Washington’s Will

At Mount Vernon, in the summer of 1799, George Washington awoke one morning from a dream that he considered prophetic of his impending death. He was a rather fatalistic man, and so, sensibly enough, he began immediately to draft a new version of his last will and testament.

In his 29-page will he gave instructions for bequests to some fifty relatives, and the first of these items was a customary statement providing for the needs of his beloved wife Martha for the rest of her life.

The very next item stated that upon his death, all of his slaves were to be given their freedom.

This was an astounding decision, and far ahead of its time. Washington was the only one of the Founding Fathers to free his own slaves. Apparently he did not discuss his decision with his own family; the language used in this section of the document is forceful, almost argumentative, as if Washington naturally assumed that his wishes would be questioned. After all, many progressive-thinking slave owners at this time believed it would be cruel to free slaves.

Washington was careful to include instructions that the child slaves were to be given educations in order that they might support themselves as free men. This was during a period when the idea of an educated, free black man was almost unthinkable for most Americans.

(Wiencek 3-6)

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