I have had a very full conversation with the Attorney General respecting your slaves, without however, letting him know that I had heard from you on the Subject; but entered upon it with this introduc[tion ?] that as you were absent, and could not return before the expiration of the term which the law of this State specifies for the residence of a Slave, I thought it my duty to take such advice & such measures in the business, with the concurrence of Mrs. Washington, as might be proper on the occasion, having a due regard to your public station. The Attorney General made the following observations on the Subject. That he found it was received construction of the law, and one which he thought the words of the law fully warranted, that if a Slave is brought into the State and continues therein for the space of six months, he may claim his freedom. Let the cause of his being brought be what it may; and that this extends, in its full force, to those slaves who may be brought here by the Officers of the General Government or by members of Congress.|
|Lear (or the Attorney General) seems to be wrong. The 1780 Pennsylvania law specifically exempted the personal slaves brought into the state by members of Congress. At the time the law was enacted, Congress was the only branch of the federal government. It met in Philadelphia until 1783. Under the Constitution (ratified in 1788), a federal government was established with three branches. It met in New York City for its first two years. The federal government returned to Philadelphia in 1790, but the Pennsylvania law remained the same.|
If a man becomes a citizen of the State, six months residence of the slave is not necessary for his liberation; he is free from the moment his master is a citizen; the term of six months being only intended for the slaves of such as might travel through or sojourn in the State. That those Slaves who were under the age of 18, might, after a residence of six months, apply to the Overseers of the Poor, who had authority to bind them to a master until they should attain the age of 18, when they would become free. That the overseers made it a point to bind the young Slaves to their original masters, unless there should become special reason against it; but after they are so bound they cannot be carried out of the State without their own consent. –
|Lear (or the Attorney General) is wrong about blacks being indentured until age 18. White male children were usually indentured to age 21, and white females to age 18. The 1780 Pennsylvania law specified that the child of a registered slave mother would be indentured until age 28. The additional years compared to whites were based on the assumption that the mother's master would need to be compensated for the cost of having raised the child from birth. Blacks who were freed as teen-agers usually served an indenture for a specific number of years, rather than to age 28.|
That the Society in this city for the abolition of slavery, has determined to give no advice and take no measures for liberating those Slaves which belonged to the Officers of the general Government or members of Congress. But notwithstanding this, there were not wanting persons who would not only give them (the Slaves) advice; but would use any means to entice them from their masters. –
|This probably refers to the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. If this indeed was the official position of the organization, it may have been an effort not to alienate the politicians and judges from slave states who could influence or interpret federal law. Individuals could do as they wished, as the example of the abolitionist who helped Randolph's slaves to obtain their freedom shows.|
This being the case, the Attorney General conceived, that after six months residence, your slaves would be upon no better footing than his. But he observed, that if before the expiration of six months, they could, upon any pretence [sic] whatever, be carried or sent out of the State; but for a single day, a new era would commence on their return, from whence the six months must be dated; for it requires an entire six months for them to claim this right. As the matter stands upon this footing, I think there will be but little difficulty in it; for Austin is now at home [Mount Vernon] on a visit to his wife, by Mrs. Washington's permission. This will oblige him to commense a new date for his six months from his return which will be next week. Richmond goes in a vessel that sails tomorrow for Alexandria and I shall propose to Hercules, as he will be wanted at home in June when you return there, to take an early opportunity of going thither, as his Services here can now be very well dispensed with, and by being at home before your arrival he will have it in his power to see his friends make every necessary preparation in his Kitchen & as he must return when you do to this place. Mrs. Washington proposes in a short time to make an excursion as far as Trenton, and, of course, she will take with her Oney & Christopher, which will carry them out of the State; so that in this way I think the matter may be managed very well. If Hercules should decline the offer which will be made of him going home, it will be a pretty strong proof of his intention to take advantage of the law at the expiration of six months. As Mrs. Washington does not incline to go to Virginia until you return to this place, the foregoing arrangement is the best I can think of to accomplish this business.
|Mrs. Washington did make the trip to Trenton, NJ, thirty miles northeast of Philadelphia, leaving on May 17th and returning on the 19th. According to Stephen Decatur, Jr. (The Private Life of George Washington), she brought 3 servants (1 female, 2 male) with her: Oney, Christopher and a white servant.|