Washington and Jefferson On Slavery

 This post is from a paper I wrote in Law School. When I have a chance, I should like someday to take more time to research and develop the topic further.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Slavery


Many people today condemn the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for permitting slavery to continue in the United States when they formed the new Government under the Constitution.[1] However, such contempt and condemnation is misplaced. Although it is true that the new Constitution approved by both of these men permitted slavery to continue to exist until at least 1808[2] and required fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners,[3] the Founders knew that without these concessions, the Constitution would never be accepted.[4]  Even though Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, most people overlook the fact that both abhorred slavery and desired to abolish slavery completely. In this paper, I will present several comments from Washington and Jefferson expounding in their own words, their views on slavery.


In his early life, George Washington, like many others of his day, bought and sold slaves much like buying and selling land.[5] However, in his later life, General Washington grew to deplore slavery and to desire its abolition. He made his desire known in a letter near the end of the revolutionary War to the Marquis de Lafayette. General Washington wrote:

The scheme, my dear Marqs. which you propose as a precedent, to encourage the emancipation of the black people of this Country from that state of Bondage in wch. they are held, is a striking evidence of the benevolence of your Heart. I shall be happy to join you in so laudable a work.[6]

General Washington wished the legislatures would abolish slavery, but considering himself a man of honor, he felt compelled that the slave laws be properly enforced until such laws could be passed ending slavery. In a letter to Robert Morris concerning a slave being harbored by a Society of Quakers instead of being returned to his master as required by law, Washington told Morris that the slave should be returned because of the need to be obedient to law. However, Washington also expressed to Morris his contempt for slavery, calling it a “misfortune” to those who own slaves[7] and expressed his desire that slavery be abolished by legislative means.

I hope it will not be conceived by these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.[8]

In 1786, Washington declared to John Mercer his intention to never “possess another slave by purchase.”[9] He reiterated his desire for the legislature to abolish slavery.

In a letter to Benjamin Lincoln, Washington expressed his “only unavoidable subject of regret” in life was to have owned slaves.[10] He tried to make them comfortable and to prepare a foundation for the children of his slaves for a destiny outside slavery. Upon his death, Washington did all he could to give them that destiny. In his last will and testament, Washington declared that upon the death of his wife, all the slaves he owned of his own right should be freed. He wished he could free them all sooner, but since he did not have the power to free the slaves his wife had brought into the marriage, he felt that freeing some and not others would break up families since some of his slaves had married his wife’s slaves. Washington also mandated that the freed slaves who could not take care of themselves die to infirmities, age, or other disabilities should be well clothed and fed by his heirs and that the freed slaves be taught to read, write, and perform a useful occupation. He declared that none of them should ever be sold, as he found this degrading. These duties of his will were then most pointedly and forcefully appointed to his executors to be carried out without evasion, neglect, or delay.[11]


Thomas Jefferson was also a slave holder but wished to see slavery abolished in America. He spoke out forcefully against slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. In listing the offenses committed by King George, Jefferson wrote:

[H]e has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere … determined to keep an open market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.[12]

This clause was later redacted by the editing committee, but shows Jefferson’s contempt for slavery.

Jefferson worked hard to eradicate slavery, but he knew it could not be done all at once. The economy had come to depend on slavery, slaves, in general, did not have enough education or skills to take care of themselves if freed, and prejudice against blacks was so wide-spread that it was believed even if the Negros were freed, they could not live in the same society with whites. But Jefferson worked to overcome these obstacles. In 1778, he pushed through the Virginia legislature a bill that “stopped the evil of importation, leaving to future efforts [slavery’s] final eradication.”[13] Jefferson also prohibited slavery in the new Northwest Territories when he drafted the Northwest Ordinance in 1787.[14]

In Query XIV of his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson notes a project to codify the common law of England. He proposed an alteration concerning slavery, requiring that all slaves born after the passing of the act, should be emancipated, educated, and upon reaching a certain age, be provided with arms, farming equipment, and other necessities and sent out to colonize such places as should seem proper.[15]

He elaborated further about why the freed slaves should not simply be incorporated into white society. Jefferson believed that there were too many deep-rooted prejudices in white society to make such incorporation successful and that the remembrance of the wrongs done them while enslaved might lead to violence against their former masters.[16]

In 1824, Jefferson laid out in a letter to Jared Sparks a detailed plan to emancipate all the slaves in America and to colonize them in Africa.[17] In this plan, those born to slaves would be emancipated by left with their mothers and taught an occupation until they should reach an age sufficient to allow them to be sent to a colony in Africa with the tools necessary to live in a free society there. The slave owners would be recompensed for their loss. This gradual emancipation would also give those societies that depended on slave labor time to change their economy away from dependency on slave labor.[18]


Although both Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, they were both very much opposed to slavery and wished to see it legally abolished. They also had concern for their slaves that their immediate emancipation might leave them unprotected and unprepared for life as a free person. They did what they could to forward the cause of freedom for all men and should be extolled for their efforts to abolish slavery.


[1] Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968; New York: Norton, 1977) 429-481.

[2] U.S. Const. Art. I, § 9

[3] U.S. Const. Art. IV, § 2

[4] Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia, (Back Bay Books 1966) 201-204

[5] George Washington Writings, (John Rhodehamel, ed., Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1997) 110

[6] Id. at 510

[7] Id. at 593

[8] Id. at 594

[9] Id. at 607

[10] Id. at 701-702

[11] Id. at 1023-1024

[12] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Alfred A. Knopf 1997) 239

[13] Jefferson, Writings, (Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1984) 34

[14] Thomas Jefferson, Northwest Ordinance: An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, Art. 6 (July 13, 1787).

[15] Jefferson, Writings, (Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1984) 263-264

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 1484-1487

[18] Id.

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