Monday, May 08, 2006

Item of the Day: George Washington's Last Will and Testament (1799)

[Some say that Washington had a premonition about his own demise. Some claim he had a prescient dream that propelled him to write a new will. Whatever his motivation, in July 1799 Washington penned a will without advice or counsel from any other person. The twenty-nine page document he produced is a reflection of Washington's thinking as a successful sixty-seven year old planter, businessman, husband, and guardian. In it he bequeaths to his wife not just the typical widow's portion, but his entire estate to hold until her death at which time their heirs would divide the estate equally into some twenty-three shares. More than the distribution of property and endowments, the will is most famous for what it reveals of Washington's thinking about slavery. Although during his lifetime Washington never devised a method by which he could emancipate his slaves without courting economic catastrophe to his farms, earlier papers indicate that he despised the institution. In 1799 he possessed 317 slaves, although he owned only 124 slaves outright. The rest were dower slaves he acquired through his wife's estate when they married. Washington makes clear his wish that the 124 slaves he owned should be freed at his wife's death. (As it turned out, Martha Washington freed her husband's slaves a year following his death partly because she believed them to be a threat to her since it was only by her staying alive that they remained in bondage. When she died in 1802, she owned only one slave, Elish, whom she did not free. The dower slaves were not manumitted either and were bequeathed to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis where they continued to labor on the Mount Vernon estate.) Perhaps by freeing his slaves Washington once again tried to offer himself as a model of morality and virtue. This time, however, neither his peers nor compatriots chose to follow his example. None of the three slaveholding presidents who followed him manumitted their slaves and the peculiar institution survived another sixty-six years. Five months after writing his will, Washington contracted acute epiglottis, after an inspection tour of his farms in terrible winter weather. Doctors provided the best care available (bleeding and blistering) but Washington died on December 14, 1799.]

In the name of God, Amen.

I George Washington of Mount Vernon -- a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same, do make, ordain and declare this instrument; which is written with my own hand and every page thereof subscribed with my name, to be my list Will & Testament, revoking all others.

. . .

Item. To my dearly beloved wife Martha Washington I give and bequeath the use, profit, and benefit of my whole Estate, real and personal, for the term of her natural life -- except such parts thereof as are specifically disposed of hereafter. . .

Item Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, tho' earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same Proprietor; it no being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit them. And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first & second description shall be comfortably cloathed & fed by my heirs while they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgement of the Court upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children and I do thereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the age and inform; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trust to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. . .

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