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[Detail] George Washington. Portrait by Gilbert Stuart c1929.

Historical Research Capabilities

Encounters with historical documents place students in the framework of working as historians. Washington's letterbooks provide numerous opportunities for extended research. For example, search using the keyword slave to find Washington's personal references to the institution of slavery.

Although Washington was a prominent Virginia planter with numerous slaves, he expressed concerns about purchasing slaves. In a letter to John Mercer on September 9, 1786, Washington wrote:

. . .I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.

Letter from George Washington to John Mercer, September 9, 1786 [Transcription]

A few months earlier Washington responded to a letter from Lafayette in which the marquis had discussed a plan to free slaves in the West Indies and employ them as free laborers. In the letter he indicates his belief that legislative action is necessary to end the institution of slavery.

. . . [Y]our late purchase of an Estate in the Colony of Cayenne with a view of emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country, but I despair of seeing
it. . .

Letter from George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, May 10, 1786 [Transcription]

Although Washington, as president, took no official position on slavery, he established provisions for emancipation of his slaves in his last will and testament.

Researching any subject requires an investigation of a variety of records; therefore, consult other primary and secondary sources to fully evaluate Washington's views on the institution of slavery.