Slavery in America

slavery in america George Washington Could Not Afford To End Slavery; and The Underground Railroad In his writings, George Washington felt very strongly that slavery was an institution that needed to be eliminated from American society. However, there were several circumstances that arose following the American Revolution that would prevent Washington from actively pursuing the elimination of slavery during his lifetime. It is certainly plausible that George Washington’s personal economic short-comings, forefront in the setting of conflicting political agendas and the nation’s revolutionary climate, prevented this founding father from actively pursuing the nationwide emancipation of slaves. Prior and during the American Revolution, little was written by Washington on his feelings about slavery. In the last year of the war and thereafter, more attention was spent by Washington on the issue of slavery. On February 5, 1783, Washington received a letter from Marquis de Lafayette, whom Washington considered both a friend and a son, that stated, “Let us unite in purchasing a small estate, where we may try the experiment to free the negroes, and use them only as tenants. Such an example as yours might render it a general practice…” (Sparks v.3, p.547). It is doubtful that Lafayette would have proposed this idea unless he knew that Washington had strong views on seeing the elimination of slavery. Washington wrote back to Lafayette on April 5, “The scheme… to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in which. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you is so laudable a work…” (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300). Unfortunately, Washington was still in charge of the American troops, and would be so until December, so he thought it would be best to “…defer going into a detail of the business, ‘till I have the pleasure of seeing you” (Fitzpatrick v.26, p.300). However, when Washington finally did return home in December, he found himself in such great debt that even noble experiments like the one that Lafayette had proposed, had to took a back seat to getting Washington’s financial situation in order. Lafayette went on with his plan alone, buying land in the French colony of Cayenne (Sparks v.4, p.110). Washington was still very supportive of this plan despite his inability to participate, and on May 10, 1786, he wrote to Lafayette, “Your late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.424). Washington hoped that the American people would have similar ideas and feelings on slavery, but he realized that this hope was very unlikely to be realized. He writes to Lafayette in the same letter, “Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.424). While Washington believed that the slaves needed to be freed, he also thought that the process should be a slow and gradual one. He felt that to release the slaves all at once would, “Be productive of much inconvenience and mischief…” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.242). There would be a mass of former slaves in America who did not have the skills needed to survive. Many of them may have had to resort to stealing in order to feed themselves. It would also be very inconvenient for the slave holders who depended so greatly upon their slave work force. To eliminate such a work force would devastate many Americans, mostly Southerners, who relied heavily on slave-labor. In numerous letters, Washington stresses his desire to see Legislative authority enact a plan that would slowly and gradually free the slaves. In a letter to Robert Morris on April 12, 1786, Washington writes, “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 slavery…by Legislative authority…” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.408). He also writes on September 9, 1786, to John Mercer that, “I never mean…to possess another slave by purchase; it being my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees” (Fitzpatrick v.29, p.5). Much later in his life, Washington is still echoing this same message when he writes on August 4, 1797, to Lawrence Lewis that, “I wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State Virginia could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery…” (Fitzpatrick v.36, p.2). Despite Washington’s high hopes and grand talk, he himself did not free one slave during his lifetime. Before it is thought that Washington was simply all talk, however, it is important to consider the circumstances, in particular his financial situation, that he had to deal with upon returning home from the war in late 1783. As Freeman writes, “The eight years of service in the Army had been eight years of neglect at home” (v.6, p.4). Debtors paid Washington back during his absence with greatly depreciated currency. The 1781 British raid saw eighteen slaves run away, and another nine had to be sold. The nine slaves that were sold during Washington’s time in the army, were sold only because the estate had not even enough money to pay for taxes. According to Carroll and Ashworth, Washington opposed the selling of Negroes like cattle in the market (Carroll v.7, p.585). The man left in charge of Washington’s estate, Lund Washington, had an aversion to travel and bookkeeping, which meant that rent from Washington’s western lands were never collected (Freeman v.6, p.4-5). In Washington’s own words, “I made no money from my Estate during the nine years I was absent from it, and brought none home with me” (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.345). Add this to the fact that Washington refused a salary as General of the army, and it quickly becomes evident that the Washington estate was not in very good financial shape. As much as Washington may have wanted to, if he would have given his slaves their freedom, it would have proved financially disastrous. Without this needed labor force, it is quite possible that Washington may have never gotten out of debt. He refused all attempts by Congress to give him a yearly allowance (Freeman v.6, p.6). He had spent eight years volunteering his time and energy to the Continental Army, it was unlikely that he would suddenly accept payment from his country. He was proud to have served his country while collecting no salary, to do so now would be an attack on his pride. The fact that Washington was in dire financial straits can be easily seen in many of his letters. In a letter to the Earl of Tankerville, on January 20, 1784, Washington writes, “An almost entire suspension of every thing which related to my own Estate, for near nine years, has accumulated in abundance of work for me (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.309). On July 8, 1784, he writes to John Mercer, “I do assure you Sir, that I am distressed for want of money…” (Fitzpatrick v.27, p.436). A year and a half later, Washington is still struggling for money, writing on December 20, 1785 to Mercer, “…It cannot be more disagreeable to you to hear, than it is to me to repeat that my wants are pressing, some debts which I am really ashamed to owe, are unpaid…” (Fitzpatrick v.28, p.363). Lund Washington, the man who was in charge of the estate during Washington’s absence, had not been paid since April, 1778. It wasn’t until 1794 that Lund had been fully paid and the account closed (Freeman v.6, p.7). In his Last Will and Testament, Washington finally freed his slaves, upon the death of Martha. In his Will, Washington writes, “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” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Washington refrained from releasing his slaves immediately, because he realized that many of his slaves had married dower slaves, who could not be freed until the death of Martha (Carroll v.7, p.585). To have freed his slaves immediately would have produced, “…such insuperable difficulties…and excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences…” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276) from those dower slaves married to the freed slaves. Washington did not want to separate husband from wife, mother from child. Washington also feared that some freed slaves who had family that were dower slaves would help them to escape. By waiting until both he and Martha were past away, both Washington’s slaves and the dower slaves could be released at the same time. Washington also provided in his Will for the care of those freed slaves who, “from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy…will be unable to support themselves…”, should be given comfortable clothes and fed by his heirs while they are alive (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Those youths without parents were to be cared for until the age of twenty, taught how to read and write, and be shown how to perform “…some useful occupation…” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Washington demanded that, “…This clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect, or delay…” (Fitzpatrick v.37, p.276). Though it took him until his death to free his slaves, Washington made sure that they would be given opportunities to survive on their own, even if it meant costing his heirs a lot of money. Washington’s concerns and caring for the slaves is yet another reason why this man must be revered in history. While it is true that he held over 300 slaves at the time of his death, it is also true that through his influential letters, and through his releasing of his own slaves in his Will, Washington helped to push the anti-slave movement forward. For a Virginian in the late 18th century, Washington was truly enlightened on his views of slavery. It is unfortunate that more Southern Americans did not follow Washington’s lead, for this issue of slavery would cost us many American lives in another sixty years, and would almost destroy the nation that George Washington had worked so hard at building. Underground Railroad I know you’re wondering, what railroad? Well the simple fact is that everybody has heard of the Underground Railroad, but not everyone knows just what it was. Firstly, it wasn’t underground, and it wasn’t even a railroad. The term “Underground Railroad” actually comes from a runaway slave, who while being chased swam across a creek and was out of the owner’s sight. The owner said “…must have gone off on an underground railroad.” That man was Tice Davids, a Kentucky slave who decided to live in freedom in 1831. The primary importance of the Underground Railroad was the on going fight to abolish slavery, the start of the civil war, and it was being one of our nation’s first major anti-slavery movements. The history of the railroad is quite varied according to whom you are talking. Slavery in America thrived and continued to grow because there was a scarcity of labor. Cultivation of crops on plantations could be supervised while slaves used simple routines to harvest them, the low price at which slaves could be bought, and earning profits as a bonus for not having to pay hired work. Slaves turned to freedom for more than one reason. Some were obsessed with being free and living a life where they were not told how to live. Others ran due to fear of being separted or sold from friends and family. Then there were some who were treated so cruely, that it forced them to run just to stay alive. Since coming to America as slaves even back as far back as when the first colonies began, slaves wanted to escape. They wanted to get away from the situation they were forced into. Those who were free were the “whites” who were somewhat separated in values. The North, was a more industrialized area where jobs were filled by newly imported immigrants, making them less dependent on slave labor. The South, however had rich fertile land mostly used for farming. Huge plantations were cleared and needed to be worked. The people of the area tended to be more genteal, and seemed not quite adjusted to hard work, but more of giving orders. The idea of telling people how to do their work just seemed to fit all too well into this scenario. The railroad didn’t have a certain location. Slaves had been running since the 1500’s on their own. When the idea caught on amoung brave slaves, was when it started. Slave owners in the South certainly weren’t happy about the loss of “property”. It seemed like too much money was being lost.This caused the South to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This titled slaves as property of their owners and gave permission to the owners to retrieve runaways any where in the states, even those states that were free. The North was angry about the treatment of the slaves and was not happy about owners being allowed to come into their states to take the slaves back. Finally, the North decided to do something about it. To return the fire thrown at them by the South, they would take away something that the North thought was morally wrong,and the South’s riches. They would help the slaves escape to freedom. The slaves were now angry, scared, and confused. Hearing of this Underground Railroad, they slowly began to run, more and more. By 1807 a law was passed to make it illegal to import anymore slaves. Agricultural improvements came along, and with the limited number of slaves left in the states, the value of the slaves went up very quickly. Abolition Societies began to form, and along with religious groups became active in helpin gslaves to freedom. The “Railroad” beggan to take shape. A shape that is to this day very hard to describe. Traks were laid to aide the slaves to freedom. People talked in secrecy to make safe paths for the slaves to run on. These were the tracks. Letters were sent that had terminology or code for the balcks. A lot of the terms come from things found along railroads. This is because real railroads at this time were the newest thing and happened to be the topic of choice for conversation. This made it all the easier for the helpers of the railroad to communicate going unoticed.Along the tracks, there were depots, safe houses to stay. These were houses of free whites or blacks where they could hide when they weren’t running. The people who owned the houses were often called conductors. The conductors often left a number of signs for the slaves to follow so they didn’t go to houses that belonged to allies of the slave owners. A quilt on the clothes line depicting a house with smoke coming out of the chimney was a sign of a safe station. A white ring of bricks around the the top of a house’s chimney was another sign of a good hiding spot. Shoppes that were safe often had a silohette of a fleeing man or woman on in sign. Other siggns were used to guide the slaves. There were knocks that slaves used when approaching a house,animal calls, and lights hung in windows. When a slave was moving to the next house along the railroad, this was called “catching the next train.” There were also songgs that ave directions to slaves that were taught to everyone so that they might memorize the way. One such, was “Follow the Drinking Gourd” The drinking gourd was the slaves’ terminology for the big dipper. The Big Dipper’s “handle” points to the north star, which they could use to find their way north. The song gave landmarks along the way to follow and a verse from it says ” the dead trees will show you the way.” This was put in the song for a reason. The writer of this song, refered to as Peg-leg Joe, drew a picture of a peg legg on the dead trees along the track with charcoal. The following verse is “Left foot, peg foot traveling on,” accordingly. The tracks for the railroad weren’t exactly laid. A slave had many possible directions to run in, but the main idea here was safty over quickness. The slaves often zigzaged in their paths to avoid being caught. There were different forms of fleeing as well as different paths. Slaves could travel by water on boats. Often in one of the many clever disguises fabricated by the people of the North willing to lend a hand. Men were dressed as women, women were dressed as men, slave’s clothes were exchanged for those of a rich free person of color’s to confuse the true identity of the slave when seen by curious eyes. There were also some slaves that traveled the road, by foot, in a caridge, or in a wagon often containing a fake bottom making a tiny space where slaves could safely journey to freedom.Some traveled on “surface linesthe actual railroads of this time. Lightly colored slaves were dressed as whites, and others were put in with the luggage and frieght. And yet dareing others traveled as baggage. Such a person was Henry “Box” Brown who recieved his nickname by making the long trip in a box marked “this side up,” and “fragile.” There are, however, reports from Henry, after he “reached the end of the line”, where he testified being turned upside down and was thrown about, which makes us all wonder what goes on with our mail service. In the end, slaves had to find a way to blend with the people of the North so that they might live their lives free. Some of the escaped fugitves met up with previuosly escaped friends and family and formed communities. Others found a haven in the Native Americans with whom they intermarried and reproduced. The civil war began and others found shelter with the Union Army. The slaves soon found out that freedom did not mean freedom from work, but they were happier because they now made their own decisions. Some died from exposure, after not finding shelter from the North’s frozen winter. Most slaves were not allowed to learn to read and remained illiterate. Their not being able to read or understand the fact that they had money of their own often lead cruel salesmen and employers to take advantage of the blacks. Those who learned to do specific jobs in the South often took up similar jobs in the North. The need for the railroad slowly began to decrease as the fight for abolishment grew stronger. It was no longer nesscary for the raliroad to be, since almost all the slaves who were going to run already had. The final motion that brought the railraod to it’s final stop was the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln, ending all slavery in our now free country, forever.
Bibliography Biblography Carroll, J.A., and M.W. Ashworth. George Washington: A Biography. Vol. 7. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957. 7 vols. Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington. 39 vols. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1933. Freeman, Douglass S. George Washington: A Biography. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955. 7 vols. Sparks, Jared. Correspondence of the American Revolution, Letters to Washington. 4 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1853


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