Cover image for George Washington and slavery : a documentary portrayal
George Washington and slavery : a documentary portrayal
Hirschfeld, Fritz, 1924-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Columbia : University of Missouri Press, [1997]

Physical Description:
xiv, 256 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
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Item Holds
E312.17 .H648 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees."--George Washington, September 9, 1786

No history of racism in America can be considered complete without taking into account the role that George Washington--the principal founding father--played in helping to mold the racist cast of the new nation. Because General Washington--the universally acknowledged hero of the Revolutionary War--in the postwar period uniquely combined the moral authority, personal prestige, and political power to influence significantly the course and the outcome of the slavery debate, his opinions on the subject of slaves and slavery are of crucial importance to understanding how racism succeeded in becoming an integral and official part of the national fabric during its formative stages.

The successful end of the War for Independence in 1783 brought George Washington face-to-face with a fundamental dilemma: how to reconcile the proclaimed ideals of the revolution with the established institution of slavery. So long as black human beings in America could legally be considered the chattel property of whites, the rhetoric of equality and individual freedom was hollow. Progressive voices urged immediate emancipation as the only way to resolve the contradiction; the Southern slave owners, of course, stood firm for the status quo. Washington was caught squarely in the middle.

As a Virginia plantation proprietor and a lifelong slaveholder, Washington had a substantial private stake in the economic slave system of the South. However, in his role as the acknowledged political leader of the country, his overriding concern was the preservation of the Union. If Washington publicly supported emancipation, he would almost certainly have to set an example and take steps to dispose of his Mount Vernon slaves. If he spoke out on the side of slavery, how could he legitimately and conscientiously expect to uphold and defend the humanistic goals and moral imperatives of the new nation as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? His was a balancing act that became more and more difficult to sustain with the passing years.

Relying primarily on Washington's own words--his correspondence, diaries, and other written records--supplemented by letters, comments, and eyewitness reports of family members, friends, employees, aides, correspondents, colleagues, and visitors to Mount Vernon, together with contemporary newspaper clippings and official documents pertaining to Washington's relationships with African Americans, Fritz Hirschfeld traces Washington's transition from a conventional slaveholder to a lukewarm abolitionist. George Washington and Slavery will be an essential addition to the historiography of eighteenth-century America and of Washington himself.

Author Notes

Fritz Hirschfeld is Editor of the John Hancock papers.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Washington led the fight for American independence‘for whites only. The fact that the revolution did not free the slaves who worked his plantations at Mount Vernon was not lost on his abolitionist contemporaries. Evidence suggests that Washington went from being a firm believer in the slave system before the revolution to becoming a mild abolitionist after the Treaty of Paris. His final act was to free his slaves after his death. Hirschfeld, editor of the John Hancock papers, explores Washington's life as a slaveholder and his views on slavery in detail, concluding that Washington refused to deal with the slavery question publicly because he thought the new nation could not withstand such a divisive issue. If Washington, Hirschfeld maintains, had actively supported abolition in his lifetime, there may not have been a Civil War. Despite such a conclusion, which stretches conjecture to the breaking point, Hirschfeld has written a thoroughly researched book on a topic not often dealt with in detail. For all libraries.‘Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Hirschfeld's study of George Washington's actions respecting slavery argues for his evolution from a "conventional slaveholder to a lukewarm abolitionist." Hirschfeld quotes extensively from documents by and about Washington; thus, slavery at Mount Vernon is observed both in letters between Washington and overseers and through travelers' accounts. Other chapters apply this approach to Washington as commander of the Continental Army, in dealing with blacks, such as Phillis Wheatley, as president, and in retirement. Hirschfeld applauds Washington's willingness to use black soldiers, his reluctance to sell slaves, and his emancipatory will, while regretting Washington's refusals to publicly endorse Quaker-sponsored legislation for gradual emancipation. Some interpretations are questionable; opposition to the African slave trade in 1780s Virginia may speak less to antislavery sentiment than of desire to limit competition among would-be slave sellers. Likewise, claims that Washington was ready to entertain the gradual ending of slavery are not well supported. Still, by including so much primary material, Hirschfeld gives a full picture of Washington on slavery and allows readers to draw their own conclusions, a real virtue. General readers; undergraduates. T. S. Whitman Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary