Archive for Sunday, December 31, 2000

Mount Vernon marks emancipation

George Washington’s estate celebrates slaves’ freedom

December 31, 2000


— Two hundred years after George Washington's will took effect, Mount Vernon is commemorating the first president's decision to free slaves who worked on his Virginia plantation overlooking the Potomac River.

"It's important because it came at a time when it wasn't done," Jennifer Saxon, a Mount Vernon spokesman, said. "By freeing his slaves, George Washington set yet another precedent for others to follow. Since his life was watched through a magnifying glass, he probably felt he was leading by example."

In his will, Washington freed his personal slaves and acted to protect them.

He wrote: "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 ... and I do hereby expressly forbid the sale or transportation out of said Commonwealth, of any slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever."

Making sure her husband's wishes were carried out, Martha Washington freed George Washington's 123 slaves on Jan. 1, 1801, a year before her own death. Many of them lived at Mount Vernon as pensioners into the 1830s.

To commemorate the emancipation, direct descendants of Mount Vernon's slaves will gather at the estate Monday for a day of remembrance.

Besides granting freedom to his own slaves, Washington left detailed instructions for the continued care and support of the elderly and children among them. By 1799, about one-third of the 316 Mount Vernon slaves were 9 years old or younger.

The first president 's will also ordered his personal servant, Billy Lee, to be freed immediately and paid a pension of $30 a year.

"This proved to be a bittersweet moment, because not every Mount Vernon slave was freed," said Jim Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director, speaking of the emancipation of the rest of the slaves Washington owned.

"While Washington could free his own slaves, he could not legally free those belonging to Martha Washington's estate," Rees explained.

Although he owned slaves all his life, Washington's views on the institution of slavery began to change during the Revolutionary War, leading to his resolve to never buy or sell another slave.

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