My conflicted relationship with George Washington







I have a conflicted relationship with George Washington. This bubbles to the surface every time I see someone misattribute a quote to him on Facebook, or misstate facts about his changing attitudes about sundry and various things, or pass along bald-faced lies.





Having read way too many books about him and the context of his era, in addition to spending years studying his letters, I have to say that I really, really like George.

He pulled together an army out of scraps of other men’s dreams and his own ambition. He was an incredible leader, a commanding officer whom his men looked up to and admired. He had a fierce temper which he kept under control… most of the time. He was ruthless when the situation demanded it. He listened to advisors. He battled America’s political leaders in his ongoing efforts to feed, clothe, and pay his troops. He was bold. Patient. A great dancer. Apparently his calves were so well-defined that when ladies got an eye-full of them tastefully decked out in fashionably thin stockings, they’d swoon. He loved his family. He had dental problems. He believed in self-sacrifice.

America would not exist without him. I believe he is the key, irreplaceable Founding Father.




But Washington defies bumper stickers and memes. You can’t boil him down to a slogan or two because HE CHANGED HIS MIND about several critical issues. This might be what I love about him the most. His experiences during the Revolution changed him, particularly the way he looked upon African-Americans and the institution of slavery.




I posted the meme above about Washington owning slaves on Tumblr on July 3rd. Most people acknowledged the painful hypocrisy. But I was stunned by the people who rushed in to snarl at me. They insisted that Washington had freed his slaves after the Revolution, or that they were never his slaves at all, they belonged to Martha, and… and….

It is hard to admit that a man whom so many admire had a lot of ugliness in his life. But it’s time to get over our squeamishness and deal with the facts.

1. George Washington became a slave owner at age 11, when he inherited ten slaves from his father. He inherited eight more a decade later from his brother. He bought and sold slaves on his own account and became responsible for the lives (and profits) of the slaves who belonged to his wife, Martha. (George did not own her slaves directly; he had to manage them, along with the property of Martha’s first husband, as a sort of trust for Martha’s children and grandchildren.)

2. Washington had slaves whipped, chained, and sold off to the brutal slave owners in the Caribbean.  (Note to haters: there is primary source documentation for this in the form of Washington’s letters and account books. Don’t waste your time and mine in the comment section by calling me names. Deal with it, OK?)

There is conflicting evidence about how he treated his slaves outside of punishments. Some letters written by visitors to Washington’s estates describe him as a harsh master, others describe him as more gentle than most.

3. From 1759-1772 George Washington bought at least 42 slaves. The number of people he owned increased beyond this as his slaves had families.

4. The American Revolution dramatically changed the way that Washington viewed African-Americans and the institution of slavery. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Before the War, Washington was a typical white Virginian, upper class slave owner. Reading his letters in which he talks about selling people, punishing them, etc. will churn your stomach.

During the War he experienced first-hand the number of African-Americans who were willing to fight for the Patriot Army, for the nation’s freedom and their own. At first, Washington did not want any men of color joining the Continental Army. He changed his mind.

Ten percent of the soldiers at Valley Forge were African-American men. (The source for this statistic is the Continental Army’s own head count.) Most of those were free black men. A few were slaves who had run away to join the army. Other were slaves who were forced to serve in the place of the man who owned them. There is plenty of documentation of slaves who were promised their freedom by their masters if they served in the army, and then had their owners renege on the deal.

Conversations with white aides who believed in freeing slaves, notably the Marquis de Lafayette and aide-de-camp John Laurens also helped Washington change his mind about the morality of slavery.

(John Laurens was the son of Henry Laurens, who was the fifth president of the Continental Congress and one of the richest men in America. Henry Laurens owned hundreds of slaves. He made a fortune kidnapping Africans, transporting them across the Atlantic and selling them into slavery. From 1749 – 1762 his company, Austin & Laurens, sold more than 10,000 human beings. His son John, in contrast, thought slavery was immoral and pushed hard to be allowed to form a regiment from South Carolina of African-American men who would be given their freedom in exchange for joining the military. His plan was ridiculed and defeated.)

The other factor in Washington’s change of heart was his travels through the Mid-Atlantic and New England states during the war. Washington was a practical farmer who grew up only seeing large-scale farming performed by slaves. North of Virginia he saw well-managed farms that were run using only paid labor. This opened his eyes.

As a result of all of this, Washington decided that he would never buy or sell another slave. At that point he owned 105 people outright, and he managed the additional 111 who were owned by Martha (that was the trust I mentioned earlier).

5. In his will, Washington freed all the slaves that he owned and made sure that they would be cared for and supported as they adjusted to their lives as free people. When he died he owned 123 people and Martha owned 153. He could not free the slaves owned by Martha’s first husband’s estate because of Virginia law.

The language in George Washington’s will is fascinating and incredibly specific. He went to great lengths to make sure that Martha’s four grandchildren – who he knew would be super unhappy at not inheriting his slaves – could not break the will. Washington made sure that the child slaves he owned would be bound out to learn trades, and to learn how to read and write. Those children were to all be given their complete freedom when they reached age twenty-five.




I hate the fact that Washington was a slave owner. I hate that he and most of the other Founding Fathers participated in slavery. I am furious that they didn’t have the balls to write a Constitution that freed all Americans, instead of just freeing the white ones.

But I’m proud of George for being man enough to learn, grow, and change. That’s why he’s my favorite Beatle Founding Father.

In my experience, many white people don’t know how to talk about this stuff. Some don’t even know about it. That’s part of the reason I wrote CHAINS and FORGE and it’s why I am working so hard on ASHES. (No, I don’t have a publication date for ASHES yet. Stay tuned!)

Because I love America and I am a big history nerd, I go fifty extra miles in my research to ensure that my fictional stories are well-grounded in historical evidence. That’s why I have four historians review every book for accuracy before we go to press.

What do you think about George Washington? How do you make peace with his positive contributions to American history versus his slave owning and lack of participation in the post-Revolution abolition movement?

PS – Of our first eighteen Presidents, thirteen of them were slaveowners. (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Buchanan, Johnson, and Grant) Did you know that? If not, how does that change the way you think about how you were taught history?



Presidents and Slaves: Helping Students Find the Truth, a teaching activity by Bob Peterson posted on the Zinn Education Project website.

Mount Vernon has a page devoted to Washington and his slaves.

Take this quiz to find out more about our early presidents and slavery.

“Are U.S. History Textbooks Still Full of Lies and Half-Truths?” article on George Mason University’s History News Network website, written by Ray Raphael.

Henry Laurens and The British Slave Trade to Charleston S.C.


Random thoughts, incl Guy Fawkes, Wintergirls & Neeko

Do we teach about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in American schools? Should we?

Remember, remember the fifth of November,

The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

And there is the great speech from V Is For Vendetta. My favorite quote, "Words will always retain their power."

LOOK! I buried the lead! WINTERGIRLS made the Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 2009 list!

And from the Misc. List, Bookavore has a great idea for how to get the books you really want.

And the Office Mouse sends us to this video, because even though I loathe baseball, I love Philadelphia, and the city needs some extra hugs today.

Any rap song that can work in a reference to "Benjamin Franklin, 1776" is a good thing.

Listening to ghosts

I’ve been reading the diary of Benjamin Gilbert, who was an American soldier for the entire Revolution. Most of the diary is filled with one or two line entries about the weather.

May 1778
the 3rd Sunday. Fair Pleasant day.
the 5th Fair and Clear.
the 6th. Fair.
the 7th. Clear and warm.

You get the gist.

Then there are the entries about his health. He may well have been suffering pellagra or beriberi because of vitamin deficiencies, as well as thrush.

November 1778
the 11th I am not so well this Day.
the 12th I had a Very sick Fitt and Puking.
the 13th I am Very Poorly this Day.
the 14th I was Very Poorly in the forenoon

His illness continued.

December 1778
the 25th Christmas. Very Cold. I am still Poorly. At Night snowed.

It’s not all weather and pukes, however. He was long stationed on the Hudson River and talks about standing guard, preparing for attack, and punishments for soldiers.

August 1778
the 17 This Morning one Smith formally Belonging to Colo Greatons Regt [regiment] was Shot to Death for Desertion and Inlisting severall times.

March 1779
Richard Ford of Capt Goodales Compy [company] was Whipped 30 Lashes for selling his shirt.

And a few interesting action/consequence sequences

May 1778
the 9th At Nigt. Serjt. Cook got home his whiskey and we kept it up very High. [i.e. they partied all night long]
the 10th Serjt Cook Got under Guard [arrested] for Selling Liquor.

I could go on and on, but I wanted to give you a flavor of some of the primary sources I read when I’m working on a historical novel. So far, I have not found any scenes in Gilbert’s diary that I want to borrow from for my novel, but I am adopting several of his phrases and medicinal remedies.

If you’re interested in reading the diary yourself, ask your librarian to track down a copy of  A Citizen-Soldier in the American Revolution: The Diary of Benjamin Gilbert in Massachusetts and New York. Edited by Rebecca D. Symmes, pub. The New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, N.Y., 1980.

Write 15 Minutes a Day Challenge (WFMAD) – 4th of July Edition

Today Americans celebrate the courage of the men and women of 1776 who, after a generation of frustration with British economic policies and military heavy-handedness, declared this land to be free and independent, and fought a war to make it so.

Yes, I said “and women.” My newest book, INDEPENDENT DAMES: WHAT YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT THE WOMEN AND GIRLS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION examines the roles that women and girls played during the war.

Please read the Declaration of Independence out loud. Read it to your kids or your partner or your cats. This document is the beginning of our promise to ourselves: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The men who wrote this document fell short of their own dreams, of course. They could not find the courage to grant freedom to people of color, or to recognize that women were equal and able partners. See my forthcoming book, CHAINS, (pub date 10/21) for my take on how the Revolution looked to a slave from Rhode Island.

But the Declaration was a magnificent start. We still have lots of growing to do, as a nation, but as a very smart man said, “America is the sum of our dreams. And what binds us together, what makes us one American family, is that we stand up and fight for each other’s dreams…”

What does this have to do with out writing challenge? Everything.

Today’s goal: Write for fifteen minutes. Don’t judge, don’t edit (yet!), just let the words chase each other onto the page.

Today’s non-fiction prompt: Write your own Declaration of Independence. Declare to yourself and the world which old, unsatisfactory notions and habits (relating to your writing) that you are freeing yourself from. Write down how your former mindset was hurting you; stifling your creativity and strangling your dream. Post some of it in the comments section, if you want.

Today’s fiction prompt: Historical fiction alert! Write down a scene from the interior of the Pennsylvania State House where the men of the Continental Congress were gathered to debate the Declaration, and possibly sign it, thus committing themselves and their families and fortunes to high treason against the King. (Don’t worry about getting the historical details right (YET!). If you were to turn this into a polished piece, you would find all of those while researching.) Try to jump back and forth between the exterior action and dialog (the debate about the document and its consequences) and the interior thoughts of your main character.

Today’s motivation: A lot of people died so that you and I could have the right to write and say what we want. Write for the ones who sacrificed themselves for our freedom. You can do it for fifteen minutes.

Think of me while you’re eating potato salad today.


One of the best days

Sorry for being so absent, but I am trying to finish a bunch of stuff. Details later.

In the meantime, here is one of my most favorite pieces of writing. Give yourself a treat and read it out loud today. Slowly.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

More details here.