We remember George Washington as one of the most vital figures in our national history: A capable general, a president, and a hero of democracy. We give far less attention to his life as a slaveholder, even as slavery produced the wealth that supported his family and his ambitions. Writing for the New York Times, Erica Armstrong Dunbar illustrates the extent to which the first president of the first modern democracy was utterly committed to the enslavement of African Americans:
During the president’s two terms in office, the Washingtons relocated first to New York and then to Philadelphia. Although slavery had steadily declined in the North, the Washingtons decided that they could not live without it. Once settled in Philadelphia, Washington encountered his first roadblock to slave ownership in the region — Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780.
The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president.
Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”
This reminds me of one of my favorite Dave Chappelle jokes, from his second stand-up special, For What It’s Worth. Riffing off of the then-recent “liberation” of Iraq, he talks about psychological oppression, the past, and how black people have a special relationship to our national imagery.
But then I thought, if you can do that for Iraq, what about our money? Our money looks like baseball cards with slaveowners on them. George Washington is the worst of the worst. Yes I said it. We mythologize this motherfucker like he’s the greatest dude, man. If I went back in time with a white person, and we saw George Washington walking in front of our time machine, my white friend would probably be like, “Oh my God Dave, look there’s George Washington, it’s the father of this great nation. I’m going to go shake his hand.” I’d be on the other side like, “Run nigga, it’s George Washington.” And we’d both be right.