WASHINGTON AND SLAVERY

The record in relation to George Washington is a conspicuous demonstration of how black history has been neglected.* One example: the two-volume index to the thirty-nine-volume set of Washington's Writings specifies almost everything except the names of slaves.

Ignoring this aspect of Washington's career has not only allowed "revisionist" historians, who have substituted their preconceptions for investigation, to call Washington a racist, but it has also warped our understanding of major events not obviously connected with Negroes. History, for instance, has not realized that Washington's support of Alexander Hamilton's financial schemes against the protests of Jefferson was partly motivated by his desire to encourage an alternate economic system to slavery.

The first Virginian President met his greatest opposition in his home state. When an old man, he told a visitor: "I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it on a common bond of principle." He foresaw the Civil War. Although exile from his ancestral acres would have torn his heart, he confided to an intimate that, if the issue became inescapable, "he had made up his mind to move and be of the Northern."

Washington had grown up in a Virginia which regarded slavery as preordained. (Not invented for blacks, the institution was as old as history and had not, when Washington was a child, been officially challenged anywhere.)

As a young planter, he felt no guilt. But before the Revolution broke, he had become so unhappy about trafficking in human beings that he could no longer bear to sell a slave, although natural increase was giving him a larger work force to support than he could profitably employ. In 1774 he wrote, drawing no racial distinctions, that, if the white Americans submitted to British tyranny, "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway."

Washington's stint as commander in chief kept him in the North most

____________________
*
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The New York Times on Thursday, February 22, 1973.

-257-

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