Was George Washington petty?

In response to Jay Bookman’s article on George Washington on President’s Day, February 16, 2015, I wrote the following words:  (The link to Bookman’s article on Washington can be found here:  http://jaybookman.blog.ajc.com/2015/02/16/even-the-warts-on-american-history-are-a-beautiful-thing/


“What truly is sanctimonious is judging Washington to be petty based on his letters involving the runaway slave, Ona Judge when Washington lived nearly 3 centuries ago.  To do that is to judge him by 21st century standards, without depth.  Washington was a morally upright man by his standards.  He believe in sacrificing himself as the servant of the people, as their leader. He was nearly killed in battle several times but was extremely lucky or blessed.  He served the nation even when he was old (for his inherited genetics) and died only 3 years after leaving office.  He, no doubt, believed that Ona Judge was unfaithful and disloyal to her master or mistress but that comes from how he lived out his own life in service to the people, before himself.

More about George Washington’s values and mind which I had penned far below:

Washington, said Jefferson, had the best judgment of all of the Founders as far as the parameters of which Washington’s mind could see.  Jefferson knew that Washington had a good, intelligent mind but that Washington did not have the brilliant mind of either Jefferson or Hamilton but, perhaps as a result of that, Washington was more steady in his analysis than either of his brilliant subordinates.  Jefferson did state that Washington had all of the assets of a courageous leader, and that he was a truly good man.

I believe Jefferson had sized up Washington’s mind pretty well.  Judging from that assessment of Washington’s mind by Jefferson, I can easily see how Washington might have written those letters about Ona Judge, from the moral standpoint, of his time, regarding the moral duty of service to the master.  That fact, however, should not negate in anyone’s mind that Washington, also, wanted slavery abolished in America over time, as I had previously documented through Washington’s statements in Ron Chernow’s Pultizer Prize winning biography of George Washington.”



Understanding George Washington with nuance:

From the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Washington: A Life,” by Ron Chernow (page 800):

“He (Washington) saw with some clairvoyance, that slavery threatened the American union to which he had so nobly consecrated his life. ‘I can clearly foresee,’ he predicted to an English visitor, ‘that nothing but the rotting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.’  Beyond moral objections to slavery, he had wearied of its immense practical difficulties. . .Because of natural increase since 1786, the Mount Vernon slave population had soared from 216 to 317, of whom Washington owned outright 124. . . .Writing to Robert Lewis on August 17, 1799, Washington reflected on the baffling conundrum posed by excess slaves: ‘To sell the overplus (of slaves) I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species.  To hire them out is almost as bad because. . .to disperse the families I have an aversion.  What then is to be done?  Something must or I shall be ruined (financially).’

He possessed ‘a thorough conviction that half the workers I keep on this estate would render me a greater net profit than I now derive from the whole.’ That he owned fewer than half the slaves himself perhaps set the stage for the most courageous action of his career.  If he emancipated his own slaves in his will, he would satisfy his conscience, set a sterling example for futurity, and still leave a viable plantation behind.  In 1799 a convenient convergence of economic and moral factors enabled Washington to settle the issue that had so long gnawed at his mind.”

A thinking person, must ask, “Could the slave Judge have been Martha Washington’s slave and could Martha Washington’s desires have affected George Washington’s reaction to the runaway female slave?”  Moreover, could the courageous actions of female slave, Ona Judge, in first running away from the Washington plantation and later in bargaining for her freedom with Washington after his and Martha Washingtons’ deaths have, ultimately, been the final moral factor which caused Washington to free all of his slaves after his death?


Mary Elizabeth Sings:

Today, nearly 3 centuries ago, the first president of the United States, George Washington, was born on February 22, 1732.

In honor of his formidable contributions in birthing our nation, I quote the following words from Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Washington: A Life,”  pages 802 & 803:


“By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery.  He brought the American experience that much closer to the ideals of the American Revolution and brought his own behavior in line with his troubled conscience. . . .

In another visionary section of the will, Washington left money to advance the founding of a university in the District of Columbia, possibly under government auspices, where students could observe government firsthand and shed their ‘local attachments and state prejudices.’ This phrase was more than a mere restatement of Washington’s nationalism: it spoke to the way his own life had transcended his parochial background. . . .Now he pledged his fifty shares of the Potomac River Company to the new university in the capital and his hundred shares of the James River Company to Liberty Hall Academy in western Virginia, which later became Washington and Lee University.  He also left twenty shares in the Bank of Alexandria for a school, associated with the Alexandria Academy, to educate orphaned and indigent children.”


Mary Elizabeth’s Response to another poster:

Today is the day to shine light on the considerable contributions that the Father of Our Nation contributed to the creation of this nation.  All that you write is true, and all that columnist Jay Bookman wrote earlier about George Washington was true. We know that slaves were not “servants, who had some moral duty of slaves’ service to master”; however, we must be conscious of that fact that we live today, not three centuries earlier.  As I had written earlier, what is in quotes above was probably George Washington’s perception in that he considered himself to be the servant leader of the people of our nation so that his focus was on self-sacrificing service.  One does not need to “blame”; one needs to see.  The fact stands that George Washington did free his slaves when no other Founding Father did so, no doubt, because as America’s first president and role model for this nation’s future, he wanted to set the example to all later generations that slavery was not consistent with the ideals of why America was founded and must be eliminated because slavery was not what this nation should accept.  One can see that he had the qualities of a great leader, as Jefferson had stated of Washington. If we are self-aware, we acknowledge that all of us have paradoxes within our own natures.

P.S.  According to Washington’s biographer, Ron Chernow, the fact was that George Washington legally could not free the slaves of his wife, Martha, nor could she.  Her slaves were the property of her estate and were distributed to her relatives upon her death by trustees of that estate.  One does not know the reason that George Washington did not free his slaves until his wife’s death, but one reason might have been so as to not disrupt the status of her life until his wife’s life was over. He loved her, according to Chernow.

Martha Washington, as I think you know, went through legal procedures to have Washington’s slaves freed before her death because she feared that some might have killed her before her time had she not freed them early.  Washington, as I recall, made his Will iron-clad legally so that NO ONE would be able to interfere with his wishes regarding the freedom of all of his slaves upon his and Martha’s deaths.  As I said earlier, he knew his actions would be a role model for our nation’s future.


Another poster posted the following quote of George Washington, on Jay Bookman’s blog, on December 10, 2015.  My response follows:

“In 1783, the year of the nation’s official independence from Great Britain, George Washington wrote to recent Irish Catholic immigrants in New York City. The American Catholic minority of roughly twenty-five thousand then had few legal protections in any state and, because of their faith, no right to hold political office in New York. Washington insisted that “the bosom of America” was “open to receive . . . the oppressed and the persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”


Beautiful quote, above, by George Washington.
It was that kind of passion that gave him the strength to carry on with battle after battle in the Revolutionary War, with few victories, and to sustain being this nation’s first president, setting many elements of protocol and precedence, for future generations, including the freeing of his own slaves, in his ironclad Will, as model for future generations of America

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