Is viewed in some quarters as about as...

GEORGE WASHINGTON

February 21, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

GEORGE WASHINGTON is viewed in some quarters as about as politically incorrect as you can get. He was a slave owner to the end of his life.

That, of course, was an intellectual and moral problem for all the Founding Fathers from the Southern states. How could you proclaim the transcendent importance of freedom and liberty for white Americans but not for black ones?

In the first rush of adrenalin when revolutionary thoughts were thought and revolutionary words uttered and written, many Virginians condemned slavery. In principle. As time passed and the problems and costs of abolition were reckoned, most of them lost their burning desire to implement what Thomas Jefferson called the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.

Certainly Jefferson did.

Washington wrestled with the problem as a Virginian and plantation owner before, during and after his presidency.

In the first year of his second presidential term, he explored the idea of renting Mount Vernon's agricultural acres to English tenant farmers. The "most powerful" motive for this, he wrote a potential agent, was that he found owning slaves "repugnant"; he expected the renters to hire the slaves "as they would do any other laborers." He thought Englishmen would be more amenable to that than Americans.

Pretty revolutionary stuff in Virginia in 1793. In fact, Washington kept that part of his correspondence on the subject secret.

Before he became president, he had actively encouraged slaves to learn trades that could be used in the free states. He left slaves he brought to Philadelphia (then the national capital) there when he retired to Mount Vernon.

Back in Virginia, he took other revolutionary steps. For instance, he encouraged marriage among slaves at a time when other plantation owners thought that was a threat to their property rights.

Mount Vernon was not economically successful because Washington's treatment of slaves was based on his refusal to consider them as mere property and his desire to prepare them for freedom. He expressed to friends his desire that Virginia emancipate slaves, not only because he believed in freedom, but also also because of the financial burden.

And also because, a half-century before Abraham Lincoln said it so memorably, he foresaw that the nation could not survive half-slave and half-free. (He told a visitor that North and South might divide over the issue, and if that happened in his lifetime, he would move to the North.)

In 1799, not having resolved how to handle ownership of slaves in his lifetime, Washington tried to solve it afterward.

He made out a will requiring their freedom upon the death of his widow, obligating his heirs to feed and clothe the elderly ones, forbidding the sale of any, and directing that the young slaves be taught to read and write, which was against the law in Virginia.

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