Of all the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson is the one whose failure to apply the ideals of the Revolution to the institution of slavery is best known. His own writing left him fully exposed on the contradictions between his words and deeds. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, and a decade later in his Notes on the State of Virginia he asserted that the relations between master and slave can only be “the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other.”
Despite these convictions, Jefferson did not cease being a slave owner, and as Annette Gordon-Reed established in her groundbreaking 1997 study, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Jefferson had a long sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings in the years after his wife’s death. He fathered at least six children with her, four of whom survived into adulthood.
It is, however, George Washington who, as the first president of the United States and a Virginia slaveholder, had the greatest practical opportunity of any of the Founding Fathers to move the country to end slavery. By his example, Washington might have provided an answer to Samuel Johnson’s sardonic question, “How is it we hear the loudest yips for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
Instead, Washington played a cautious, often contradictory role with respect to slavery. Why he did so is the subject of a timely new book by Bruce A. Ragsdale, Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and the Question of Slavery. Ragsdale, who has been a fellow at the Washington Library, Mount Vernon, has made extensive use of his familiarity with Washington’s life and letters.
The result is a portrait of Washington deeply rooted in the culture and politics of his era. Ragsdale notes that slavery was personally repugnant to Washington. He takes seriously Washington’s desire “to get quit of Negroes.” But he also emphasizes what is striking for us today: Washington never made a principled, public statement opposing slavery or offered a practical plan for ending it. Indeed, as late as 1775, Washington was still purchasing slaves.
On the eve of Washington’s return to Mount Vernon following the Revolutionary War, Lafayette, among others, urged him to free the slaves he owned as the culminating act of his leadership of the army. Washington did not take Lafayette’s advice, although in his private correspondence with the Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, he made his antislavery views clear. “I can say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” Washington wrote, before going on to add, “but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.”