Slavery in america Essay

This essay has a total of 3380 words and 11 pages.

Slavery in america

slavery in america

George Washington Could Not Afford To End Slavery; and The Underground Railroad In his
writings, George Washington felt very strongly that slavery was an institution that needed
to be eliminated from American society. However, there were several circumstances that
arose following the American Revolution that would prevent Washington from actively
pursuing the elimination of slavery during his lifetime. It is certainly plausible that
George Washington’s personal economic short-comings, forefront in the setting of
conflicting political agendas and the nation’s revolutionary climate, prevented this
founding father from actively pursuing the nationwide emancipation of slaves. Prior and
during the American Revolution, little was written by Washington on his feelings about
slavery. In the last year of the war and thereafter, more attention was spent by
Washington on the issue of slavery. On February 5, 1783, Washington received a letter from
Marquis de Lafayette, whom Washington considered both a friend and a son, that stated,
"Let us unite in purchasing a small estate, where we may try the experiment to free the
negroes, and use them only as tenants. Such an example as yours might render it a general
practice..." (Sparks v.3, p.547). It is doubtful that Lafayette would have proposed this
idea unless he knew that Washington had strong views on seeing the elimination of slavery.
Washington wrote back to Lafayette on April 5, "The scheme... to encourage the
emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in which. they
are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to
join you is so laudable a work..." (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300). Unfortunately, Washington
was still in charge of the American troops, and would be so until December, so he thought
it would be best to "...defer going into a detail of the business, ‘till I have the
pleasure of seeing you" (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300). However, when Washington finally did
return home in December, he found himself in such great debt that even noble experiments
like the one that Lafayette had proposed, had to took a back seat to getting Washington’s
financial situation in order. Lafayette went on with his plan alone, buying land in the
French colony of Cayenne (Sparks v.4, p.110). Washington was still very supportive of this
plan despite his inability to participate, and on May 10, 1786, he wrote to Lafayette,
"[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating
the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity" (Fitzpatrick v.28,
p.424). Washington hoped that the American people would have similar ideas and feelings on
slavery, but he realized that this hope was very unlikely to be realized. He writes to
Lafayette in the same letter, "Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally
into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it" (Fitzpatrick
v.28, p.424). While Washington believed that the slaves needed to be freed, he also
thought that the process should be a slow and gradual one. He felt that to release the
slaves all at once would, "[B]e productive of much inconvenience and mischief..."
(Fitzpatrick v.28, p.242).

There would be a mass of former slaves in America who did not have the skills needed to
survive. Many of them may have had to resort to stealing in order to feed themselves. It
would also be very inconvenient for the slave holders who depended so greatly upon their
slave work force. To eliminate such a work force would devastate many Americans, mostly
Southerners, who relied heavily on slave-labor. In numerous letters, Washington stresses
his desire to see Legislative authority enact a plan that would slowly and gradually free
the slaves. In a letter to Robert Morris on April 12, 1786, Washington writes, "I can only
say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan
adopted for the abolition of [slavery] Legislative authority..." (Fitzpatrick v.28,
p.408). He also writes on September 9, 1786, to John Mercer that, "I never
possess another slave by purchase; it being my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by
which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees"
(Fitzpatrick v.29, p.5). Much later in his life, Washington is still echoing this same
message when he writes on August 4, 1797, to Lawrence Lewis that, "I wish from my soul
that the Legislature of this State [Virginia] could see the policy of a gradual Abolition
of Slavery..." (Fitzpatrick v.36, p.2). Despite Washington’s high hopes and grand talk, he
himself did not free one slave during his lifetime. Before it is thought that Washington
was simply all talk, however, it is important to consider the circumstances, in particular
his financial situation, that he had to deal with upon returning home from the war in late
1783. As Freeman writes, "The eight years of service in the Army had been eight years of
neglect at home" (v.6, p.4). Debtors paid Washington back during his absence with greatly
depreciated currency. The 1781 British raid saw eighteen slaves run away, and another nine
had to be sold. The nine slaves that were sold during Washington’s time in the army, were
sold only because the estate had not even enough money to pay for taxes. According to
Carroll and Ashworth, Washington opposed the selling of Negroes like cattle in the market
(Carroll v.7, p.585). The man left in charge of Washington’s estate, Lund Washington, had
an aversion to travel and bookkeeping, which meant that rent from Washington’s western
lands were never collected (Freeman v.6, p.4-5). In Washington’s own words, "I made no
money from my Estate during the nine years I was absent from it, and brought none home
with me" (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.345). Add this to the fact that Washington refused a salary
as General of the army, and it quickly becomes evident that the Washington estate was not
in very good financial shape. As much as Washington may have wanted to, if he would have
given his slaves their freedom, it would have proved financially disastrous. Without this
needed labor force, it is quite possible that Washington may have never gotten out of
debt. He refused all attempts by Congress to give him a yearly allowance (Freeman v.6,
p.6). He had spent eight years volunteering his time and energy to the Continental Army,
it was unlikely that he would suddenly accept payment from his country. He was proud to
have served his country while collecting no salary, to do so now would be an attack on his
pride. The fact that Washington was in dire financial straits can be easily seen in many
of his letters. In a letter to the Earl of Tankerville, on January 20, 1784, Washington
writes, "An almost entire suspension of every thing which related to my own Estate, for
near nine years, has accumulated in abundance of work for me (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.309). On
July 8, 1784, he writes to John Mercer, "I do assure you Sir, that I am distressed for
want of money..." (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.436). A year and a half later, Washington is still
struggling for money, writing on December 20, 1785 to Mercer, "...[I]t cannot be more
disagreeable to you to hear, than it is to me to repeat that my wants are pressing, some
debts which I am really ashamed to owe, are unpaid..." (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.363). Lund
Washington, the man who was in charge of the estate during Washington’s absence, had not
been paid since April, 1778. It wasn’t until 1794 that Lund had been fully paid and the
account closed (Freeman v.6, p.7). In his Last Will and Testament, Washington finally
freed his slaves, upon the death of Martha. In his Will, Washington writes, "Upon the
decease [of] my wife, it is my Will and desire th[at] all the Slaves which I hold in [my]
own right, shall receive their free[dom]" (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Washington refrained
from releasing his slaves immediately, because he realized that many of his slaves had
married dower slaves, who could not be freed until the death of Martha (Carroll v.7,
p.585). To have freed his slaves immediately would have produced, "...such insu[perab]le
difficulties...[and] excite the most pa[i]nful sensations, if not disagreeabl[e
c]onsequences..." (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276) from those dower slaves married to the freed
slaves. Washington did not want to separate husband from wife, mother from child.
Washington also feared that some freed slaves who had family that were dower slaves would
help them to escape. By waiting until both he and Martha were past away, both Washington’s
slaves and the dower slaves could be released at the same time. Washington also provided
in his Will for the care of those freed slaves who, "from old age or bodily infi[rm]ities,
and others who on account of [thei]r infancy...will be unable to [su]pport themselves...",
should be given comfortable clothes and fed by his heirs while they are alive (Fitzpatrick
Continues for 6 more pages >>