Sunday, January 1, 2023

Freedom for Washington's Slaves

On New Year's Day 1801, Martha Washington granted freedom to a portion of Mount Vernon's enslaved population. An excerpt from Women of the American Revolution

"George had left Martha with a difficulty in his will. Over time, he had begun to struggle with the institution of slavery in a way that Martha never did, and he had granted his slaves their freedom upon Martha’s death. He might have meant for this to free Martha from the responsibility of coping with their emancipation, but it created a difficult situation where some of the Mount Vernon enslaved people knew their freedom was based on the elderly lady’s death. In addition to that awkward challenge, the enslaved populations of the Washington and Custis estates had become intermingled during George and Martha’s long marriage. Those that were a part of the Custis inheritance would legally transfer to Martha’s grandchildren upon her death, while those that had been George’s would be free. That not only seemed arbitrary and unfair but also left black families with some members anticipating freedom and others not.

Martha attempted to ease this tense situation by freeing George’s slaves on 1 January 1801. She was afraid that some of the enslaved people plotted her death in order to gain their freedom, so she gave it to them. Some eagerly took up their newfound liberty and left Mount Vernon, others stayed because of family who remained property or for the stability Mount Vernon offered. Her thoughts about this event are not recorded, but Martha had previously expressed shock and dismay when enslaved servants ran away. She did not understand why they would choose an uncertain freedom over the life offered at Mount Vernon. For a woman who had been part of a lengthy revolution based on liberty, it is an ironic blind spot."

Learn more about Martha Washington and other 18th century ladies in Women of the American Revolution. Available at AmazonPen & SwordBook DepositoryBarnes & Noble, and other major book retailers. Also available now at Audible and!

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