63. Putting Freedom in Perspective

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George Washington’s letter of August 24, 1774 to his friend Bryan Fairfax on the subject of American resistance to British colonial policy sheds some light on his innermost thoughts about slavery. In it, he wrote:

I shall not undertake to say where the Line between Great Britain and the Colonies should be drawn, but I am clearly of opinion that one ought to be drawn; & our Rights clearly ascertaind. I could wish, I own, that the dispute had been left to Posterity to determine, but the Crisis is arrivd when we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.

Washington was about to depart his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, for Philadelphia to participate in the first Continental Congress, where the delegates asserted their right to be free of what they perceived as oppressive imperial rule, notwithstanding the ubiquity of human bondage about them.

Washington and his fellow slave owners were, of course, caught up in the paradox that applied to many of the more prominent members of America’s founding generation who engineered the rebellion of the 1770s. Their cause was that of liberty for some juxtaposed with a commitment to, or at least acquiescence in, slavery for others. In fact, at least a third of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were practitioners in our most infamous institution.

Still, the fathers of American independence and their followers were more than mindful of the extreme contradiction between their revolution in support of liberty and the slavery embedded in colonial society. Perhaps no more telling example of that clash of values can be found than in July 1776 when an unruly mob used slave labor to dismantle an equestrian statue of George III in New York City, acting in the cause of the colonists’ cherished liberty against a detested symbol of the English monarchy.

Certainly there was no dearth of British observers who opined about the hypocrisy of rebels advocating for liberty while owning slaves. Indeed, England’s renowned essayist, Samuel Johnson, in opposing Patriot protests against Britain’s colonial policy,  caustically inquired why it was that “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to assume that slavery’s cruelty and omnipresence (legal in every colony but most prevalent in the South) spurred the grievances among Americans that produced their insurgence. Freedom seemed that much more precious when the colonists continually witnessed the humiliation and exploitation to which the enslaved were subjected. Hence Washington’s above-referenced observation. It arguably took a war—and the service of black soldiers’ in the Continental Army—to gradually move the needle in his thinking on this subject such that he became the only Founding Father to free his slaves, albeit upon his death.

Presumably Washington’s experience and reflection finally gave way to an understanding later articulated by Lincoln in regard to those defending the morality, or at least what they asserted as the practical necessity, of human bondage: “Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.”