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Chapter Seven. Washington and Slavery

L. Scott Philyaw

Subject Imperial, Colonial, and Postcolonial History » Colonial History

Place Americas » Northern America

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1700-1799

Key-Topics African American, slavery

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781444331035.2012.00009.x


At the time of George Washington's birth in 1732, slavery was legal throughout the colonies. It was also relatively widespread, typically profitable, and generally accepted even by those who did not own slaves. By the time of his death in 1799, the practice of slavery had become much more controversial, both in response to the American Revolution and as a result of other events in the wider Atlantic world. For example, in 1772 Lord Chief Justice Mansfield of Great Britain ruled from the King's Bench that the American slave James Somerset could not be compelled to return to the colonies by his master – thereby effectively freeing Somerset. That same year, while Washington served as a member, the Virginia House of Burgesses petitioned the Crown to end the African slave trade, declaring it “a trade of great inhumanity” ( JHB (1770–1772) 283). Two years later, in a 1774 meeting chaired by George Washington, Fairfax County freeholders resolved that “no slaves shall be imported into any of the British Colonies on this Continent” and declared their “most earnest Wishes to see an entire Stop for ever put to such a wicked cruel and unnatural Trade” (PGM, 1:207). Religious groups such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and some evangelicals began to doubt the correctness of owning another person. During the Revolution, several northern states abolished slavery, while others passed legislation for ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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