How Did George Washington Feel about Slavery?

Like many of the Founding Fathers, George Washington's views on slavery were complicated, not to mention morally problematic. Washington owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life, mainly on his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia. And during his presidency, Washington even used a legal loophole to hold onto some of those slaves for longer than the law allowed.

George Washington made an effort to ensure that the slaves in his Philadelphia household didn't gain their freedom.
George Washington made an effort to ensure that the slaves in his Philadelphia household didn't gain their freedom.

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed legislation that freed any slave who had lived in the state for more than six months. George Washington lived in Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, from 1790 to 1797, and had eight enslaved people working in his household.

Rather than abide by the spirit of the Gradual Abolition Act, Washington made sure that the slaves in his Philadelphia household were taken outside state limits before they reached six months' residency. When they returned, their time in the state would start over at zero.

It's clear from a note to his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, that Washington knew what he was doing was ethically questionable. "I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington," he wrote. Washington continued to hold slaves throughout his life, although his will stipulated that all enslaved workers would be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha.

What you might not know about George Washington:

  • Washington only had an elementary school education. Instead of attending school, he worked on a tobacco farm and became a land surveyor by the age of 16.

  • George Washington's false teeth were made not of wood but of gold, ivory, parts of the teeth from slaves, and animal bone.

  • Besides being featured on the first U.S. postage stamp, Washington has been on more postage stamp issues than all other presidents combined.

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