Slavery was legal in all of the 13 Colonies and, at times, some areas of the North had higher rates of slaveholding than the South: A comparison of 1703 tax records shows that 3% of taxpayers in Boston were slaveholders, 7% of those in Philadelphia, and 42% of those in New York City. As this last figure indicates, slaveholding was more than an upper class phenomenon. Enslaved Africans were so cheap and plentiful in New York City that even working-class people could, and did, choose to own them. It also speaks volumes about the depressed price of manual labor, white or black, and of the difficulty of free labor to compete with slave labor. The constitution of the Vermont Territory (1777) prohibited slavery, but rather than freeing the enslaved, it required slaveholders to remove them from the territory. The history of abolitionism should not be romanticized; while the majority of individuals acted out of moral rectitude, others acted out of self-interest.
Pennsylvania was the first state to take steps to free enslaved people. In retrospect, its Gradual Abolition Act (1780) seems absurdly conservative and overly respectful of the property rights of slaveholders. But it was radical in its time. Further importation into the state was prohibited and, to police this, slaveholders were required to annually register their enslaved. Failure to do so (or to do so properly) resulted in the enslaved being freed. No one was freed at first. FUTURE children of enslaved mothers would be born free, but were required to work as indentured servants until age 28. (White orphans or wards of the state also were required to work as indentured servants, but until age 21.) Members of Congress, which met in Philadelphia until 1783, were specifically exempted from the state law. Slaveholders from other states were allowed to hold their enslaved in Pennsylvania for 6 months, after which the enslaved were granted the legal power to free themselves.
Weaknesses in the 1780 law soon became apparent. Non-resident slaveholders could subvert it by transporting their enslaved out of state before the 6-month deadline, then bring them back into Pennsylvania. Even a single day outside the state meant a new 6-month residency would be required for the enslaved to qualify for freedom. A 1788 amendment to the state law prohibited this rotation. It also prohibited Pennsylvania slaveholders from separating enslaved husbands and wives or mothers and small children, from transporting a pregnant enslaved woman to another state (so her child would be born enslaved), and required the birth of a child to an enslaved mother to be registered within 6 months.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court abolished slavery in 1783, freeing everyone immediately. But most other Northern states steered a course between the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts models, setting a date, decades in the future, upon which all their enslaved would be free. The one exception to this was New Jersey, which copied the Pennsylvania model and freed only future children of the enslaved. Legal slavery ended in Pennsylvania in 1847, freeing the fewer than 100 enslaved who remained. Legal slavery ended in New Jersey in 1865, the same year that it ended in the Confederacy, freeing the fewer than 20 enslaved who remained.
The U.S. Constitution, drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 and ratified by a majority of the states in 1788, created a federal government with three branches — the executive, legislative and judicial. It also protected slavery. Without ever mentioning the word “slave,” Article 4 guaranteed the legal right of a slaveholder to recover a fugitive “held to service or labor” from anywhere within U.S. territory.
George Washington was inaugurated in April 1789 as the first President of the United States under the U.S. Constitution. This occurred in New York City, then the national capital. Seven enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon worked there in his presidential household alongside 14 or 15 white servants. In July 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which named Philadelphia the national capital for a 10-year period while the permanent capital was under construction on the banks of the Potomac River.
Washington moved into the President’s House in November 1790. He initially brought 8 enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon — Oney Judge, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Moll, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Paris — who worked alongside 16 white servants. Behind the scenes, Pennsylvania’s governor, William Mifflin, sought to amend the state’s gradual abolition law to exempt officers of the executive and judicial branches. (Members of Congress remained exempted.) This seems to have been part of an overall plan to make Philadelphia more attractive to slaveholders, in the hope of convincing Congress to abandon the District of Columbia and name Philadelphia the permanent capital of the United States. Mifflin’s scheme to amend the state law failed due to vigorous opposition by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.
From Washington’s correspondence, it is clear that he did not understand the Pennsylvania law. He initially assumed that it applied only to those over age 28. An additional complication was that 6 of the 8 enslaved were not owned by him. They were called “dower slaves” because they were part of the Estate of Daniel Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband. She did not own, but had the lifetime use of them. Washington sought the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, who urged that he rotate the enslaved out of Pennsylvania prior to the 6-month deadline. Washington did so beginning in May 1791, and replaced some of them with white servants.
There is no question that Washington violated Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Law, and did so knowingly and repeatedly. But the state law’s intent seems to have been to exempt officers of the federal government, not just members of Congress. Had Washington challenged the state law in court, it would have clarified the legal position of slaveholding officers of the executive and judicial branches, but it also would have called attention to his slaveholding.
Giles and Paris, both stable hands, left Philadelphia in March 1791. Christopher Sheels, Washington’s personal servant, and 12-year-old Richmond, who assisted his father, the cook Hercules, were returned to Mount Vernon by January 1792. Austin, who may have worked both in the stables and served the family meals, died in Maryland in December 1794. “Postilion Joe,” who appears in the documentary record in 1795, may have replaced him. Oney Judge escaped to freedom from the Philadelphia house in May 1796. Hercules was returned to Mount Vernon in late 1796, and escaped to freedom from there in February 1797. Moll, a woman in her fifties who cared for Martha Washington’s grandchildren, worked in Washington’s presidential household for his whole term in office.
As President, Washington’s only official action regarding slavery was signing the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act into law. Passed by the U.S. Senate and by a 47-to-8 margin in the U.S. House of Representatives, the act created the legal mechanism for implementing Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution. It became a federal crime to assist an escaped slave, punishable by severe fines. Escaped slaves became fugitives-for-life, subject to capture at any time within the territory of the United States. The act required that suspected escaped slaves be brought before a federal magistrate who would rule on the evidence of the case. But a whole industry of slave-catching developed, with some unscrupulously working outside the legal system, and even kidnapping free blacks and selling them into slavery.
From his correspondence, it is clear that Washington in his later years was deeply conflicted about slavery. He considered a scheme to free the “dowers” by renting them out to other plantations, with the income going toward buying them from the Custis Estate. He resolved to free his own enslaved through his will, but made no known attempt to buy the “dowers” himself and free them. His will contains a stern lecture about the evil of breaking up enslaved families by sale. But his inaction on the “dowers” left at least 12 marriages between “dower” and “Washington” slaves in turmoil following his death, with some family members freed and others enslaved for life.
Many of these issues come together in the case of Oney Judge. More is known about her than any other Mount Vernon slave because she was twice interviewed in the 1840s by abolitionist newspapers. She was a “dower”, a seamstress and probably a companion for Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis. Oney was about age 16 in 1789, when she was brought to New York City to work in Washington’s presidential household. As Martha Washington’s personal servant, she would have dressed and constantly attended her. There is documentation that she accompanied the First Lady on social visits and trips. Oney’s half-brother, Austin, 15 years her senior, also worked in the New York and Philadelphia households.
To get around Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, in May 1791, Martha Washington took Oney and Christopher Sheels on a 2-day trip to Trenton, New Jersey. This interrupted their 6-month residency in Pennsylvania and prevented their qualifying for freedom. Some of the other enslaved had been sent to Mount Vernon prior to the 6-month deadline. The cook, Hercules, understood what was going on, but did not claim his freedom (possibly since it would have meant permanent separation from his children).
Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, Eliza Custis, married Thomas Law in March 1796. The Washingtons were unable to attend the wedding, but invited the bride and groom to honeymoon at the President’s House. According to Oney’s 1845 interview, the First Lady informed her that SHE was to be given to the Laws. (Technically, Martha did not have the power to give Oney away, just as she did not have the power to free her. But she could direct that Oney was to live with and serve the Laws, and she could make it clear that it was her wish, following her death, that the Laws inherit Oney from the Custis Estate.) Oney refused to become a wedding gift:
"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."
She was hidden upon The Nancy, a sloop from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (She waited to tell her story until the captain, John Bolles, had died, lest he be charged with assisting an escaped slave under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act.) Oney believed that she was safe in Portsmouth, but she was recognized on the street by a friend of Nelly Custis. By September 1796, Washington knew where to find her. Washington asked his friend, Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, to handle the matter, and Wolcott had Joseph Whipple, the collector of customs for Portsmouth, track down Oney and interrogate her. Whipple reported back that Oney refused to return voluntarily, and he balked at Wolcott’s suggestion that she be kidnapped and compelled to return.
Washington was working outside the legal process established under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act — the very act that HE had signed into law. But doing things officially would have meant doing it publicly, and he seems to have been guarding his legacy. After the first scheme was abandoned, he let things go until after his presidency, when his nephew, Burnwell Bassett Jr., travelled to Portsmouth to bring Oney back.
By September 1798, Oney had married a free-black sailor, Jack Staines, and was the mother of an infant. Her husband was away on a voyage when Bassett appeared on her doorstep and tried to convince her to return to the Washingtons. She refused, telling him: “I am free now and choose to remain so.” Bassett’s plan to kidnap her that night was foiled by New Hampshire’s senator, John Langdon, who sent word for her to go into hiding.
Oney had two more children with Jack Staines, and he and their children predeceased her. She had a hard life, which she recounted in the two 1840s interviews. One of them noted that legally, she remained a fugitive, and could be recaptured and dragged back into slavery at any moment. Oney Judge Staines lived the last 52 years of her life in Greenland, New Hampshire, and died there on February 25, 1848.