Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Washington and Slavery

One of the ironies surrounding the American colonies' fight for freedom from political slavery was the agrarian-southern states' dependence on chattel slavery for economic independence and survival. Washington's estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia was no exception to this trend. Yet, toward the middle and end of his life, Washington began to express moral and fundamental objections to slavery. Here are a few quotes that I pulled from Felxner who has an entire chapter devoted to Washington's treatment and management of his slaves.

"I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle." (pp. 386)

"The unfortunate condidtion of the persons whose labors I in part employed has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the adults among them as easy and comfortable as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit, and to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born, affords some satisfaction to my mind, and could not, I hoped, be displeasing to the justice of the creator." (pp.388)

While these quotes do contain elements of ignorance on the part of Washington and some ethnocentric leanings, they are almost unheard of for this time period in the South. Washington refused to sell slaves without their consent and as a result had many more slaves than Mount Vernon needed. This policy proved a financial burden yet one that we see Washington willing to bear for moral reasons. Washington lacked any real plan for emancipation and never brought it up as a serious issue for political consideration but he did try and solve the issue in his own estate. He would free his slaves in his will.

In December 1800, a year after his death, 150 slaves (half of the total ) would go free and Martha would free the remaining 150 before the end of that year. George and Martha did not enjoy the thought of these slaves set adrift in society with no resources. Different plans to educate the future free men and women in a trade ultimately was not a success. Abigail Adams reflects on Martha's treatment of the newly freed slaves by mentioning that "at her own expense she has cloaked them all, and very many of them are already miserable at the thought of their lot. The aged she retains at their request; but she is distressed at for the fate of others." (pp.393)

While it is doubtful that Washington knew and loved Christ, we see here an admirable trait in the first president. He seems to have grasped some element mankind's equality under our  Creator. Equality of all men regardless skin color, race and ethnicity before God is something that we see emphasized in the gospel. God's gospel and love are not bound to one people and ultimately heaven will be a mosaic of God's grace to all peoples. We get a glimpse of this in the new song that the saints sing to Christ the lamb.
"Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth." (Rev. 5:9 ESV)