not for his own moral piece but for the future prosperity and betterment of the nation. The general consensus of the nation at the time was that slavery was far less profitable than it used to be and it was on its way out, and they were right! The south was beginning to move away from slavery at this time, and Washington knew that by setting a precedent to free your slaves upon death he could get thousands of other rich slave holders in the south to do the same, causing a general and gradual phasing out of slavery. 


But what Washington couldn’t have possibly predicted was the invention of the cotton gin in 1802. The cotton gin, one of the most simple and most impactful inventions in world history, certainly American history, made cotton extremely profitable and entrenched slavery into the way of southern life. Washington died in 1799 and knew that in nine years the constitution would forbid the importation of slaves to the US, so he was trying to build around this, but his efforts were undercut by a machine that quite literally is a box and a crank. 


If the cotton gin was never invented, would Washington’s act upon his death bed influence the rest of the country? Would the civil war have never happened? It is impossible to say, but to deny that it was not a noble act is to not look beyond the circumstance. Washington was never publicly an abolitionist, he never held rallies or speeches against slavery, never spoke of its regulation beyond what was provided in the Constitution. But sometimes in history, actions speak far louder than words.