IN THE SPRING of 1791, President George Washington left the federal capital in Philadelphia on a tour of the Southern states, an extraordinarily arduous journey by carriage covering more than 1,600 miles.
He left most of his presidential household, including several enslaved African-Americans, behind in Philadelphia. He had brought these men and women north from Mount Vernon to keep his house, cook his meals and drive his carriage. During his journey they were to remain in the city with Mrs. Washington and the members of the president's official family, his secretaries and clerks and the small retinue of hired white servants who worked for him.
Washington left the management of this household in the capable hands of Tobias Lear, his chief presidential secretary. Lear was a young New Englander. He had graduated from Harvard shortly after the Revolutionary War and Washington had hired him to serve as his personal secretary in the mid-1780s.
When Washington was elected president, Lear became a sort of chief of staff. It was in this capacity that Lear wrote to Washington a few days after the president had departed for the South. Lear explained to Washington that he had had a confidential
conversation with Atty. Gen. Edmund Randolph (also a Virginian) about an unexpected predicament involving the president's slaves.
In 1780, as Washington knew, the Pennsylvania legislature had become the first in the nation to pass a law providing for the abolition of slavery. At the time slavery was still legal throughout the United States. There were slaves growing tobacco in Connecticut and Rhode Island, serving in the households of New York merchants, and otherwise woven through the fabric of Northern life. But they were not essential to the economy of the Northern states, and this made it possible for those states to end slavery without economic upheaval.
By the terms of Pennsylvania abolition law, most adult slaves were freed immediately. Special provisions were made for the care of the elderly and younger slaves. Most children were to be bound to their masters until they reached adulthood. These rules applied only to slaves belonging to citizens of the state. Randolph had inquired about the details because to qualify to practice in the state courts of Pennsylvania (in those days the attorney general had little official work to handle and was expected to support himself by representing private clients) he had to become a citizen of the state.
Randolph had been advised that the laws governing the slaves of citizens would apply to him, but that whether or not he was a citizen his property would be governed by the rules regarding transient slaves--those brought into Pennsylvania by citizens of states where slavery was legal.
Pennsylvanians took a practical approach to this problem, not wanting to alienate the many Southern planters who visited the city to do business. The law provided that slaves brought into Pennsylvania by noncitizens would become free automatically after six months of continuous residence. Slave owners were thus able to bring their human property into Pennsylvania and keep it there while they made deals and enjoyed a turn at city life, just as long as they did not keep their slaves in the state too long.
Randolph realized that this provision of the law would soon free not only his slaves, but also the people enslaved by the president of the United States.
Washington was well aware of the Pennsylvania law, but misunderstood its application to noncitizens, and wrote back to Lear that he considered himself exempt. The attorney general advised Lear that the law applied to the president's slaves as certainly as it did to any who resided in the state for six months. In order to keep them from claiming their freedom the president would have to get them out of Pennsylvania.
Pushing south from Fredericksburg, Washington sent back his instructions to Lear. "It is my wish and desire that you would send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chuse to keep, home--for although I do not think they would be benefitted by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. At any rate it might, if they conceived they had a right to it, make them insolent in a State of Slavery."
All of the household slaves except Paris and Hercules, the president explained, were part of the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, John Parke Custis, and Washington would be financially liable to the estate should they claim their freedom. It would be better if they were all taken out of the state. "I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the public," Washington instructed, "and none I think would so effectually do this, as Mrs. Washington coming to Virginia next month." He further instructed "that these Sentiments and advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington."
We can readily imagine what went through Lear's mind when he read these instructions. Growing up in New Hampshire Lear had not encountered many slaves, and that probably didn't change much when he was at Harvard. When he accepted Washington's offer to come south to serve as his secretary, Lear had entertained the idea of settling permanently in Virginia and setting himself up as a plantation master. But he was repulsed by slavery when he saw it in practice--even at Mount Vernon, though he described Washington as the fairest slave owner he had encountered. He had no interest in being an instrument of enslavement.
Lear did not answer Washington instantly. Instead he had another conversation with the attorney general, introducing the subject in such a way that not even Randolph, a friend with the same problem, could know what the president proposed. He finally concluded to send the slaves out of the state in ones and twos, on a variety of pretexts that would not be likely to excite their concern.
The slave whose reaction most worried Lear was Hercules, Washington's cook. Hercules was a proud, intelligent man who possessed a skill that he could use to support himself as a free man. "If Hercules should decline the offer which will be made him of going home," Lear wrote, "it will be a pretty strong proof of his intention to take advantage of the law at the expiration of six months."
Carrying out this deception was distasteful to Lear, who felt compelled for the first and last time to declare his revulsion to slavery in writing: "You will permit me now, Sir," he wrote, "(and I am sure you will pardon me for doing it) to declare, that no consideration should induce me to take these steps to prolong the slavery of a human being, had I not the fullest confidence that they will at some future period be liberated, and the strongest conviction that their situation with you is far preferable to what they would probably obtain in a state of freedom."
This was the most extraordinary thing Lear ever wrote to Washington. Finding slavery repugnant, the modern reader naturally sympathizes with Lear's distaste for the institution, which makes his ultimate conclusion all the more disagreeable. Was Lear right? Were Washington's slaves better off with him than they would have been "in a state of freedom"? Or were Lear and Washington (who had written that he did not "think they would be benefitted by the change") blind to the deep injustice of slavery?
No one, not even Lear, suggested giving Washington's slaves the choice. Some of them took it anyway. They escaped to the North, risking penury for a taste of freedom. Black men and women with special skills could find paying work in the cities of the North. Such people were clearly better off as free men and women. But there was little market for unskilled free labor in the South in the 1790s, and a limited market for unskilled free labor in the North, even in Philadelphia and New York. Even there, poor whites and recent immigrants did most of the simple manual labor.
In a strictly material sense, then, Lear's conclusion may have been correct. Most of Washington's slaves were probably better off with him, materially, than they would have been as free men and women. This was particularly true of household servants like those in Philadelphia, who enjoyed a much higher standard of living than common field slaves.
But Lear's conclusion is shot through by an internal contradiction, as if he was trying to convince himself of something he only half believed. If Lear believed that Washington's slaves were better off in slavery, why did he take comfort in the prospect of their future liberation?
Perhaps he had reason to believe that they would be better prepared to take advantage of their freedom at some indefinite moment in future. Washington may have given him reason to think so. Washington had apparently decided, by this time, to free his slaves one day, and had confided his plans to Lear. In the winter of 1787 he had written in a private memorandum that owning slaves had become an "unavoidable subject of regret" to him and that he hoped "to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born."
The relationship between master and slave, in Washington's household, was shot through with internal contradictions of its own. When the day came for Hercules to be sent south to Mount Vernon, Lear reported to Washington that someone "insinuated to him that the motive for sending him homewas to prevent his taking the advantage of a six month's residence in this place." When he was possessed of this idea he appeared to be extremely unhappy "and altho' he made not the least objection to going; yet, he said he was mortified to the last degree to think that a suspicion could be entertained of his fidelity or attachment to you. So much did the poor fellow's feelings appear to be touched that it left no doubt of his sincerity and to shew him that there were no apprehensions of that kind entertained of him, Mrs. Washington told him he should not go at that time."
Hercules was permitted to remain in Philadelphia until after he had been in Pennsylvania for more than six months and fully qualified to claim his freedom. Lear then gave him two new shirts and the money for a stage ride from Philadelphia to Baltimore and boat passage from Baltimore to Alexandria. He went alone, and though he might have disappeared he remained faithful to his word and arrived at Mount Vernon a few days later.
If the story ended there it might seem to confirm Lear's tragic conviction that the slaves were better off with Washington, and knew it themselves. But six years later, as Washington retired from the presidency and prepared to leave Philadelphia for good, Hercules vanished.
Washington spent months directing efforts to find him. The former president was certain Hercules was living in Philadelphia, but no sign of him could be discovered.
In frustration, Washington finally wrote to his nephew George Lewis about buying a slave in Fredericksburg who had cooked for Gov. Robert Brooke, the owner of Federal Hill. But nothing came of it, and Washington returned to his efforts to capture his old chef. "Hire some one who is most likely to be acquainted with his haunts," Washington wrote to a Philadelphia man, "to trace him out." Once found, Washington said, Hercules should be taken by surprise, because if he "was to get the least hint of the design he would elude all your vigilance."
Hercules was never found. "The idea of freedom," as Washington had anticipated, had proven "too great a temptation for him to resist." Washington, of all people, should have understood what men would do to secure their freedom.