On Ending Slavery: George Washington to John Mercer

Sitting down to write on September 9, 1786 from Mount Vernon, George Washington addresses his letter to Virginian, veteran of the late revolution, and plantation owner John Francis Mercer. Mercer’s family had strong ties to Virginia and the Washington family, John’s father was Washington’s attorney for many years during the eighteenth-century. Even though John had married, moved, and settled in Maryland, the two continued to correspond, although this most recent response by Washington took much longer usual. When Mercer’s letter arrived to Mount Vernon several weeks earlier, Washington was able to do little as he was fighting a “fever.” Now, he sat down to reply, and although there were many topics on his mind in which he wished to discuss with Mercer, Washington’s feelings toward slavery were first on his mind.

Read more: On Ending Slavery: George Washington to John Mercer

At the time Washington composed his thoughts to Mercer, particularly on his plan to never purchase another slave, Washington owned approximately 277 slaves. Yet, he expressed his desire to slavery abolished through the gradual abolition of slavery. Washington was a man of principle, displayed time and again during the war, and his aversion to the institution only grew as Washington the man grew as well. And, his was not alone. Many founders of era, including many from the upper South, looked for gradual solutions to ending the institution, despite the modern historical narrative. In the end, Washington ensured the emancipation of his slaves following his wife’s death in his will.

Gov. John F. Mercer, circa 1803.

Mount Vernon 9th. Sep 1786

Dear Sir,

Your favor of the 20th. ulto. did not reach me till about the first inst. – It found me in a fever, from which I am now but sufficiently recovered to attend to business. – I mention this to shew that I had it not in my power to give an answer to your propositions sooner. –

With respect to the first. I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by, [inserted: The Legislature by] which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptable degrees. – With respect to the 2d., I never did, nor never intend to purchase a military certificate; – I see no difference it makes with you (if it is one of the funds allotted for the discharge of my claim) who the the purchaser is [2] is. – If the depreciation is 3 for 1 only, you will have it in your power whilst you are at the receipt of Custom – Richmond – where it is said the great regulator of this business (Greaves) resides, to convert them into specie at that rate. – If the difference is more, there would be no propriety, if I inclined to deal in them at all, in my taking them at that exchange.

I shall rely on your promise of Two hundred pounds in five Weeks from the date of your letter. – It will enable me to pay the work men which have been employed abt. this house all the Spring & Summer, (some of whom are here still). – But there are two debts which press hard upon me. One of which, if there is no other resource, I must sell land or negroes to discharge. – It is owing to Govr. Clinton of New York, who was so obliging as to borrow, & become my security for £2500 to answer some calls of mine. – This sum was to be returned in twelve [3] twelve months from the conclusion of the Peace. – For the remains of it [struck: this sum], about Eight hundred pounds york Cy. I am now paying an interest of Seven prCt.; but the high interest (tho’ more than any estate can bear) I should not regard, if my credit was not at stake to comply with the conditions of the loan. – The other debt tho’ I know the person to whom it is due wants it, and I am equally anxious to pay it, might be put of a while longer. – This sum is larger than the other

I am. Dr Sir

Yr. Most Obedt. Hble Sert

Go: Washington

(Letter courtesy the Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Benjamin Henry Latrobe: Architect of the Republic

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Darien Ashley. A short bio follows this post.

The best architecture is that which reflects clearly the ideals and activities of the people which inhabit it. This is true for both private dwellings and public buildings. The objects of architecture serve as a lasting testament to identity. These objects, once created, continue to shape minds long after the architect is gone. A nation’s capital city is a site where man can establish glorious structures which convey a sense of who the people are, where they came from, and where they intend to go. The United States Capitol building is a prime example of a structure that continues to inform American identity long after its architects have passed. This article serves as an investigation of the life of one of the most important architects of not only the Capitol, but of the nation itself, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

Guests to the United States Capitol building often get a shock from the fact that one of its primary architects, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was an Englishman. Indeed, the man who designed the hallowed, old halls of Congress hailed from a Moravian religious settlement located on the outskirts of Leeds, England. However, Latrobe himself would have objected to the label “Englishman”. Indeed, throughout his life, Latrobe referred to the United States as “his” country and was quick to point out that his mother, Anna Margaretta Antes, was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Latrobe’s father, Benjamin Henry Latrobe Sr., met Anna after she had been sent to London to finish her education. Both of Latrobe’s parents held prominent positions within the Moravian ministry and raised their children to follow in their example.

Continue reading “Benjamin Henry Latrobe: Architect of the Republic”

ERW Weekender: The George Washington House

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In September 1751, a 19-year old, tall, strapping, young Virginian accompanied an ailing older half-brother on a journey to Barbados, in the West Indies. Unbeknownst to this teenager, the journey to the Caribbean Island would be his last venture out of the colonies and/or country that inhabited the east coast of North America.

This young man’s name? George Washington.

The island he visited? Barbados.

Continue reading “ERW Weekender: The George Washington House”

George Washington’s Greatest Speech?

On the morning of March 15, 1783, George Washington strode into the “New Building” or “Temple” as the structure was referred as, to address the assembled officers of the Continental Army. He asked General Horatio Gates if he could have the floor to say a few words and when he unfolded his pieces of paper on the podium, the words lost their importance.

Why? Continue reading “George Washington’s Greatest Speech?”

Independence and Contradiction: Our Founding Slaveholders

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Michael Aubrecht. A biography of Mr. Aubrecht is attached below. 

In 2011 an exhibit titled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” started running at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum from January 27, 2012 – October 14, 2012. This somewhat controversial exhibition explored slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s plantation and was a collaborative effort between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the African American History and Culture Museum in Washington DC. It helped to instigate public discussion about the dichotomy between the Founders and freedom. The paradox of course is that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. The exhibition provides a glimpse into the lives of 6 slave families living at Monticello and reveals how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime.

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Founders, presidents, slave-owners

Continue reading “Independence and Contradiction: Our Founding Slaveholders”

War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Washington Connection

Propaganda, imperial ambitions, and one small ear caused a flare-up in the New World between the European powers of Great Britain and Spain. In one of the most comical, bewildering, and interesting causes for war, the conflict known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear began eight years after the incident itself. The connections that this conflict would have with the successful outcome of the American Revolutionary War is what is most striking. Continue reading “War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Washington Connection”

Emerging Revolutionary War Wishes You a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving Holiday

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1789. (courtesy of archives.gov)
George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1789.
(courtesy of archives.gov)

As president of the United States, George Washington wrote the following Thanksgiving Proclamation that was published and designated Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a national day of thanks.

Although the official holiday came later when the sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln that made the national day of thanks as a national holiday.

Yet, Washington’s words, in their entirety below, still resonate today and give us a chance for reflection this Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington”

Besides reflection, there are events going on at historic places, this Thanksgiving weekend, that will help you experience the American Revolutionary Era.

A few to note:

At Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, the home of George Washington situated sixteen miles below Washington D.C., in Virginia, candlelight programs are scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Click here to learn more.

Check out what is going on at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts over the holiday weekend by clicking here.

At the Jamestown Settlement, in the Historic Triangle; Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, a “Food and Feasts of Colonial Virginia” event begins on Thanksgiving Day. Click here to learn more about this event. On the same trip, Colonial Williamsburg has a plethora of activities ongoing over the weekend as well and can be discovered here.

Whether you head out to one of these events or enjoy your holiday weekend with friends and family, the ERW community wishes you and yours a “Happy Thanksgiving!”

Tragedy After Success

On October 19, 1781, General George Washington had one of the ultimate highs in his military career. With the help of the French army and navy, Washington forced the surrender of British Lord Charles Cornwallis’ forces at Yorktown, Virginia.

To best sum up the impact of this momentous victory for the Americans in their cause for independence, British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North exclaimed when receiving the news:

“Oh God, it’s all over.”

But, weeks before North learned of the calamity in the Tidewater of Virginia, Washington dealt with his own calamity. One very personal. The death of his stepson.

John Parke Custis, affectionately known as “Jackie” or “Jack” as he got older, was one of two children that Martha Custis Washington brought into the marriage with George Washington on January 6, 1759.

Jack Parke Custis
John Parke Custis

The other child, Martha Park Custis, known as “Patsy” had died in 1773 of an epileptic seizure.

Now, seventeen days after the successful completion of the Siege of Yorktown, Jack Custis would be dead.

Custis had joined his stepfather as a volunteer aide-de-camp for the Yorktown Campaign and contracted “camp fever” a catch-all term for a whole litany of illnesses. With the disease quickly causing his health to fail, Custis had one last wish before leaving the lines at Yorktown. He wanted to see the surrender, so faithful attendants lifted Custis in a stretcher to the top of one of the redoubts.

From there Custis had a complete view of the proceedings, the crowning achievement of his stepfather.

To remove him from the scene of pestilence and in a hopeful attempt to save 26-years old life, Custis was moved 30 miles up the Tidewater Peninsula of Virginia to Eltham Landing, where his uncle, Burwell Bassett owned a plantation. His mother, Martha and wife, Eleanor Calvert Custis was summoned to his bedside.

Before Washington could arrive at the bedstead, Jack died on November 5, 1781. He was the last of five children Martha had given birth too. Martha was, understandably, slipped into a “deep and solemn distress.” Even the general exhibited some rarely seen emotion, And”clasping his [Jack’s] bereaved widow to his bosom and proclaiming that henceforth he regarded Jacky’s two youngest children as his own.”

Jack was buried in the family plot near Williamsburg, Virginia at Queen’s Creek.

The funeral was a week later and afterward Washington accompanied Martha and Eleanor back to Mount Vernon. George and Martha Washington would spend considerable energy in the pursuing years raising their late son/stepson’s children. Jack’s widow, Eleanor, would leave the two youngest children in the care of the Washington’s and by war’s end had remarried to a Dr. David Stewart of Alexandria in which the couple would have 16 more children.

But, all that was in the future. In the meantime, after leaving Mount Vernon in mid-November, George Washington had a revolution to see through to its successful conclusion.

The loss of his stepson, whose limited service in the war does not diminish the anguish felt by his family, put Washington in the company of countless parents whose sons had given their lives in the same cause.

And the war had approximately two years left in America.

 

Sources Used:

Ron Chernow’s “Washington, A Life”

George Washington’s Mount Vernon website – http://www.mountvernon.org – accessed October 18, 2015

George Washington Remembers

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Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Bert Dunkerly.

WashingtonGeneral George Washington looks back at us from marble statues or stiff paintings with a grim-faced and determined look. Known for his dignity, resolve, and sound leadership, he seems cold and reserved. Yet he was also quite sentimental. In the midst of a campaign, with a massive British invasion force set to descend on him at New York City in July, 1776, Washington paused to pen these words: “I did not let the Anniversary of the 3rd or 9th of this Inst pas[s] of[f] without a grateful remembrance of the escape we had at the Meadows and on the Banks of the Monogahela. [T]he same Providence that protected us upon those occasions will, I hope, continue his Mercies, and make us happy instruments in restoring Peace & liberty to this once favour’d, but now distressed Country”.

Continue reading “George Washington Remembers”