The “fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth,” declared the great Irish statesman and author Edmund Burke to the British Parliament in 1775, urging conciliation and not war with the colonists. And the people of the American South, he continued, were attached to liberty “with a higher and more stubborn spirit” than those of the North. Southern slave-owners knew what bondage meant and thus valued their own freedom, including the freedom to oppress others, that much more strongly. “Such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves,” Burke reflected. “In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.”
George Washington was of that South, where ideals of liberty reinforced and were reinforced by a culture of buying, owning, and selling human beings. Furious that Great Britain was taxing the colonies without their consent, he urged resistance. “No power upon Earth can compel us to do otherwise,” he wrote, “till they have first reduced us to the most abject state of Slavery that was ever designed for Mankind.”
Did Washington notice the tragic irony? He told a manager of his Mount Vernon plantation in 1779 that it was “of very little consequence” to him if his property was in slaves or bank certificates, but it was slave labor, along with land speculation, that made him one of the richest men in Virginia. Still, he professed pity for “these poor wretches” and detested the idea of offering his slaves in a public sale. In 1794, he wrote of his earnest desire “to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings.” And by 1797, he wished “that the Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery.”
Aware of the radical injustice of slavery and conspicuously protective of his own legacy, in his last will and testament the father of the country provided for the freedom of his slaves after the death of his wife Martha. He instructed that the oldest among them be well clothed and fed and that the youngest be taught reading, writing, and a useful trade. Only his valet William Lee was to be granted liberty immediately upon Washington’s death, with the promise of an annuity and the right to remain at Mount Vernon “as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.