Mr. President, fellow members of the Senate, distinguished guests.
I want to acknowledge my debt to the Archives and to Dr. Ed Papenfuse and Mimi Calver for their able assistance with these remarks.
I also want to note that I may be the only member of the Senate who has an historian on his staff. David Brewster is terrific, and I want to thank him for his help as well.
Each year the Senate of Maryland gathers in this room to commemorate the greatest man of America's greatest generation.
It is altogether appropriate that we Marylanders do this. George Washington had a special relationship with our State. His active military career began in Cumberland from whence he set out as a young officer in the mid-1750s to confront the French in the Ohio Valley. The only college in America named after Washington with his permission is in Chestertown. Washington visited Annapolis often. He went to the races out on West Street and, according to tradition, got his hair cut at a barber shop on Cornhill Street. He lobbied the Legislature on behalf of one of his business ventures. And in this very room he resigned his commission as commander of the Revolutionary army.
Like all of us, Washington was a product of his time and place. He grew up in the planter society of the 18th century Chesapeake. And from the time he was 11 until his death, he owned slaves. This month, we celebrate not only George Washington's birthday but also the rich history of African Americans. Given that coincidence, I would like to talk a little this evening about George Washington and slavery.
Washington inherited a score of slaves from various relatives. He purchased at least 50 more prior to the American Revolution. At the time of Washington's death, 316 enslaved people lived at Mt. Vernon. A hundred and fifty-three of these belonged to the estate of Martha's first husband and passed to that family upon her death.
Although Washington owned vast acreage on both sides of the Appalachians, he depended on most of that land for rental or investment income. His home was Mt. Vernon, an estate that encompassed 8,000 acres divided into 5 farms, each under its own manager. There Washington's slaves labored.
They were a varied group. Many were born in the new world. Others came from Senegambia, the Bight of Biafra and most likely from Angola. A few came from the Gold Coast. They included artisans and craftsmen, as well as skilled stock breeders and experts on mixed crop farming. Most of the field hands were women.
Washington ran several businesses at Mt. Vernon in addition to his farming enterprise. They included a highly successfully fishery based on the Potomac River, a grist mill, a smithy and a distillery. All used slave labor.
Field hands were organized into gangs, each under an overseer who might be either black or white. Depending on the season, they labored from sunup to sundown.
Washington began his farming career growing tobacco. Disappointed by his returns from that crop he switched to commercial grain production in the 1760s. He seems not to have questioned the institution of slavery during these years, and he enforced discipline by traditional means. In the twilight of America's colonial period, the crack of the whip rolled across Mt. Vernon's fields. Slaves deemed troublemakers ran the risk of being sold, their ties to home and family forever broken.
For reasons that are uncertain, Washington's attitude toward slavery changed during the Revolution. Surely he could not have missed the irony of our war for independence--fighting for freedom at the same time that he and his compatriots drew their substance from the sweat of their chattels. Nor could he have missed the fact that black soldiers had joined the fight for American independence. In the army itself, some of the officers he most respected, including Lafayette, opposed slavery.
Whatever the reasons, Washington grew reluctant to sell his bondsmen at public auction or to break up families. By the 1780s, he had decided firmly not to buy or sell slaves.
"I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species," he wrote. [T]o disperse families I have an aversion."
To John Francis Mercer, a future Maryland governor, he wrote: "I never mean . . . to possess another slave by purchase. . . ."
What's more, he ordered an end to whipping, advising his managers that discipline could be better achieved "by watchfulness and admonition than by severity."
Surprisingly, Washington renounced the traditional ways of enforcing discipline at the same time he was demanding more from his slaves than ever before.
He returned from the Revolution determined transform his estate into an agricultural model for the nation. He cleared new fields and restored old ones. He added a dizzying array of new crops and improved livestock to his agricultural mix. He explored new fertilizers including creek mud, fish heads and guts. He tried different tillage techniques, experimented with harrows, plows, seed drills and other agricultural implements. He developed a superior mule, sired by a jackass from the Spanish royal stable.
In his mind's eye, he saw Mt. Vernon as a showplace of American enterprise, an undertaking whose success would echo the success of the American Revolution.
It was a vision his slaves didn't necessarily share. And why should they? It was his vision, after all, and his estate, not theirs. From the mid-1780s onward, Washington required his workers to undertake projects that involved much hard work and much learning by trial and error. They objected to demands that ran contrary to the custom at Mt. Vernon and differed from practices on neighboring plantations. They were reluctant to undertake chancy experiments that added nothing to their well-being.
It seems clear that Washington and his slaves drove each other crazy.
Washington tried doggedly to rationalize his agricultural operation. He demanded industry, self-discipline, order and perfection. Not to mention frugality. One observer said that Washington probably knew to a fraction how much it cost to maintain his slaves.
The slaves had different priorities. They neglected unwelcome orders, and in whatever way they could sought to structure a life that met their needs, not his.
Washington never grasped the fact that his vision was not theirs. He could never reconcile his ambitions for Mt. Vernon with the interests of his workers that were fundamentally opposed.
"Every place where I have been there are many workmen, and little work," he wrote in exasperation.
Washington's criticism was made without regard to race. He blamed white farm managers and overseers for their incompetency and lack of managerial skills. And he blamed everyone for laziness.
He was convinced the slaves were stealing from him. He was probably right. One historian says Washington came to believe that everything not nailed down at Mt. Vernon was in danger of walking off.
And it was hard to nail things down when the very nails were vanishing. Wrote Washington: "I cannot conceive how it is possible that 6000 twelve penny nails could be used in the Corn house at River Plantation. But of one thing I have no great doubt and that is, if they can be applied to other uses, or converted into cash, rum, or other things, there will be no scruple in doing it."
One former slave reported years later that the slaves "did not quite like [Washington] in some respects because he was so exact and strict." A contemporary reported that "it was the sense of all his neighbours that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man."
In short, Washington was difficult to work for. But though baffled, frustrated and finally disappointed in his dream of transforming Mt. Vernon, he did not resort to the whip. He did not break up families. He did not sell his workers. These may seem small virtues to us today. But in the context of the 18th century they were hugely significant.
Because of his refusal to sell human beings, Washington at the end of his life had almost double the number of slaves needed to work his land. Supporting these unneeded workers was an economic drain. But he could not bring himself to adjust his labor supply.
In his will, he freed those slaves that he could, perhaps because he did not know what else to do with them. He stipulated that the youngsters without parents be taught to read and write and educated to a skill. He directed his heirs to care for those who were aged or infirm.
Tragically, the slaves that Martha brought to the marriage were beyond Washington's or Martha's power to liberate. As part of the estate of Martha's first husband, they were destined upon her death to be distributed to her first husband's heirs.
Over the years, there had been much intermarriage between George's slaves and Martha's so-called dower slaves. Washington's concern about the heartbreak that would result from freeing one group while the other remained enslaved was evident in his will. To lessen it, he instructed that the emancipation of his slaves should not take place until Martha's death, when a distribution of assets would be required anyway. In that way, he hoped that those enslaved would suffer but a single disruption.
Five months after he added these provisions to his will Washington died following a brief but painful illness. Of the seven people attending him at his death, four were slaves.
Years ago, Martin Luther King taught us that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. In George Washington, we see that force at work. Imperfectly and at times almost against his will, Washington in his relations with his slaves found himself compelled to bend towards justice, like a dowsing rod bends to water. Despite the common practice of the day, he abandoned flogging. Despite compelling economic arguments, he did not sell workers who were no longer needed. Ultimately, he freed every slave he could.
Perhaps it was the logic of America's Revolution that compelled him. We do not know. What we do know is that of the nine American presidents who owned slaves, Washington was the only one to liberate them.
No person can shed entirely the influences of time and place. But Washington came closer than most. In his life, he traveled part way down the road to justice.
May we as a nation continue ever down that path.
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