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Interesting US History
A Website Devoted to Interesting Events in U.S. History





April 6, 2009

George Washington: The Man (Part 2)

Click here for Part 1

After serving his second term as president, Washington decided it was time to return to Mount Vernon, tend to the family farm and find a way to generate greater profits. This is what prompted him to build a whiskey distillery which quickly became one of the largest distilleries in the new nation. Six slaves tended to the handling of the large amounts of grain and water needed to make the whiskey.

Speaking of slaves, this is another intriguing aspect of George Washington. Before the revolution, Washington seemed to have no reservation about the institution of slavery. He had grown up around slavery and had inherited ten slaves at the age of eleven. By 1778 however, evidence exists that his attitude had begun to change. That year he wrote to his manager at Mount Vernon that he wished “to get quit of negroes”. In spite of his wishes however, certain laws of the time prevented him from freeing some of them and his reluctance to break up their families prevented him from selling them.

After the war, Washington often privately expressed his opposition to the institution of slavery, and in 1786 wrote to a friend that it was “among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.” To another he wrote “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition” of slavery. He also wrote “Were it not that I am principled against selling Negroes… I would not in twelve months from this date be possessed of one as a slave.”

In spite of Washington’s opposition to the institution of slavery, he is criticized by some historians by not taking a more active role in abolishing the practice. While this criticism might be deserved, it doesn’t detract from the fact that Washington was ahead of his time in relation to other leaders on the subject. In 1789, his first year as President, he signed into law “An Ordinance of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River of Ohio.” This law, known as the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in any new state entering the Union.

The fact is, Washington simply didn’t posses the power to outlaw slavery in the states that were already in the Union and any attempt to do so would have failed. As it turns out, the Northwest Ordinance set in motion the events which would split the Union into slave vs. non-slave states and lead to the American Civil War less than a century later. As many understood at the time, it was probably inevitable that it would take a Civil War to abolish slavery.

Mark Bowman

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The Real George Washington (American Classic Series)