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The President's House in Philadelphia

Washington, the Enslaved, and the 1780 Law

By Edward Lawler, Jr.

Tobias Lear
Engraving by James Sharples (1752-1811)

Below are excerpts from letters between the President and his Chief Secretary, Tobias Lear, concerning Pennsylvania's 1780 Gradual Abolition Act and how that law applied to the eight enslaved Africans Washington brought to Philadelphia in 1790. Washington was touring the Southern states when the 6-month residency deadline for the eight approached. Attorney General Edmund Randolph's slaves had obtained their freedom under the 1780 law, and Randolph was advising Washington (through Lear's letters) on how to prevent the eight from similarly obtaining theirs.

The loophole in the 1780 law which allowed slaveowners from other states to rotate their slaves out of Pennsylvania may have been widely exploited. Even a single day out of Pennsylvania would prevent the establishment of a 6-month residency in the state, and New Jersey was only a one-mile boat ride from Philadelphia. In the 1790s, slavery was legal in most of the Northern states, as well as all of the Southern states. An amendment was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to exempt the officers of all three branches of the federal government and their personal slaves from the 1780 law. The amendment was defeated.

Lear to Washington, April 5, 1791, Philadelphia, PA

The Attorney General called upon Mrs Washington today, and informed her that three of his Negroes had given him notice that they should tomorrow take advantage of a law of this State, and claim their freedom — and that he had mentioned it to her from an idea that those who were of age in this family might follow the example, after a residence of six months should put it in their power. I have therefore communicated it to you that you might, if you thought best, give directions in the matter respecting the blacks in this family.

Washington to Lear, April 12, 1791, Richmond, VA

The Attorney-General's case and mine I conceive from a conversation I had with him respecting our Slaves, is some what different. He in order to qualify himself for practice in the Courts of Pennsylvania, was obliged to take the Oaths of Citizenship to that State; whilst my residence is incidental as an Officer of Government only, but whether among people who are in the practice of enticing slaves even where there is no colour of law for it, this distinction will avail, I know not, and therefore beg you will take the best advice you can on the subject, and in case it shall be found that any of my Slaves may, or any of them shall attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you should send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chuse [sic] 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.


Under the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, only registered Pennsylvania slaves could be owned by a citizen of the state. Attorney General Edmund Randolph became a citizen of Pennsylvania so he could make extra money arguing in its state courts. As soon as he did this the Virginia slaves he had brought with him to Philadelphia gained the right to demand their freedom. The Washingtons' slaves could have done the same had they been able to establish an uninterrupted 6-month residency in Pennsylvania.

As all except Hercules and Paris are dower negroes, it behooves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only loose the use of them, but may have them to pay for.


The 'dowers' were owned by the estate of Mrs. Washington's first husband, and were held in trust for her four grandchildren. Washington was the legal guardian for the four. It was his opinion that if one of the dowers should obtain freedom because of his negligence (such as allowing the slave to establish a 6-month residency in Pennsylvania) he could be liable to the Custis estate for the value of that slave.

If upon taking good advice it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under the pretext that may deceive both them and the Public; — and none I think would so effectually do this as Mrs. Washington coming to Virginia next month (toward the middle or latter end of it, as she seemed to have a wish to do) if she can accomplish it by any convenient and agreeable means, with the assistance of the Stage Horses etc.


Washington was aware that slavery was controversial in Philadelphia, and he seems to have kept the slaves out of the sight of visitors to the President's House. On March 21, he left on a 3-month tour of the Southern states. Giles and Paris accompanied the President on the tour, and never returned to Philadelphia. Their residency in Pennsylvania was less than 4 months. Mrs. Washington did not leave Philadelphia in mid-May (as the President had suggested), but waited until early June to travel to Mount Vernon.

This would naturally bring her maid [Moll] and Austin — and Hercules under the idea of coming home to Cook whilst we remained there, might be sent on in the Stage. Whether there is occasion for this or not according to the result of your enquiries, or issue the thing as it may, I request that these Sentiments and this advise be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington. From the following expression in your letter "that those who were of age might follow the example of his (the Attorney's people) after a residence of six months" — it would seem that none could apply before the end of May — & that the non age of Christopher, Richmond & Oney is a bar to them.


Washington was mistaken that the 1780 Pennsylvania law would not affect Christopher, Richmond and Oney. Had they established an uninterrupted 6-month residency in the state and registered with the Overseers of the Poor, their legal status would have changed to that of indentured servants. The teen-agers probably would have been contracted back to the Washingtons for 7 years, after which they would have been totally free. Once registered, the President would have been barred from taking them out of Pennsylvania without their permission.

Lear to Washington, April 24, 1791, Philadelphia, PA

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.

Lear to Washington, June 5, 1791, Philadelphia, PA

In my letter of the 22nd of May I mentioned that Hercules was to go to Mount Vernon a few days after that. When he was about to go, somebody, I presume, insinuated to him that the motive for sending him home so long before you was [sic] expected there, was to prevent his taking advantage of a six months 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. And 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; but might remain 'till the expiration of six months and then go home to prepare for your arrival there. He has accordingly continued here 'till this time, and tomorrow takes his departure for Virginia.


Hercules stayed in Pennsylvania past the 6-month residency deadline, but he did not register with the Overseer of the Poor, the second (and vital) step necessary to change one's legal status from slave to free. When he returned to Mount Vernon with Mrs. Washington, this window of opportunity for obtaining his freedom under the 1780 Pennsylvania law closed. Moll also stayed past the 6-month deadline, but there is no record of her making any effort to obtain her freedom. The Washingtons made 14 trips from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon between March 1791 and October 1796, and used the trips to rotate their slaves out of Pennsylvania.
Read the full text of the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act

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Copyright ©1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.