Monday, February 20, 2012

The Will of George Washington

Vintage postcard celebrating Washington's birthday
Who was George Washington? This description is offered by one contemporary who knew him quite well:

"His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination but sure in its conclusion. ...

"His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest, ... of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good and a great man.

George Washington, c. 1782 (artist unknown)
"His temper was naturally irritable and high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath."
~ Thomas Jefferson 
(American Characters: Selections from the National Portrait Gallery Accompanied by Literary Portraits 26) 

While a bad temper may not be part of the national consciousness of George Washington, his reputation for integrity has remained intact for over two hundred years.

In 1839, President Rutherford Hayes signed the bill that made Washington's birthday an official federal holiday – on February 22. It was not until 1968 (the Uniform Monday Holiday Bill), when federal holidays were "bulked" into the "Monday holidays" we now take for granted, that the third Monday was designated by Congress as President's Day. It was intended to honor George Washington's birthday which is February 22. 

Old school: Students with a bust of George Washington in the classroom (National Archives)
President's Day, however, is also referred to, by some, as Presidents' Day. Note the placement of the apostrophe. This change (or even omission) of the apostrophe has come to represent an entire world of difference: a popular nod to the idea that the federal holiday honoring one President's birthday should symbolize the respect we hold for all presidents' birthdays. Cynics attribute this interpretation to a less patriotic and more commercial motivation. However one chooses to interpret the federal holiday that falls on the third Monday in February, it all goes back to our first president.
The Surrender of Cornwallis (John Trumbull, c. 1797)
Liberty – and freedom – for all
Born in 1732, Washington was elected to the presidency by a unanimous vote. 

It is more commonly related that many grateful Americans wanted to make Washington "king" of the new democracy. Imagine, for one moment, however, living in a world in which each generation before you had only known government under kings. Imagine what it took to fight such a war of separation – and then to win it! 

Looming large, of course, in this new but uncertain present, are the day-to-day concerns of how this new nation will survive. Can it survive? 

A Liberty Tree
To some children of the Revolution, caught in the shifting sands of this newly democratic world and the familiar touchstones of the past, there was only one imaginable answer: Washington, the national hero, should become king. 

To other children of the Revolution, such an idea must have been anathema. It certainly was to Washington.

Given the times, Washington clearly had thought a great deal about the meaning of freedom. Perpetually tied close to 18th century American ideas of freedom, however, is the idea of slavery. This, too, seems to have occupied his conscience.

Prior to his death on December 14, 1799, Washington had begun to systematically free his slaves (Mount Vernon),  a change from his careful management of family slaves when he would visit Philadelphia. It was Pennsylvania law that, after six months of residency, a slave would automatically be manumitted (freed). To avoid this, Washington would rotate slaves so that none could qualify.

In his will and testament, however, he clearly states his desire that all the slaves at Mount Vernon eventually be freed:

"Item 1: Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire, that all the slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom."

Washington with slaves at Mount Vernon (Smithsonian, c. 1853 by JB Stearns)
He then goes on to explain why, though this is his "earnest wish," the legal intricacies of slave holding (his slaves, her slaves, dower slaves, Custis family slaves, etc.), made it something that could not be entirely resolved until his wife's death:

"To emancipate them during her life, would, tho' earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties."

Ultimately, Martha Washington had freed all of her husband's slaves by New Year's Day, 1801. She freed her dower slaves by the time of her death. (Some accounts indicate all were freed; others that "nearly all" were freed; still other accounts that some were not hers to free.) In the interim, Washington's will also required that the slaves at Mount Vernon learn to read and write. He made financial provision for others, including those that were ill or old, as well as those that were orphaned, to be provided for.

To read George Washington's last will and testament in full, click here.

Washington's papers, in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, can be viewed online here.
Let if fly! 
partial listing of sources:
American Characters, Lewis & Lewis (pp. 14-30)
Architects of America (


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