WASHINGTON, George. Autograph document signed ("G:o Washington"), constituting a detailed list of 40 slaves, headed "A list of Negroes the property of Mrs. French, in possession of George Washington, by virtue of a Contract which is to terminate with the life of the former." Originally enclosed in a letter (not present) to Benjamin Dulany, Mount Vernon, 15 July 1799.
4 pages, small folio ( 9 5/8 x 8 7/8 in.). Ruled in three vertical columns labeled: "Names," "Age," and "Remarks"; further divided horizontally into four segments for ["Men"], "Women," "Boys & Girls who work on the crops," and "Children." Partial fold separations, some mended with white paper, a few glue smudges and light browning.
FIVE MONTHS BEFORE HIS DEATH, WASHINGTON SEEKS TO DIVEST HIMSELF OF 40 SLAVES LEASED FROM A NEIGHBOR
A fascinating record of Washington's difficult endeavor, late in life, to cope with the complications relating to the status of a portion of the slaves at Mount Vernon. In 1786, he had leased two tracts of land on Dogue Run from a neighbor, Mrs Penelope Manley French. The 500 acres known as French's Farm included the labor of Mrs. French's slaves, which he here proposes to return to her control. On 15 July he wrote to Benjamin Dulany, son-in-law and executor of Mrs. French, explaining his motives: "As I grow no tobacco, and probably never shall, I have it in contemplation to make some material changes in the oeconomy of my farms. To accomplish this object, a reduction of the present force on them is necessary..." Might it be "agreeable to Mrs. French -- or to you -- to whom they will ultimately revert, I am induced by a sense of propriety & respect; and from a persuation [sic] that every humane owner of that species of property would rather have it in his own keeping, then suffer it to be in the possession of others, to offer you all the Negroes I hold, belonging to that Estate." Washington goes on to propose a plan to insure a fair valuation of those slaves: stipulating that "the whole of them, old, middle aged and the young --be valued by "three disinterested and judicious men" whose judgment shall be conclusive." As a gesture, "that you may be enabled to form an opinion of their usefulness, from the kind of Negroes I am making you an offer of, I enclose a list of them, with remarks, which and their ages, I believe to be accurate..." In conclusion, he politely asks "an answer, as soon as you can conveniently decide upon the measure, would be very agreeable" Writings, ed. D. Towhig, Retirement series, vol.4, pp. 189-190).
At some point Washington's cover letter to Dulany and the list of the slaves Washington hoped to sell became separated. The list's whereabouts--until now--have long been unknown. The only other copy of the letter to Dulany, a surviving press copy at the New York Public Library, is spotty and illegible in places (Writings, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Retirement Series, vol.189-190). The present version -- the recipient's copy--is clear and completely readable.
In preparing the list Washington devoted considerable time to observe and document the slaves in question. At the bottom of page 3, Washington tallies the slaves. They are organized into four columns, enumerating nine men, nine women, six "Boys & girls who Work in the Crops," and sixteen "Children," for a grand total of 40. In three ruled columns he records their "Names," "Ages etc.," and, at the right, space for general "Remarks." The particular skills and physical condition of the adult slaves are carefully recorded. The oldest male slave is "Will," recorded as "Old but hearty"; he "looks after the Stock-- Repairs the Fences and keeps them in order." Will and two succeeding slaves are labeled "In his prime." Another slave, 28-year-old "Tom," age 28, is described as "A good Mower and an excellent Ploughman, but unfortunately, from some tumour in his head it is feared that blindness, partial if not entire may ensue.--He has been constantly attended by Dr. Craik..." (Washington's personal physician). The eldest woman on the list is "Sabine," age "about 60," who is "a good working woman notwithstanding her age." "Lucy," aged "about 55," is "Lame, or pretends to be, occasioned by the rheumatic pains; but is a good knitter, & so employed." The youngest woman listed is "Hannah," "about 14," who, the list records, in "Nearly at her full growth and a woman in appear[anc]e." On page 3, Washington adds a summary note: "The Negroes contained in this list, with the remarks on them, are given with accuracy, and their ages are from their own accounts of them. They are a parcel of very likely & healthy people; and since the going off; of a fellow called Paul (four or five years ago) are as orderly, and as well disposed a set, as any equal number in the Country."
In June 1799 Washington had compiled a complete, detailed census of slaves of Mount Vernon. That list incorporates a less detailed version of the present inventory of French Farm slaves (op. cit, p.540). In the end, though, the time to accomplish this complicated plan of divestiture simply ran out. His optimistic approach to Dulany and Mrs Finch came to naught.
Washington and Slavery
Washington's evolving attitudes toward chattel slavery in general, and at Mount Vernon in particular has long been the subject of debate. In a private letter to his personal secretary Tobias Lear, Washington candidly confessed his earnest wish "to liberate a species of property which I possess very repugnantly to my own feelings." (6 May 1794, Works, Presidential Series, ed. T. Crackel et al. 33:358). Washington had grown up in the tradition of slave-owning; he inherited 11 slaves on the death of his father in 1743 and Martha Dandridge Custis's dowry included slaves. But, probably beginning with his encounters with free blacks in the course of the American revolution, he became uncomfortably aware of the irreconcilable conflict between the public principles of the American experiment in liberty, the equality proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Constitution, and the stark realities of human slavery. At various points during his public career he considered the prospects for gradual, legislative abolition of slavery -- which appeared doubtful -- and also pondered paths he himself might take, as a slave-owner, to resolve the contradiction of his own position.
By July 1799, when he compiled the full census of slaves at Mount Vernon, his and Martha's joint property was found to include 316 persons, at least a third of whom were evidently to young or too old to work. "Washington himself owned only 123 of Mount Vernon's 316 slaves; for others were rented [the present group]; the rest were the property of the Custis estate." Ironically, Washington "could free his own people but he could not touch the dower slaves" (H. Wiencek, An Imperfect God," p. 354). Washington fervently "hoped that slavery might end, though he had no plan for ending it -- which meant, in practice, that he acquiesced in the status quo" (R. Brookhiser, Founding Father, p.179). In his will, Washington stipulated that his slaves should be freed at Martha's death. No slave was to be sold "under any pretext whatsoever," older slaves and orphans were to be clothed and fed at the expense of his heirs, and younger slaves were to be taught to read and write and trained in a marketable trade.
Washington may have hoped that after his death Martha might adopt similarly liberal policies in regard to her slaves, but in the end she did not. In the eyes of one scholar, Washington's will, stipulating the emancipation of all his slaves on Martha's death constituted "a rebuke to his family, to his class, and to the country..." (Henry Weincek, quoted by N. Hurrelbrinck, (http://www.virginia.edu/gwpapers/slavery/inside.html). "Whether the freeing of his...Mount Vernon blacks by the provisions in his will was a sop to his conscience, a realization of the inevitable, or a final and genuine act of generosity will probably never be known. His last legacy does serve to confirm...that George Washington stood squarely on the side of emanciption" (F. Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal, p.6).
Provenance: Elizabeth [French] Dulany (1757-1824), married to Col. Benjanin Tasker Dulany (c.1752-1818) -- Sarah Ann [Tingey] Dulany (1790-1816) -- Margaret Gay [Tingey] Wingate (1782-1862), elder sister of Sarah Ann [Tingey] Dulany (whom she predeceased) -- Hon.George Popham Sewall (1811-1881), married Sidney Ellen Wingate, daughter of Margaret Gay [Tingey] Wingate -- The present owner, by descent. Further genealogical details on request.