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George Washington and Slavery
From The True George Washington by Paul Leicester Ford, Chapter VI.

Master and Employer

In his "rules of civility" Washington enjoined that "those of high Degree ought to treat" "Artificers & Persons of low Degree" "with affibility & Courtesie, without Arrogancy," and it was a needed lesson to every young Virginian, for, as Jefferson wrote, "the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most insulting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."

Augustine Washington's will left to his son George "Ten negro Slaves," with an additional share of those "not herein particularly Devised," but all to remain in the possession of Mary Washington until the boy was twenty-one years of age. With his taking possession of the Mount Vernon estate in his twenty-second year eighteen more came under Washington's direction. In 1754 he bought a "fellow" for 40.5, another (Jack) for 52.5, and a negro woman (Clio) for 50. In 1756 he purchased of the governor a negro woman and child for 60, and two years later a fellow (Gregory) for 60.9. In the following year (the year of his marriage) he bought largely: a negro (Will) for 50; another for 60; nine for 406, an average of 45; and a woman (Hannah) and child, 80. In 1762 he added to the number by purchasing seven of Lee Massey for 300 (an average of 43), and two of Colonel Fielding Lewis at 115, or 57.10 apiece. From the estate of Francis Hobbs he bought, in 1764, Ben, 72; Lewis, 36.10; and Sarah, 20. Another fellow, bought of Sarah Alexander, cost him 76; and a negro (Judy) and child, sold by Garvin Corbin, 63. In 1768 Mary Lee sold him two mulattoes (Will and Frank) for 61.15 and 50, respectively; and two boys (negroes), Adam and Frank, for 19 apiece. Five more were purchased in 1772, and after that no more were bought. In 1760 Washington paid tithes on forty-nine slaves, five years later on seventy-eight, in 1770 on eighty-seven, and in 1774 on one hundred and thirty-five; besides which must be included the "dower slaves" of his wife. Soon after this there was an overplus, and Washington in 1778 offered to barter for some land "Negroes, of whom I every day long more to get clear of," and even before this he had learned the economic fact that except on the richest of soils slaves "only add to the Expence."

In 1791 he had one hundred and fifteen "hands" on the Mount Vernon estate, besides house servants, and De Warville, describing his estate in the same year, speaks of his having three hundred negroes. At this time Washington declared that "I never mean (unless some particular circumstance compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase," but this intention was broken, for "The running off of my cook has been a most inconvenient thing to this family, and what rendered it more disagreeable, is that I had resolved never to become the Master of another slave by purchase, but this resolution I fear I must break. I have endeavored to hire, black or white, but am not yet supplied."

A few more slaves were taken in payment of a debt, but it was from necessity rather than choice, for at this very time Washington had decided that "it is demonstratively clear, that on this Estate (Mount Vernon) I have more working negros by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system, and I shall never turn Planter thereon. To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out, is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion. What then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined; for all the money (in addition to what I raise by crops, and rents) that have been received for Lands, sold within the last four years, to the amount of Fifty thousand dollars, has scarcely been able to keep me afloat." And writing of one set he said, "it would be for my interest to set them free, rather than give them victuals and cloaths."

The loss by runaways was not apparently large. In October, 1760, his ledger contains an item of seven shillings "To the Printing Office ... for Advertising a run-a-way Negro." In 1761 he pays his clergyman, Rev. Mr. Green, "for taking up one of my Runaway Negroes 4." In 1766 rewards are paid for the "taking up" of "Negro Tom" and "Negro Bett." The "taking up of Harry when Runaway" in 1771 cost 1.16. When the British invaded Virginia in 1781, a number escaped or were carried away by the enemy. By the treaty of peace these should have been returned, and their owner wrote, "Some of my own slaves, and those of Mr. Lund Washington who lives at my house may probably be in New York, but I am unable to give you their description--their names being so easily changed, will be fruitless to give you. If by chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them, I will be much obliged by your securing them, so that I may obtain them again."

In 1796 a girl absconded to New England, and Washington made inquiries of a friend as to the possibility of recovering her, adding, "however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of people (if the latter was in itself practicable) at this moment, it would neither be politic nor just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference, and thereby discontent beforehand the minds of all her fellow servants, who, by their steady attachment, are far more deserving than herself of favor," and at this time Washington wrote to a relative, "I am sorry to hear of the loss of your servant; but it is my opinion these elopements will be much more, before they are less frequent; and that the persons making them should never be retained--if they are recovered, as they are sure to contaminate and discontent others."

Another source of loss was sickness, which, in spite of all Washington could do, made constant inroads on the numbers. A doctor to care for them was engaged by the year, and in the contracts with his overseers clauses were always inserted that each was "to take all necessary and proper care of the Negroes committed to his management using them with proper humanity and descretion," or that "he will take all necessary and proper care of the negroes committed to his management, treating them with humanity and tenderness when sick, and preventing them when well, from running about and visiting without his consent; as also forbid strange negroes frequenting their quarters without lawful excuses for so doing."

Furthermore, in writing to his manager, while absent from Mount Vernon, Washington reiterated that "although it is last mentioned it is foremost in my thoughts, to desire you will be particularly attentive to my negros in their sickness; and to order every overseer positively to be so likewise; for I am sorry to observe that the generality of them view these poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draught horse or ox; neglecting them as much when they are unable to work; instead of comforting and nursing them when they lye on a sick bed." And in another letter he added, "When I recommended care of, and attention to my negros in sickness, it was that the first stage of, and the whole progress through the disorders with which they might be seized (if more than a slight indisposition) should be closely watched, and timely applications and remedies be administered; especially in the pleurisies, and all inflammatory disorders accompanied with pain, when a few days' neglect, or want of bleeding might render the ailment incurable. In such cases sweeten'd teas, broths and (according to the nature of the complaint, and the doctor's prescription) sometimes a little wine, may be necessary to nourish and restore the patient; and these I am perfectly willing to allow, when it is requisite. My fear is, as I expressed to you in a former letter, that the under overseers are so unfeeling, in short viewing the negros in no other light than as a better kind of cattle, the moment they cease to work, they cease their care of them."

At Mount Vernon his care for the slaves was more personal. At a time when the small-pox was rife in Virginia he instructed his overseer "what to do if the Small pox should come amongst them," and when he "received letters from Winchester, informing me that the Small pox had got among my quarters in Frederick; [I] determin'd ... to leave town as soon as possible, and proceed up to them.... After taking the Doctors directions in regard to my people ... I set out for my quarters about 12 oclock, time enough to go over them and found every thing in the utmost confusion, disorder and backwardness.... Got Blankets and every other requisite from Winchester, and settl'd things on the best footing I cou'd, ... Val Crawford agreeing if any of those at the upper quarter got it, to have them remov'd into my room and the Nurse sent for."

Other sickness was equally attended to, as the following entries in his diary show: "visited my Plantations and found two negroes sick ... ordered them to be blooded;" "found that lightening had struck my quarters and near 10 Negroes in it, some very bad but with letting blood they recover'd;" "ordered Lucy down to the House to be Physikd," and "found the new negro Cupid, ill of a pleurisy at Dogue Run Quarter and had him brot home in a cart for better care of him.... Cupid extremely Ill all this day and at night when I went to bed I thought him within a few hours of breathing his last."

This matter of sickness, however, had another phase, which caused Washington much irritation at times when he could not personally look into the cases, but heard of them through the reports of his overseers. Thus, he complained on one occasion, "I find by reports that Sam is, in a manner, always returned sick; Doll at the Ferry, and several of the spinners very frequently so, for a week at a stretch; and ditcher Charles often laid up with lameness. I never wish my people to work when they are really sick, or unfit for it; on the contrary, that all necessary care should be taken of them when they are so; but if you do not examine into their complaints, they will lay by when no more ails them, than all those who stick to their business, and are not complaining from the fatigue and drowsiness which they feel as the effect of night walking and other practices which unfit them for the duties of the day." And again he asked, "Is there anything particular in the cases of Ruth, Hannah and Pegg, that they have been returned sick for several weeks together? Ruth I know is extremely deceitful; she has been aiming for some time past to get into the house, exempt from work; but if they are not made to do what their age and strength will enable them, it will be a bad example for others--none of whom would work if by pretexts they can avoid it"

Other causes than running away and death depleted the stock. One negro was taken by the State for some crime and executed, an allowance of sixty-nine pounds being made to his master. In 1766 an unruly negro was shipped to the West Indies (as was then the custom), Washington writing the captain of the vessel,--
"With this letter comes a negro (Tom) which I beg the favor of you to sell in any of the islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch, and bring me in return for him "One hhd of best molasses
"One ditto of best rum
"One barrel of lymes, if good and cheap
"One pot of tamarinds, containing about 10 lbs.
"Two small ditto of mixed sweetmeats, about 5 lbs. each.
And the residue, much or little, in good old spirits. That this fellow is both a rogue and a runaway (tho' he was by no means remarkable for the former, and never practised the latter till of late) I shall not pretend to deny. But that he is exceeding healthy, strong, and good at the hoe, the whole neighborhood can testify, and particularly Mr. Johnson and his son, who have both had him under them as foreman of the gang; which gives me reason to hope he may with your good management sell well, if kept clean and trim'd up a little when offered for sale."
Another "misbehaving fellow" was shipped off in 1791, and was sold for "one pipe and Quarter Cask of wine from the West Indies." Sometimes only the threat of such riddance was used, as when an overseer complained of one slave, and his master replied, "I am very sorry that so likely a fellow as Matilda's Ben should addict himself to such courses as he is pursuing. If he should be guilty of any atrocious crime, that would effect his life, he might be given up to the civil authority for trial; but for such offences as most of his color are guilty of, you had better try further correction, accompanied with admonition and advice. The two latter sometimes succeed where the first has failed. He, his father and mother (who I dare say are his receivers) may be told in explicit language, that if a stop is not put to his rogueries and other villainies, by fair means and shortly, that I will ship him off (as I did Wagoner Jack) for the West Indies, where he will have no opportunity of playing such pranks as he is at present engaged in."

It is interesting to note, in connection with this conclusion, that "admonition and advice" were able to do what "correction" sometimes failed to achieve, that there is not a single order to whip, and that the above case, and that which follows, are the only known cases where punishment was approved. "The correction you gave Ben, for his assault on Sambo, was just and proper. It is my earnest desire that quarrels may be stopped or punishment of both parties follow, unless it shall appear clearly, that one only is to blame, and the other forced into [a quarrel] from self-defence." In one other instance Washington wrote, "If Isaac had his deserts he would receive a severe punishment for the house, tools and seasoned stuff, which has been burned by his carelessness." But instead of ordering the "deserts" he continued, "I wish you to inform him, that I sustain injury enough by their idleness; they need not add to it by their carelessness."

This is the more remarkable, because his slaves gave him constant annoyance by their wastefulness and sloth and dishonesty. Thus, "Paris has grown to be so lazy and self-willed" that his master does not know what to with him; "Doll at the Ferry must be taught to knit, and made to do a sufficient day's work of it--otherwise (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps"; "it is observed by the weekly reports, that the sewers make only six shirts a week, and the last week Carolina (without being sick) made only five. Mrs. Washington says their usual task was to make nine with shoulder straps and good sewing. Tell them therefore from me, that what has been done, shall be done"; "none I think call louder for [attention] than the smiths, who, from a variety of instances which fell within my own observation whilst I was at home, I take to be two very idle fellows. A daily account (which ought to be regularly) taken of their work, would alone go a great way towards checking their idleness." And the overseer was told to watch closely "the people who are at work with the gardener, some of whom I know to be as lazy and deceitful as any in the world (Sam particularly)."

Furthermore, the overseers were warned to "endeavor to make the Servants and Negroes take care of their cloathes;" to give them "a weekly allowance of Meat ... because the annual one is not taken care of but either profusely used or stolen"; and to note "the delivery to and the application of nails by the carpenters,... [for] I cannot conceive how it is possible that 6000 twelve penny nails could be used in the corn house at River Plantation; but of one thing I have no great doubt, and that is, if they can be applied to other uses, or converted into cash, rum or other things there will be no scruple in doing it."

When robbed of some potatoes, Washington complained that "the deception ... is of a piece with other practices of a similar kind by which I have suffered hitherto; and may serve to evince to you, in strong colors, first how little confidence can be placed in any one round you; and secondly the necessity of an accurate inspection into these things yourself,--for to be plain, Alexandria is such a recepticle for every thing that can be filched from the right owners, by either blacks or whites; and I have such an opinion of my negros (two or three only excepted), and not much better of some of the whites, that I am perfectly sure not a single thing that can be disposed of at any price, at that place, that will not, and is not stolen, where it is possible; and carried thither to some of the underlying keepers, who support themselves by this kind of traffick." He dared not leave wine unlocked, even for the use of his guests, "because the knowledge I have of my servants is such, as to believe, that if opportunities are given them, they will take off two glasses of wine for every one that is drank by such visitors, and tell you they were used by them." And when he had some work to do requiring very ordinary qualities, he had to confess that "I know not a negro among all mine, whose capacity, integrity and attention could be relied on for such a trust as this."

Whatever his opinion of his slaves, Washington was a kind master. In one case he wrote a letter for one of them when the "fellow" was parted from his wife in the service of his master, and at another time he enclosed letters to a wife and to James's "del Toboso," for two of his servants, to save them postage. In reference to their rations he wrote, "whether this addition ... is sufficient, I will not undertake to decide;--but in most explicit language I desire they may have plenty; for I will not have my feelings hurt with complaints of this sort, nor lye under the imputation of starving my negros, and thereby driving them to the necessity of thieving to supply the deficiency. To prevent waste or embezzlement is the only inducement to allowancing of them at all--for if, instead of a peck they could eat a bushel of meal a week fairly, and required it, I would not withhold or begrudge it them." At Christmas-time there are entries in his ledger for whiskey or rum for "the negroes," and towards the end of his life he ordered the overseer, "although others are getting out of the practice of using spirits at Harvest, yet, as my people have always been accustomed to it, a hogshead of Rum must be purchased; but I request at the same time, that it may be used sparingly."

A greater kindness of his was, in 1787, when he very much desired a negro mason offered for sale, yet directed his agent that "if he has a family, with which he is to be sold; or from whom he would reluctantly part, I decline the purchase; his feelings I would not be the means of hurting in the latter case, nor at any rate be incumbered with the former."

The kindness thus indicated bore fruit in a real attachment of the slaves for their master. In Humphreys's poem on Washington the poet alluded to the negroes at Mount Vernon in the lines,--
"Where that foul stain of manhood, slavery, flow'd
Through Afric's sons transmitted in the blood;
Hereditary slaves his kindness shar'd,
For manumission by degrees prepar'd:
Return'd from war, I saw them round him press,
And all their speechless glee by artless signs express."
And in a foot-note the writer added, "The interesting scene of his return home, at which the author was present, is described exactly as it existed."

A single one of these slaves deserves further notice. His body-servant "Billy" was purchased by Washington in 1768 for sixty-eight pounds and fifteen shillings, and was his constant companion during the war, even riding after his master at reviews; and this servant was so associated with the General that it was alleged in the preface to the "forged letters" that they had been captured by the British from "Billy," "an old servant of General Washington's." When Savage painted his well-known "family group," this was the one slave included in the picture. In 1784 Washington told his Philadelphia agent that "The mulatto fellow, William, who has been with me all the war, is attached (married he says) to one of his own color, a free woman, who during the war, was also of my family. She has been in an infirm condition for some time, and I had conceived that the connexion between them had ceased; but I am mistaken it seems; they are both applying to get her here, and tho' I never wished to see her more, I cannot refuse his request (if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has served me faithfully for many years. After premising this much, I have to beg the favor of you to procure her a passage to Alexandria."


When acting as chain-bearer in 1785, while Washington was surveying a tract of land, William fell and broke his knee-pan, "which put a stop to my surveying; and with much difficulty I was able to get him to Abington, being obliged to get a sled to carry him on, as he could neither walk, stand or ride." From this injury Lee never quite recovered, yet he started to accompany his master to New York in 1789, only to give out on the road. He was left at Philadelphia, and Lear wrote to Washington's agent that "The President will thank you to propose it to Will to return to Mount Vernon when he can be removed for he cannot be of any service here, and perhaps will require a person to attend upon him constantly. If he should incline to return to Mount Vernon, you will be so kind as to have him sent in the first Vessel that sails for Alexandria after he can be moved with safety--but if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him, altho' he will be troublesome--He has been an old and faithful Servant, this is enough for the President to gratify him in every reasonable wish."

By his will Washington gave Lee his "immediate freedom or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so-- In either case however I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life which shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive; if he chuses the last alternative, but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first, and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War."

Two small incidents connected with Washington's last illness are worth noting. The afternoon before the night he was taken ill, although he had himself been superintending his affairs on horseback in the storm most of the day, yet when his secretary "carried some letters to him to frank, intending to send them to the Post Office in the evening," Lear tells us "he franked the letters; but said the weather was too bad to send a servant up to the office that evening." Lear continues, "The General's servant, Christopher, attended his bed side & in the room, when he was sitting up, through his whole illness.... In the [last] afternoon the General observing that Christopher had been standing by his bed side for a long time--made a motion for him to sit in a chair which stood by the bed side."

A clause in Washington's will directed that
"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--To emancipate them during her life, would, tho' earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties, on account of their intermixture of marriages with the Dower negroes as to excite the most painful sensations--if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor, it not being in my power under the tenure by which the dower Negroes are held to manumit them--And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise there may be some who from old age, or bodily infirmities & others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves, it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs while they live and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years.... The negroes thus bound are (by their masters and mistresses) to be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation."
In this connection Washington's sentiments on slavery as an institution may be glanced at. As early as 1784 he replied to Lafayette, when told of a colonizing plan, "The scheme, my dear Marqs., which you propose as a precedent to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in wch. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work; but will defer going into a detail of the business, till I have the pleasure of seeing you." A year later, when Francis Asbury was spending a day in Mount Vernon, the clergyman asked his host if he thought it wise to sign a petition for the emancipation of slaves. Washington replied that it would not be proper for him, but added, "If the Maryland Assembly discusses the matter; I will address a letter to that body on the subject, as I have always approved of it."

When South Carolina refused to pass an act to end the slave-trade, he wrote to a friend in that State, "I must say that I lament the decision of your legislature upon the question of importing slaves after March 1793. I was in hopes that motives of policy as well as other good reasons, supported by the direful effects of slavery, which at this moment are presented, would have operated to produce a total prohibition of the importation of slaves, whenever the question came to be agitated in any State, that might be interested in the measure." For his own State he expressed the "wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery; it would prev't much future mischief." And to a Pennsylvanian he expressed the sentiment, "I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say, that there is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting."

Washington by no means restricted himself to slave servitors. Early in life he took into his service John Alton at thirteen pounds per annum, and this white man served as his body-servant in the Braddock campaign, and Washington found in the march that "A most serious inconvenience attended me in my sickness, and that was the losing the use of my servant, for poor John Alton was taken about the same time that I was, and with nearly the same disorder, and was confined as long; so that we did not see each other for several days." As elsewhere noticed, Washington succeeded to the services of Braddock's body-servant, Thomas Bishop, on the death of the general, paying the man ten pounds a year.

These two were his servants in his trip to Boston in 1756, and in preparation for that journey Washington ordered his English agent to send him "2 complete livery suits for servants; with a spare cloak and all other necessary trimmings for two suits more. I would have you choose the livery by our arms, only as the field of the arms is white, I think the clothes had better not be quite so, but nearly like the inclosed. The trimmings and facings of scarlet, and a scarlet waist coat. If livery lace is not quite disused, I should be glad to have the cloaks laced. I like that fashion best, and two silver laced hats for the above servants."

For some reason Bishop left his employment, but in 1760 Washington "wrote to my old servant Bishop to return to me again if he was not otherwise engaged," and, the man being "very desirous of returning," the old relation was reassumed. Alton in the mean time had been promoted to be overseer of one of the plantations. In 1785 their master noted in his diary, "Last night Jno Alton an Overseer of mine in the Neck--an old & faithful Servant who has lived with me 30 odd years died--and this evening the wife of Thos. Bishop, another old Servant who had lived with me an equal number of years also died." Both were remembered in his will by a clause giving "To Sarah Green daughter of the deceased Thomas Bishop, and to Ann Walker, daughter of John Alton, also deceased I give each one hundred dollars, in consideration of the attachment of their father[s] to me, each of whom having lived nearly forty years in my family."

Of Washington's general treatment of the serving class a few facts can be gleaned. He told one of his overseers, in reference to the sub-overseers, that "to treat them civilly is no more than what all men are entitled to, but my advice to you is, to keep them at a proper distance; for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you will sink in authority if you do not." To a housekeeper he promised "a warm, decent and comfortable room to herself, to lodge in, and will eat of the victuals of our Table, but not set at it, or at any time with us be her appearance what it may; for if this was once admitted no line satisfactory to either party, perhaps could be drawn thereafter."

In visiting he feed liberally, good examples of which are given in the cash account of the visit to Boston in 1756, when he "Gave to Servants on ye Road 10/." "By Cash Mr. Malbones servants 4.0.0." "The Chambermaid 1.2.6." When the wife of his old steward, Fraunces, came to need, he gave her "for Charity 1.17.6." The majority will sympathize rather than disapprove of his opinion when he wrote, "Workmen in most Countries I believe are necessary plagues;---in this where entreaties as well as money must be used to obtain their work and keep them to their duty they baffle all calculation in the accomplishment of any plan or repairs they are engaged in;--and require more attention to and looking after than can be well conceived."

The overseers of his many plantations, and his "master" carpenters, millers, and gardeners, were quite as great trials as his slaves. First "young Stephens" gave him much trouble, which his diary reports in a number of sententious entries: "visited my Plantation. Severely reprimanded young Stephens for his Indolence, and his father for suffering it;" "forbid Stephens keeping any horses upon my expence;" "visited my quarters & ye Mill, according to custom found young Stephens absent;" "visited my Plantation and found to my great surprise Stephens constantly at work;" "rid out to my Plantn. and to my Carpenters. Found Richard Stephens hard at work with an ax--Very extraordinary this!"

Again he records, "Visited my Plantations--found Foster had been absent from his charge since the 28th ulto. Left orders for him to come immediately to me upon his return, and repremanded him severely." Of another, Simpson, "I never hear ... without a degree of warmth & vexation at his extreme stupidity," and elsewhere he expresses his disgust at "that confounded fellow Simpson." A third spent all the fall and half the winter in getting in his crop, and "if there was any way of making such a rascal as Garner pay for such conduct, no punishment would be too great for him. I suppose he never turned out of mornings until the sun had warmed the earth, and if he did not, the negros would not." His chief overseer was directed to "Let Mr. Crow know that I view with a very evil eye the frequent reports made by him of sheep dying;... frequent natural deaths is a very strong evidence to my mind of the want of care or something worse."

Curious distinctions were made oftentimes. Thus, in the contract with an overseer, one clause was inserted to the effect, "And whereas there are a number of whiskey stills very contiguous to the said Plantations, and many idle, drunken and dissolute People continually resorting to the same, priding themselves in debauching sober and well-inclined Persons, the said Edd Voilett doth promise as well for his own sake as his employers to avoid them as he ought." To the contrary, in hiring a gardener, it was agreed as part of the compensation that the man should have "four dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk for four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide to be drunk for two days; a dram in the morning, and a drink of grog at dinner at noon."

With more true kindness Washington wrote to one of his underlings, "I was very glad to receive your letter of the 31st ultimo, because I was afraid, from the accounts given me of your spitting blood,... that you would hardly have been able to have written at all. And it is my request that you will not, by attempting more than you are able to undergo, with safety and convenience, injure yourself, and thereby render me a disservice.... I had rather therefore hear that you had nursed than exposed yourself. And the things which I sent from this place (I mean the wine, tea, coffee and sugar) and such other matters as you may lay in by the doctor's direction for the use of the sick, I desire you will make use of as your own personal occasions may require."

Of one Butler he had employed to overlook his gardeners, but who proved hopelessly unfit, Washington said, "sure I am, there is no obligation upon me to retain him from charitable motives; when he ought rather to be punished as an imposter: for he well knew the services he had to perform, and which he promised to fulfil with zeal, activity, and intelligence." Yet when the man was discharged his employer gave him a "character:" "If his activity, spirit, and ability in the management of Negroes, were equal to his honesty, sobriety and industry, there would not be the least occasion for a change," and Butler was paid his full wages, no deduction being made for lost time, "as I can better afford to be without the money than he can."

Another thoroughly incompetent man was one employed to take charge of the negro carpenters, of whom his employer wrote, "I am apprehensive ... that Green never will overcome his propensity to drink; that it is this which occasions his frequent sickness, absences from work and poverty. And I am convinced, moreover, that it answers no purpose to admonish him." Yet, though "I am so well satisfied of Thomas Green's unfitness to look after Carpenters," for a time "the helpless situation in which you find his family, has prevailed on me to retain him," and when he finally had to be discharged for drinking, Washington said, "Nothing but compassion for his helpless family, has hitherto induced me to keep him a moment in my service (so bad is the example he sets); but if he has no regard for them himself, it is not to be expected that I am to be a continual sufferer on this account for his misconduct." His successor needed the house the family lived in, but Washington could not "bear the thought of adding to the distress I know they must be in, by turning them adrift;... It would be better therefore on all accounts if they were removed to some other place, even if I was to pay the rent, provided it was low, or make some allowance towards it."

To many others, besides family, friends, and employees, Washington was charitable. From an early date his ledger contains frequent items covering gifts to the needy. To mention a tenth of them would take too much space, but a few typical entries are worth quoting:
"By Cash gave a Soldiers wife 5/;" "To a crippled man 5/;" "Gave a man who had his House Burnt 1.;" "By a begging woman /5;" "By Cash gave for the Sufferers at Boston by fire 12;" "By a wounded soldier 10/;" "Alexandria Academy, support of a teacher of Orphan children 50;" "By Charity to an invalid wounded Soldier who came from Redston with a petition for Charity 18/;" "Gave a poor man by the President's order $2;" "Delivd to the President to send to two distress'd french women at Newcastle $25;" "Gave Pothe a poor old man by the President's order $2;" "Gave a poor sailor by the Presdt order $1;" "Gave a poor blind man by the Presdt order $1.50;" "By Madame de Seguer a french Lady in distress gave her $50;" "By Subscription paid to Mr. Jas. Blythe towards erecting and Supporting an Academy in the State of Kentucky $100;" "By Subscription towards an Academy in the South Western Territory $100;" "By Charity sent Genl Charles Pinckney in Columbus Bank Notes, for the sufferers by the fire in Charleston So. Carolina $300;" "By Charity gave to the sufferers by fire in Geo. Town $10;" "By an annual Donation to the Academy at Alexandria pd. Dr. Cook $166.67;" "By Charity to the poor of Alexandria deld. to the revd. Dr. Muir $100."
To an overseer he said, concerning a distant relative, "Mrs. Haney should endeavor to do what she can for herself--this is a duty incumbent on every one; but you must not let her suffer, as she has thrown herself upon me; your advances on this account will be allowed always, at settlement; and I agree readily to furnish her with provisions, and for the good character you give of her daughter make the latter a present in my name of a handsome but not costly gown, and other things which she may stand most in need of. You may charge me also with the worth of your tenement in which she is placed, and where perhaps it is better she should be than at a great distance from your attentions to her."

After the terrible attack of fever in Philadelphia in 1793, Washington wrote to a clergyman of that city,--
"It has been my intention ever since my return to the city, to contribute my mite towards the relief of the most needy inhabitants of it. The pressure of public business hitherto has suspended, but not altered my resolution. I am at a loss, however, for whose benefit to apply the little I can give, and in whose hands to place it; whether for the use of the fatherless children and widows, made so by the late calamity, who may find it difficult, whilst provisions, wood, and other necessaries are so dear, to support themselves; or to other and better purposes, if any, I know not, and therefore have taken the liberty of asking your advice. I persuade myself justice will be done to my motives for giving you this trouble. To obtain information, and to render the little I can afford, without ostentation or mention of my name, are the sole objects of these inquiries. With great and sincere esteem and regard, I am, &c."
His adopted grandson he advised to "never let an indigent person ask, without receiving something if you have the means; always recollecting in what light the widow's mite was viewed." And when he took command of the army in 1775, the relative who took charge of his affairs was told to "let the hospitality of the house, with respect to the poor, be kept up. Let no one go hungry away. If any of this kind of people should be in want of corn, supply their necessities, provided it does not encourage them in idleness; and I have no objection to your giving my money in charity, to the amount of forty or fifty pounds a year, when you think it well bestowed. What I mean by having no objection is, that it is my desire that it should be done. You are to consider, that neither myself nor wife is now in the way to do these good offices."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
31 December 2004


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