Slavery Haunted Washington—His Heirs Didn’t Get the Message

As he neared death, George Washington was wracked with guilt over slavery, but his doubts fell on deaf ears, especially among his slave-owning descendants.


On September 13, 1861, on a remote and rain-soaked mountaintop, the last family heir to Mount Vernon, Lt. Col. John A. Washington, while riding his horse on a reconnaissance patrol in the Alleghany Mountains, was shot dead by Union “bushwhackers.”

Days later, The New York Times ran a headline remarking on the fall of the Washington “heir,” who had been a close friend, tent mate, and aide de camp to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was present at Cheat Mountain, West Virginia, and devastated by the news.  

A week before being riddled with gun shots and falling from his horse, which sprinted off in a fury, but would save the life of Lee’s own son, Rooney, John “Gus” Washington, in a letter his own family, had written forebodingly: “I don’t know when I shall leave this region, or indeed whether I ever shall do so, as of course my chances are the same as those of other men, and I know some of us will never get away.”

John A. Washington was my great-great-grandfather, and during the course of my research into the life of his much more famous uncle, George Washington, I asked myself on numerous occasions why he would have fought with Gen. Lee in a war that very nearly destroyed the United States, the nation George Washington had founded. He did have other options.

Gus, who had no prior military experience, had been a graduate of the University of Virginia, one of the finest universities in America then and now. Like his famous Uncle George, he was also a gentleman, foxhunter and all-around sportsman in the old British sense of the word. The Lees and Washingtons were dear friends, and in fact cousins.

Not surprisingly, Gen. Lee wanted and arguably needed the imprimatur of a Washington—and a well-educated one at that—to fight at his side. Asked to join the cause, Lt. Col. Washington decided to ignore the clear choice to remain neutral and move to the nearby capital and city of Washington. Naturally, he would have had to give up his slaves and plantation, but he was only 40 years old, he had seven children, and he had earned a decent fortune with the sale of Mount Vernon in 1860 to an association of ambitious lady preservationists. (The money from that sale had been transferred secretly from Alexandria, Virginia to Riggs National Bank in Washington proper.)

Like George Washington before him, however, and for some reasons we may never know, Lt. Col. Washington was unable, until his own tragic death, to rid himself of the albatross of slavery hanging about his neck.  

Like the Lees of Virginia, the Washingtons would not, until the nation was broken and bloodied beyond recognition, forsake the institution of slavery. Indeed, the homes of George’s brothers, Samuel, Charles, and John, or “Jack,” were some of the most impressive plantation homes in the Shenandoah Valley—and can be visited today by anyone who wants to understand the wealth and opportunities that slavery afforded the plantation master.

Through the course of my research, I examined closely the relationship between our first president and his slaves. I came to understand why every man who owned slaves was—as George Washington’s neighbor and close friend George Mason would warn—in essence, a “tyrant.”

Slavery and the cruelty it implied are a part and parcel of our shared American heritage. Even if you are a recent immigrant, including someone persecuted and seeking the “asylum” that Washington hoped the United States would become in the world, the legacy is hard to ignore as events in Charlottesville have made abundantly clear.

It is also impossible to deny that slave labor, in its own way, helped found the new republic: Without his slaves and the “luxury” of the added time they provided to contemplate ideas and act on them, it is hard to see how George Washington would have become the leader of men that he became in the Revolution.

The paradox would be astounding, were it not so tragic. Even my European friends today chuckle at the utter hypocrisy of our strange founding. They note that, on the one hand, men like Washington, Jefferson, Mason, and Madison expressed love for the idea that “all men are created equal,” while also keeping their slaves working from sun up to sun down, and sometimes in chains. George Mason coined one of our favorite 21st-century phrases, “the pursuit of happiness,” which Washington, as a hunter, dancer, and all around sportsman, eagerly embraced.

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Yet for Gen. Washington, the ideals of the Revolution he led as commander of the Continental Army were hard to ignore when he saw blacks in his own ranks fighting as hard as any white man for their own notions of freedom. For the rest of his life, Washington would at once uphold slavery for his fellow southern plantation owners, but at the same time he would become increasingly haunted by what he knew—in his heart—was an original sin.

On his famous one and only tour of southern states in the first term of his presidency, he even took up Thomas Jefferson’s urgings to help South Carolina’s rice plantation owners retrieve their runaway slaves, who were fleeing further south in droves into the Spanish territories.

Born a Master

Washington was virtually born a slave owner and by the age of 11 he owned more than ten slaves of his own. With his marriage to Martha Custis, he gained the eventual services of some 250 more slaves in addition to his own multiplying lot.

George Mason, who would never free his slaves, nevertheless recognized the writing on the wall. He wrote that in Virginia “every gentleman is born a petty tyrant,” adding that, “Practiced in the acts of despotism and cruelty, we become callous to the dictates of humanity, and all their finer feelings of the soul.”

Yet America’s greatest president—and I believe that is the correct description after spending years researching his amazing wartime deeds, exceptional manners, and devotion to country—was never able to release himself from the mental shackles that slavery held him in. Like his fellow Virginians, Washington did nothing in his own life to put an end to the shameful institution. Though he freed his own slaves (not Martha’s) upon his death, his extended family, which would inherit and run Mount Vernon, didn’t, as it were, get the rather precise message and “memo” contained in his last will and testament.

So maybe it shouldn’t shock me—though it still does—that George Washington’s pre-Civil War relatives would have hell to pay for never forsaking slavery. Mason’s premonition that “Providence” (a concept of God also used by Washington) would “avenge upon our Posterity” looked prescient once that horrific war rolled around.

There can be little doubt, if you comb through his writings, that Washington’s role as a slaveholder left his character and conscience flawed and scarred. The institution of slavery, which he played an instrumental role in preserving throughout his life, dragged him down like a ball and chain in his later years.

Washington’s slaveholdings were, he would write to his official biographer, David Humphreys, his “only unavoidable subject of regret,” adding that an idea he had, partly inspired by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette’s urgings, to begin to free his slaves would not, he hoped, “be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.”

And yet he hesitated at the water’s edge.

Washington’s own tortured mind is an apt metaphor for what would play out over time in his United States, and even in our own era. The Washingtons, like many of Virginia’s “First Families,” would hold onto their slaves, and—like the rest of the South—they would be slow to forgive the North for the massive destruction rained down on their splendid way of life. This all happened despite George’s reasoned intentions, which he clearly articulated in his last will and testament.

Let’s hope, with the fallout still unfolding today in places like Charlottesville, that the U.S., as a nation, finally “gets the memo.”