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.



I have a couple of tidbits I’ve been wanting to share with you, so get your pens and paper ready.

1. Congratulations to Professor Annette Gordon-Reed for winning prize after exquisite prize for her incredible, important, must-be-read-by-all-Americans book, The Hemingses of Monticello. In addition to taking last year’s National Book Award for Non-Fiction, and the Pulitzer for History earlier this year, it was recently announced that Hemingses was awarded the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.

2. Christopher Moore, curator of the Schomberg Center and one of the generous vetters for Chains, has written a book with his eight-year-old son Matthew based on a 400 million-year-old boulder that is now in a park near their home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The book is not published yet, but the story has been turned into a musical, Matthew Takes Mannahatta, which opened last weekend. Bravo!

3. An independent bookseller (who is NOT my daughter) has written an open letter to all authors about the vital bookseller-author relationship. Please read it.

4. The first two books of my Vet Volunteers series have been translated into Japanese!!! Squeeeeeeeee!



  They have ILLUSTRATIONS!! How cool is that?

And that is all the Tidbits from the Forest today.


I know you guys are getting sick of this, but the contest is almost over. Zoe still needs one vote a day, every day, if she is to stand a chance at winding up in abox of Cheerios next year.

When I was a kid, I lived in a house that had the most ridiculous rule in the world: no reading at the breakfast table. This meant that I read the cereal box obsessively. I can still recite way too many lists of ingredients.

When I grew up and became The Boss, I made a new rule: you MUST bring a book to the breakfast table. And now, because all the stars are lining up, one my books – THE HAIR OF ZOE FLEEFENBACHER GOES TO SCHOOL – could be the book that winds up on a million breakfast tables. This is most important to me because a lot of the kids who get a book in their cereal live in families who don’t have the extra money for books. Because of this fun contest, if they eat a good breakfast, they get a free book. That is pretty cool.

But Zoe still needs your vote. Please!


1. Go to the voting page.

2. In the bottom right corner, click on MORE BOOKS twice. (Yes, this is the tricky part. No, I don’t know why Zoe is buried at the absolute back of the pack. Kind of makes you feel sorry for her, huh?) That will take you to ZOE.

3. Click on the yellow box that says VOTE!

4. Notify all of your friends, neighbors, family members, the folks at church or temple or mosque or other house of faith, the rest of the PTA, the people at the firehouse, everyone in your classroom, and tell them all pretty, pretty please with a headful of unruly red hair, PLEASE VOTE FOR ZOE.

5. Do this every day until the end of October. That is only a few more days!



Hero worship & WFMAD 28

Toni Morrison is one of my heroes for many reasons; she’s a gifted, brilliant, powerful author, she lived in Syracuse NY for a while, and now, she’s helping our country remember. (Here’s a non-NY Times link for those of you who aren’t registered with them.)

That bench is now on my Must-Visit list.

I am deep, deep in my research, trying to figure out how to wind the strands of my character’s story around historical events. I’m swimming in a sea of correspondence with historians and preparing to meet a couple of them.

One of the more interesting aspects of writing historical fiction is meeting those historians who have made one tiny facet of your story their entire life’s work. It’s sort of like challenging Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one, knowing that he’s not going to cut you any slack, but feeling like you’ve got your game on and you have a chance.

I spent a good hunk of yesterday marshaling my arguments for a historian who doesn’t believe that oxen were used to pull the artillery wagons towards a fort under siege. I’m pretty sure I’m right; he’s wavering, but he doesn’t seem to have any evidence to back up his concerns. If any of you, by chance, have anything to contribute to this conversation, please get in touch with me.

In honor of today’s WFMAD session, I present to you…..

… my desk.


Today’s goal: Write 15 minutes and maybe a little more, because it’s Monday.

Today’s mindset: organized

Today’s prompt: Today is all about the space in which you write. I have written in many, many places (my former writing spaces are an essay waiting to be written) and now I have my own slice of heaven. I work on the third floor of our house, in a loft space tucked under the eaves. I have a giant teacher’s desk from the 1920s that I trash-picked from my parents’ trailer park. I do not have enough bookshelves, but BH is going to change that when I go away on book tour. This is my creative kingdom.

If you are taking your writing seriously enough to try and do it every day, then it’s time to examine your writing space. What else besides writing happens there? Does it say “Dedicated Writer at Work” or “Sure, Go Ahead, Interrupt Me, I Don’t Really Want to Finish This Novel”?

The Guardian has a regular feature on writers’ rooms. I hope they do more.

If you can’t think of anything else to write about, today I’d like you to sketch out or write about the positive, affirming changes you are going to make to your writing space. Do you need to tidy it up? Get rid of visual clutter? Pay the stack of bills? Add flowers or a candle? Is there music in your space?

Extra-super bonus points will be awarded to those folks who actually act on their palns for their writing nook.