Note: This letter was submitted but not published. It is in response to: Washington Slept Here
I enjoyed Michael Beschloss's column on Mount Vernon's terrific new museum and Washington's ambivalence about slavery, but it left readers with the impression that all the slaves there were freed. The 1799 slave census lists 124 owned by George and 153 owned by Martha's first husband's estate (called "dower" slaves) of which she had the lifetime use. It was because at least a dozen of the dowers had intermarried with his own, and freeing one spouse but not the other would tear marriages and families apart, that George, in his will, instructed that his slaves not be freed until Martha's death.
Martha freed George's slaves in 1801. According to Abigail Adams: "Many of those who are liberated have married with what are called the dower Negroes, so that they quit all their connections..." At least one couple, Postilion Joe (a dower) and Sall (a Washington slave), managed to remain together: he enslaved, she and their 3 sons free.
Martha willed the one slave that she owned outright to her grandson. Following her death in 1802, the 153 dowers were divided up among her grandchildren.
Mount Vernon should be commended for its mature treatment of slavery in the new museum. These are highly uncomfortable issues, ones that we are struggling with here in Philadelphia at the President's House site.
Edward Lawler, Jr.
Independence Hall Association www.ushistory.org