President’s Day fact of the day

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.”

There is more here, depressing throughout, and for the pointer I thank Michael Clemens.


Jesus. Is every holiday 'white people flagellate themselves' day now? Tiresome.

Tiresome indeed - it's like people are forcing you to carry around this heavy yoke just to prevent your self-fulfillment.


Clearly history's greatest monster should have abandoned his servants to fend for themselves in the booming Potomac labor market, at least until the reached retirement age and maxed out their pensions. What a monster.

You're too squeamish to use the word slave?

Because if they're free they can't work for him? Or because if they leave his employ, preferring not to be slaves in spite of the "poor labor market" you happen to know that would be the wrong decision for them?

It would be funny if you woke up tomorrow and found out you owned slaves and you were the only one and nobody thought it weird I mean that would be pretty funny

I use the word that everyone used at the time. "Slave" is tied up with too many images from movies and dime novels.

We'll I assume George Washington being alive at the time and actually knowing these people and the world they inhabit would have better insights than Tyler Cowen or you or I for that matter.

Yes, and of course he was only chasing down an escaped slave because she would be better off at home on the plantation! Father knows best.
Jeez, for a blog whose readership is supposed to favor personal liberty, there's an awful lot of commenters indifferent to the voiding of that liberty for a whole class of people.

But it is tiresome that Tyler Cowen chose this as his "fact of the day' on a holiday celebrating one of the greatest figures in American history. I thought we were supposed to be celebrating Washington's Birthday. A least a little bit.

Who cares? Now it's "President's Day." Got any interesting Jimmy Carter stories?


josh, thank god Abe Lincoln didn't think like you...

Especially because the job market probably WAS booming for experienced agricultural labor in the American frontier.

Not white people, just those who benefitted from slavery. I assume you didn't, so you are free to go sine flagellum.

Unless he's an Intel shareholder.

I thought he was posting this because of "Fifty Shades Of Grey."

Hagiography is boring; history is more interesting with human characters, with both greatness, flaws, and pettiness (like the leader of America's revolution for freedom owned slaves and acted in a petty, although economically rational, way to protect his property interests in human beings).
I saw nothing in this about white people today having to do anything. Just a fact about President Washington's strategy to avoid freeing his slaves in his lifetime.

We should all feel guilty, whites but blacks also. Jesus and Adam Smith were right we are all flawed and selfish. It is the human condition. I think it is good for all to be reminded of this now and then. I also think blacks should understand that they are no better but would do and have done the same when they had the upper hand. A great thing about capitalism is that it taught people that paying people is more efficient than slavery, you need fewer overseers.


"I also think blacks should understand that they are no better but would do and have done the same when they had the upper hand."

Not "would have done" but "did do".

The Europeans were the buyers, but Africans were a large part of the supply chain, and also had slavery completely internal to Africa.

For that matter, read about the African slaves not traded; e.g. the massacres of Dahomey...

You know I didn't find this depressing, but apparently I'm unusually fortunate. You see, I actually already knew that Washington owned a plantation and owned a large number of slaves - apparently, such knowledge is far harder to come by than I'd assume, since I learned this grade school, but that was years ago. And since he owned the slaves (and continued to do so for the remainder of his life) I also figured he must have taken steps to prevent their taking off and not returning.

And furthermore, since the events outlined here occurred over 200 years ago, I'm able to insulate myself from depressing thoughts because of the large time separation. Were I not to have this gift, I might find myself weeping over the soldiers killed in Revolutionary War battles, or perhaps prostrate in grief over the casualties in the Thirty Years War, or unable to shake images of early European farmers slaughtered by marauders from the East 5000 years ago. But why go back so far - I understand that a man named Dwight Eisenhower, who was president a mere 60 years ago, willingly sent thousands of young men onto heavily guarded beaches to be slaughtered. Where does it end?

But like I said, I'm lucky. The rest of you can go ahead and hang your heads in shame, or wrack your brains in guilt over the terrible crimes committed in the distant past in your name.

Good point. and funny.

There are all sorts of events in the twentieth century that I'd love to ask you about.

Well put. Tyler, do you always get depressed thinking about Washington, or is there anything new and surprising here that is causing your depression?

What I can't fathom is why people leaving in previous ages were so universally bad compared to those of us living now. While, depending on your disposition, it may or may not be depressing to consider the inequities of our ancestors, we can at least take comfort that in 2015 our ways of life are morally blameless and will be judged so by our descendants.

Let's test that theory out. Do you think a rich man with no slaves was morally equal to his doppelganger who owned and flogged several dozen, or is it all just hand-wavey history stuff from before we had iPads?

Oh no - floggings! Well of course floggings are the greatest evil ever perpetrated - we all know that!

I wonder about Admiral Nelson - some would consider him a pretty significant historical figure, what with the Battle of Trafalgar and all. But I guess we really should dismiss him outright - how many hundreds - never mind dozens - of men must have been flogged under his command? As I struggle to write this through the tears filling my eyes at these poor men's suffering, I resolve never again to set my gaze upon that evil man's statue!

At least one difference is that Trafalgar's men signed up for a task they knew would involve flogging. They weren't, you know, forced to be on the ships for no pay from birth.

Another difference was that one was imposing discipline in military life or death situations, and one wanted his cotton picked faster.

"At least one difference is that Trafalgar’s men signed up"

Did they all? Didn't the Royal Navy use "impressment?" Didn't the War of 1812 have something to do with that?

Weren't even many sailors who put an X on a piece of paper induced by drunkenness?

I suspect the irony is lost on an alarming percentage of the population.

It's more fun if you imagine there is no irony.

Like it says in "1984," the purpose of controlling the past is to control the future. Thus, for example, we hear all the time about the WASP role in slavery and almost never hear about the sizable Jewish role in black slavery in the New World:

Interesting article. Thanks.

Wow! in 1780s Big Government stopped job creators from living freely in Phliadelphia!

Frankly, it's easy to be against slavery today, none of us depend on slavery. It was even relatively easy to be against slavery in Philadelphia in 1780, because few there depended on it as well. What wasn't easy was to be against slavery in virginia in 1780, where lots of people did depend on it, and where you were told slavery wasn't all that bad your entire life. The fact that Washington came to be against it despite his pay check depending on him not being against it is more of a credit to him than a detriment.

Perhaps Washington expressed opposition to slavery, but his actions suggest otherwise. Most of his acts as President on the matter only furthered the institution (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Act, arming and funding Haitian slave owners).

To his credit, he freed about 100 of his estate's ~300 slaves posthumously, but stipulated that they remain enslaved until his wife passed away. Even then, most of the family's slaves remained in bondage. Basically, that act is saying, "I oppose slavery only so long as it doesn't affect my paycheck or that of my wife."

His wife's estate owned most of the other slaves. Remember, Washington married into money. He would have had to pay 6,000 pounds to his wife's family if he freed those slaves.If you read the entire NYT article Tyler links to, you see Martha was the Washington to hold in low esteem.

Right, George Washington was a helpless victim.

White women are victims, ergo they had nothing do with slavery.

Not a helpless victim, but not really in a position to do that much.

Did someone force George Washington to marry Martha?

Just pointing out that this *is* George Washington we're talking about -- the courageous military and political leader, the guy who was not afraid of George III. I.e. one of the last people of whom "not really in a position to do that much" could ever be said.

Of course Martha W was morally responsible too. But actions speak.

It would have been interesting if he had children, though he was devoted to Martha's descendants.

A bit of a false dichotomy here. The American Revolution began a process of gradual emancipation. That was the public policy and Washington's actions were consistent with it. (Note: Virginia had requirements for emancipation that had to be met, which were not inexpensive)

Lincoln held Washington's life story in high esteem for his commitment to the eventual eradication of slavery. A cynical interpretation is that Washington was concerned about his historical reputation, not the happiness of his slaves. But this denotes shame, something that was no longer felt by the slave powers in the run up to the Civil War.

Right. 18th Century tobacco slavery was a low margin business that didn't generate a lot of ideological rationalizations other than to say that slavery is naturally on its way out, so no need to rush the inevitable. In contrast, 19th Century cotton slavery generated huge profits and accompany ideological rationalizations for why slavery was an objective good and should be extended in space and time.

"Make me chaste, Lord, but just not yet."

"where lots of people did depend on it"

The slave-owners, you mean. Your tender concern for their well-being is appreciated.

"The fact that Washington came to be against it"

"Came to be against it" by evading state laws against it, and by pursuing an escaped slave? That's a funny way to be against slavery.

Washington was complying with the law, and the law had the six month provision in it for non-residents. He didn't invent the law or stretch it's intent. Pennsylvania law also completely exempted members of Congress from the six-month limitation and foreign dignitaries, and probably would have exempted officials in the executive branch if an executive had been foreseeable in 1780 (or if Washington had asked).

Under principles of comity, the courts eventually held that states could not prevent slave-owners having slaves in "free states" on a temporary basis. This was true until the Dred Scott decision uprooted all of the prior understandings.

I think the point of the article was that the Washingtons vigorously pursued the escapee One Judge for several years. Even in their situation they could probably have let it slide. No doubt the felt they had to make an example.

The key point to remember about Washington is that when he chopped down the cherry tree, he admitted it. He hesitated for a few seconds, but just couldn't tell a lie!

Great point about marginal incentives. Similar to New York City's byzantine rules about who has to pay a city tax, which leads to some people taking care to spend 183 days a year in Connecticut (woe betide he who miscounts a day). Shame it's been completely lost on the commentors above.

Isn't is "Presidents' Day", not "President's Day", that is, plural possessive, not singular possessive?

I agree 100% with Tyler for a change. This post is depressive. If the moral fiber of our heroes (also see MLK , JFK and many many others) is this good, you kind of wonder how did mankind survive for this long...

I never imagined that JFK had much moral fibre. Nor do I imagine that in his private capacity he ever did anything nearly as bad as owning a slave. Such is the moral improvement of societies: the people in it are still the same mix of good and bad even as the world improves.

I'm not generally a fan of the Founding Fathers, but to mention Washington - who, warts and all, was a considerable figure - in the same breath as JFK, an amply medicated, frivolous rogue, seems a step too far for me.

Amply medicated after having his back broken while fighting in the South Pacific.
God forbid a veteran receive medication for his back pain. Also he was not just a rouge, he was the President of the United States. Who was killed in the line of duty.

So it was the slaves that brewed beer in the White House.

Interesting piece of history. Thanks for the pointer to that article.

Instead of following the law and relinquishing some of his unethically obtained wealth, increasing freedom and becoming a better human being in the process, Washington chose to dodge the law in a sneaky way.

Now that's presidential.

At least Washington wasn't as devious as Jefferson...

Washington had problems with other varieties of humans, too.

You can see why Lincoln said in his House Divided speech that the country couldn't remain half slave and half free.

Railroads meant more travel between parts of the country, so if you were a rich Southerner you'd be more likely to visit New York to do business or for pleasure. And you'd want to take at least your personal valet slave with you. If he ran off while in a free state, then you'd want the state government to round him up and bring him back to you even though the people of that state disapproved of slavery. That's what the 1857 Dredd Scott decision did: the South crushed the state's rights of the northern states to not enforce slavery on behalf of Southern slaveowners.

Of course, when the South lost control of the federal government in 1860, they immediately shifted 180 degrees to rhetoric of State's Rights.

Well I hate to be fair to Southern slave owners, but the Constitution (Article 4 Section 2) clearly obligated free states to return escaped slaves.

But for some reason that article was not at issue in Dred Scott. I don't fully understand the courts reasoning, but they started by denying that the escaped slave was a citizen.

Dred Scott determined that slaves were property, not people with rights under the Constitution. It did not overturn state laws on slavery (no state had to allow slavery) but did prevent slaves from suing for their freedom if they happened to be taken into free territory.

Beat me to it.

Yessir, it's a terrible wrong and an injustice to continue slavery but it's just fine and dandy to exterminate native Americans because you want their property. Maybe it is worse to consider another human property than it is to kill them.

A better account is told in Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. Washington was not a fan of slavery, but he always had money problems. There story sounds worse here when you impose the values of 2015 on the eighteenth century.

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