Author: Henry Wiencek

an affiliate fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the author of An Imperfect God (2004), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History and the Best Book of the Year award from the Society for Historians of the Early Republic.

George Washington and Slavery

George Washington owned enslaved people from age eleven until his death, when his will promised his slaves freedom. His actions and private statements suggest a long evolution in his stance on slavery, based on experience and a possible awakening of conscience. Born in 1732, Washington came of age in a time when large-scale tobacco planting, carried out by enslaved labor, dominated the economy and society of colonial Virginia. Washington made no official public statements on slavery or emancipation as a Virginia legislator, as a military officer, or as president of the United States. As a young man he acted as most of his slaveholding peers did—making full and lawful use of slave labor, buying and selling slaves, and even raffling off a debtor’s slaves, including children, to recoup a loan. His marriage brought many slaves under his control, but he did not legally own these “dower” slaves. After the American Revolution (1775–1783) his private statements became more in line with abolitionist goals than with the economic and political positions of his Virginia peers, until he reached the point, around 1789, when his “regret” over slavery grew so strong that he eventually rewrote his will with provisions to free slaves. Washington was the only southern Founding Father to free all his slaves.


George Washington (1732–1799)

George Washington served as commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution (1775–1783), as president of the United States Constitutional Convention (1787), and as first president of the United States (1789–1797). Born to a family of middling wealth, Washington’s formal education ended when he was about fifteen. Thanks to his half-brother’s marriage into the wealthy Fairfax family, Washington acquired social polish, a taste for aristocratic living, and connections to Virginia‘s political elite. Long months on the frontier as a surveyor toughened the young Washington, preparing him for service in Virginia’s militia during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). He held positions of command at a remarkably young age. Marriage to Martha Custis brought him great wealth. Increasingly restive under British taxation and trade restrictions, Washington took a leading role in the nascent revolutionary movement after British regulars killed colonists and seized private property at the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April 1775. As commander in chief, he led American forces for the entire eight-year war, losing more battles than he won but managing to keep the army together under the most difficult circumstances. By the middle of the war, he was already hailed as the “Father of His Country.” His enormous prestige after the war led to his being chosen to lead the Constitutional Convention and to his election as first president.