History Lab: How Should George Washington Be Judged On The Issue of Slavery?

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Created by New Hanover County Schools - 2015

History Lab: How Should George Washington Be Judged On The Issue of Slavery?


  • A willing participant in the institution of slavery that should have done more to help abolish the practice.

ELA Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.1 - Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.2 - Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.5 - Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.6 - Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.8 - Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.9 - Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.10 - By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4-5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Social Studies Standards

  • 5.H.1.2 Summarize the political, economic and social aspects of colonial life in the thirteen colonies

  • 5.G.1.4 Exemplify migration within or immigration to the United States in order to identify push and pull factors (why people left/why people came).

  • 5.C.1.2 Exemplify how the interactions of various groups have resulted in the borrowing and sharing of traditions and technology.

  • 5.E.1.2 Explain the impact of production, specialization, technology and division of labor on the economic growth of the United States

  • 5.C&G.2.1 Understand the values and principles of a democratic republic.

Teacher Background Information:

George Washington and Slavery Background - Maryland Department of Education

George Washington lived during a time when slavery was an “accepted” practice for most Americans. His father’s death made him an owner of 10 slaves when he was only 11 years old. Like most people of the Virginia gentry, he believed that the only way to be successful was to own land.

Owning that land, however, was not enough. That land had to be cultivated and made useful. In order to do that, Washington and his peers turned to enslaved Africans for their labor force. Washington possessed approximately 75 slaves between 1743 and 1775. Some he inherited from his father; his 1759 marriage to Martha Custis provided him with access to 25 more. He used their labor to establish successful farming operations at Mount Vernon and his other farms. By the time of his death, his estate included 317 enslaved people, 124 of whom were his property outright, 153 who were Martha Washington’s dower slaves, and 40 whom he had leased from a neighbor.

Washington’s landholdings were vast. In addition to Mount Vernon, he owned and operated four additional farms. Since each farm was a separate entity, the slave labor force on each had to be diversified in order to make the operations successful. Because 132 of his 317 enslaved laborers were either too old or too young to work, Washington’s five farms were actually staffed by only 184 people. Of those 184, 52 were considered skilled artisans or domestic workers. The work of skilled artisans such as coopers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, carpenters, and distillers were essential to the everyday operation of plantations. Domestic workers included butlers, maids, cooks, and waiters. Most of Washington’s enslaved population, however, were field workers.

Like many of the Founding Fathers, Washington had conflicting feelings over the institution of slavery. Despite never having made a public stand on the issue during his lifetime, he left behind a will that served as an example of his changed beliefs. In his 1799 will, he made provisions for the emancipation of all of his slaves. Washington gave immediate freedom to his body servant, Billy Lee. He was one of Washington’s close and loyal personal servants. The remaining slaves were to be emancipated after his wife’s death.
Source: http://marylandpublicschools.org/NR/rdonlyres/F68E8866-61CB-4AF5-8AE6-F9275A9CEE9C/31536/Washington_Changing_Views_Emancipation_02062012_.pdf
Souce 1: 2014 ReadWorks article on George Washington
George Washington is regarded as the Father of Our Country. He guided America and helped it evolve2 into the nation that it is today. Before becoming president, Washington led the Continental Army to victory, winning American independence from Britain during the Revolutionary War. After the war ended, he was a key player at the convention3 that drafted the United States Constitution. Finally, as president, Washington’s leadership solved many problems. It showed people that the Constitution could work to govern a new nation.

America was a very different place back in Washington’s time. The nation was small and weak. There were only 11 states in the U.S. when Washington took office. When he left after two terms there were 16. The country only stretched as far as the Mississippi River. Most people farmed and struggled to make a living. Many children never went to school. Most adults could not read or write. Communication and transportation were slow and difficult. It took days for Washington to travel the distance covered in a couple of hours by car today.

Most Americans loved Washington for the way he handled hardship. As a general, he lost many battles and suffered greatly. Washington never gave up, even during the bitter winters when he and his troops had barely enough food or supplies to survive. Washington’s officers admired his loyalty and strength so much that they wanted to make him king. Washington refused.

Today, George Washington is honored in many ways. His face adorns America’s dollar bill and its quarter. Both Washington state and our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., are named after the first president. The bridge that stretches across the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York is named the George Washington Bridge. It is located exactly where Washington crossed the Hudson with his troops to defeat British forces. Perhaps one of Washington’s officers expressed America’s feelings about Washington best: “He was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Source: 2 “Farmer at Mount Vernon” painted by James Brutus Stearns

James Brutus Stearns is best known for his five part “Washington Series,” 1847-1856, in which he tries to capture George Washington‘s life as farmer at his plantation; citizen at his wedding; soldier at Monongahela; Christian on his deathbed, and statesman at the Founding. This particular painting was completed in 1851 and resides in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


Source 3: A slave family standing next to baskets of recently-picked cotton near Savannah, Georgia in the 1860s.

slavery, slave family, cotton, savannah, georgia, 1860s, slave life, black history

Source 4: Letters from George Washington
Letter from George Washington to John Francis Mercer – September 9,1786

Mercer served in the Revolutionary War and was a member of Continental Congress. He attended the Constitutional Convention, served in various state political posts (for Virginia and then Maryland), and was Governor of Maryland 1801-1803.

“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, [the Legislature] which slavery in this Country may be abolished [ended] by slow, sure, & imperceptible [gradual] degrees.”

Source: 5 Three-minute lecture from conservative historian Burt Folsom (Hillsdale College) on George Washington’s stance and actions on the issue of slavery. Filmed on June 15, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAU-0IGiPq4
Source 6: Letter from George Washington to his personal secretary Tobias Lear. Within this letter, he talks about a plan to get around the Pennsylvania state law that frees any slave that has been in the state for 6 consecutive months.
[Letter below is paraphrased) Actual Letter: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0062
April 12, 1791
Mr. Lear,

I would like to discuss with you the situation regarding my slaves and the Pennsylvania state law known as the Gradual Abolition Act. According to this law, any slave staying six consecutive months in the state of Pennsylvania is supposed to be set free. As you know, I am planning on taking a handful of my slaves with me to Philadelphia (acting capital) and I do not want to lose their services. Besides, I doubt that complete freedom would do them much good, but there will be a small amount of citizens in Philadelphia that might try and entice them to run away to seek emancipation.

In order to get around this law, I think I have devised a successful plan. I will have my wife Martha Washington transport slaves back and forth between Virginia and Philadelphia before any of my slaves have six consecutive months in Pennsylvania. Again, I think this can work and at the same time avoid public scrutiny.

Please keep this plan just between you, me, and Ms. Washington.


George Washington

Primary Source Analysis Sheet

Source or Text

When was this source created? What was the creator of this source trying to communicate?

What information does this source provide?

Does this source make George Washington look moral or immoral on the issue of slavery?

Source 1:

ReadWorks article on George Washington

Source 2:

Farmer at Mount Vernon” Painting

Source 3:

Image of slaves in field

Source 4:

Letter from George Washington to John Francis Mercer

Source or Text

What do you see or what did you learn?

What do you think?

Does this source make George Washington look moral or immoral on the issue of slavery?

Source 5

Three-minute lecture from conservative historian Burt Folsom

Source 6

Letter from George Washington to his personal secretary Tobias Lear

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George%20Washington%20History%20Lab -> History Lab: How Should George Washington Be Judged On The Issue of Slavery?

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