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George Washington Could Not Afford To End Slavery

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In his writings, George Washington felt very strongly that slavery was an

institution that needed to be eliminated from American society. However, there were

several circumstances that arose following the American Revolution that would prevent

Washington from actively pursuing the elimination of slavery during his lifetime. It is

certainly plausible that George Washington's personal economic short-comings,

forefront in the setting of conflicting political agendas and the nation's revolutionary

climate, prevented this founding father from actively pursuing the nationwide

emancipation of slaves.

Prior and during the American Revolution, little was written by Washington on

his feelings about slavery. In the last year of the war and thereafter, more attention was

spent by Washington on the issue of slavery. On February 5, 1783, Washington received

a letter from Marquis de Lafayette, whom Washington considered both a friend and a

son, that stated, "Let us unite in purchasing a small estate, where we may try the

experiment to free the negroes, and use them only as tenants. Such an example as yours

might render it a general practice..." (Sparks v.3, p.547). It is doubtful that Lafayette

would have proposed this idea unless he knew that Washington had strong views on

seeing the elimination of slavery. Washington wrote back to Lafayette on April 5, "The

scheme... to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that

state of Bondage in which. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of

your Heart. I shall be happy to join you is so laudable a work..." (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300).

Unfortunately, Washington was still in charge of the American troops, and would

be so until December, so he thought it would be best to "...defer going into a detail of the

business, 'till I have the pleasure of seeing you" (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300). However, when

Washington finally did return home in December, he found himself in such great debt

that even noble experiments like the one that Lafayette had proposed, had to took a back

seat to getting Washington's financial situation in order.

Lafayette went on with his plan alone, buying land in the French colony of Cayenne

(Sparks v.4, p.110). Washington was still very supportive of this plan despite his

inability to participate, and on May 10, 1786, he wrote to Lafayette, "[Y]our late

purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves

on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity" (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.424).

Washington hoped that the American people would have similar ideas and feelings on

slavery, but he realized that this hope was very unlikely to be realized. He writes to

Lafayette in the same letter, "Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally

into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it" (Fitzpatrick v.28,


While Washington believed that the slaves needed to be freed, he also thought

that the process should be a slow and gradual one. He felt that to release the slaves all at

once would, "[B]e productive of much inconvenience and mischief..." (Fitzpatrick v.28,

p.242). There would be a mass of former slaves in America who did not have the skills

needed to survive. Many of them may have had to resort to stealing in order to feed

themselves. It would also be very inconvenient for the slave holders who depended so

greatly upon their slave work force. To eliminate such a work force would devastate

many Americans, mostly Southerners, who relied heavily on slave-labor.

In numerous letters, Washington stresses his desire to see Legislative authority

enact a plan that would slowly and gradually free the slaves. In a letter to Robert Morris

on April 12, 1786, Washington writes, "I can only say that there is not a man living who

wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]

Legislative authority..." (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.408). He also writes on September 9, 1786,

to John Mercer that, "I never possess another slave by purchase; it being my

first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished

by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees" (Fitzpatrick v.29, p.5). Much later in his life,

Washington is still echoing this same message when he writes on August 4, 1797, to

Lawrence Lewis that, "I wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State [Virginia]

could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery..." (Fitzpatrick v.36, p.2).

Despite Washington's high hopes and grand talk, he himself did not free one slave




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