I have once again embarked upon a topic of historical research. Over the years, a particular individual having caught my attention results in my almost monomaniacal concentration upon the chosen object of study. My present interest arose after watching a replay of the old TV drama, The Crossing, a well done though moderately fictionalized version of George Washington’s attack on Trenton launched on Christmas night, 1776 in which Washington and his ragged, starving army crossed the Delaware River to launch a strike against the Hessian mercenaries encamped in that town. The story was of particular interest to myself as it involved a man whom my grandmother once assured me was one of my ancestors, Continental Colonel John Glover. Glover’s New England fisherman ferried Washington and his army together with his artillery, supplies and horses, across the ice-choked river in a howling nor’easter, an act of incredible difficulty and supreme courage that resulted in the relatively small but essential victory eventually shown to have been the first step in turning the tide of the then failing American Revolution!

Of course, this was not the first time that Glover and his sailors had saved both the Continental Army and the Revolution! He and his men carried out the evacuation of Washington’s nine thousand plus soldiers as well as artillery and horses from Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan across the East River during the battle of New York, a miracle later followed by his successful efforts during the escape of what remained of that army from British forces led by General Cornwallis as they were pursued across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania! This movie kindled in myself an interest not in Glover, but in Washington, a man often portrayed as a marble-like and somewhat dull figurehead even if he did carry a sword and ride a magnificent horse. But I will testify that my initial studies clearly demonstrate how very wrong is that assessment, for even in such a brief time, I have now come to know Washington as a truly remarkable – indeed, indispensable – man without whom we, as a nation, would never have come into being! He was indeed, a Virginia hero!

As well as having obtained virtually hundreds of books on Washington and his era, I have also acquired on-line articles and relevant videos and watched a host of You Tube presentations including two full TV productions and a FOX history series narrated by Kelsey Grammar. I mention all of this to validate my claim of having discovered a profound issue that continually appears in the majority of these extremely varied forms of information. Worse, the matter is exceptionally negative with reference not only to Washington but to the rest of the Founders – as well as being ubiquitous; that is, it is found in almost all the available information I have encountered. Now such a strong negative issue this prevalent in any study must influence those seeking knowledge on that subject. How could it not? Thus, the consequences arising from the proclaimed importance of this matter cannot be discounted when considering its effect upon today’s view of Washington and his era including the founding of the United States of America. The issue so apparently crucial to any understanding of history is, of course, slavery, a matter we’re told is of paramount importance in any judgment made about that history. Thus, the issue must be “properly” understood and that understanding admitted to before any historical evaluation will be accepted by today’s “scholars!”

For black slavery is the unforgivable sin of the new millennium. The fact that most people have little to no knowledge or understanding of the complexities of the issue and must depend upon the narrative presented by often biased ideologues means nothing! All that is required – nay, demanded! – is that the individual being morally crucified as a consequence of participating in this “unforgivable sin” must be white! That many blacks also owned slaves is without interest to the inquisitors. In fact, that the entire slave “industry” arose in Africa and was run by Africans never seems to influence the discussion! Finally, that black slavery continues to exist has no bearing whatsoever on the condemnation of those whites who owned slaves in our nation’s past – and especially those “Founding Fathers” who, year by year, continue to slip lower in the esteem of Americans who have so greatly benefited from their lives. It would seem one of our greatest sins as a people is our total lack of knowledge about or gratitude to those whose sacrifices gave to us what we otherwise would never have received!

As to Washington in particular, virtually every book and article about the man if not limited to some individual battle of the war or particular political action – and sometimes not even then – involves speculations about his role as a slave owner. In one article it was charged that he was “more cruel than any other slave owning Founding Father,” a charge later refuted in a report that having discovered one of his slaves deathly ill, Washington had the man moved to Mount Vernon by carriage and cared for by his own physician in a spare bedroom of his home! Such an act validates claims about Washington’s concern for “his people,” and should put to rest any charges of mistreatment. He did, however, dispose of a particularly obnoxious and unreliable slave by selling the man to the Indies with warnings to any who purchased him regarding his unacceptable behavior. And he did seek to recover several slaves including one favorite belonging to his wife who had run off. But that was the existing system of the day and Washington, though he grew to hate slavery as an institution, was a part of that system by accident of birth, not choice. Therefore, to expect the man to have behaved as would a WOKE partisan of the 21st Century is unrealistic, unreasonable and altogether unjust.

Indeed, Washington alone among all the slave owning Founders – including Thomas Jefferson who had openly denounced the institution – emancipated his slaves at the time of his death, although the matter could not be completed until the death of his wife some two years later for not all the slaves at Mount Vernon belonged to him personally and both “groups” had by that time intermarried and could not therefore be separated as Washington refused to break up families! But he didn’t just “emancipate” those who had come to depend upon Mount Vernon for their lives. He made arrangements for the lifetime care of the ill and the elderly and the instruction of the young so that “his people” would not simply be abandoned to a “freedom” that might result in their suffering.

And, again, with regard to “his people:” several of the literally hundreds of books about the man either directly address his involvement with slavery as an institution or with one or more of his slaves (see book list at the end of this article). Such matters include a claim that he fathered a child by a slave though research into that claim indicates that the individual named as his son was not credible given the circumstances involved. And, of course, this does not address the well-known fact that Washington was unable to father a child probably as the result of a severe bout of smallpox when he was an adolescent. Given the continuing interest in (and condemnation of) Thomas Jefferson for his “relationship” with the slave Sally Hemings, the fact that there is no strong interest in continuing to clothe Washington in that particular hairshirt, should lead us to consider invalid all attempts to put George into the bed of a female slave with or without issue. Of course, with this tasty moral morsel no longer available, the writers return to the fact that Washington owned and used slaves as if, in that day and age, the matter itself was condemnatory upon its face.

As well, it is equally unreasonable to believe that Washington, who chose what kind of man he wanted to be when he was still very young – something of which there is overwhelming proof! – and worked assiduously and successfully toward that end, was promiscuous with women of any race. But what is most obvious is that as Washington became even before the end of his life a truly mythic figure – not only in America but in the world at large – any hint of scandalous, inappropriate or promiscuous behavior would have been passed down to us today along with all the needful proofs of those claims! That his reputation remains spotless in a world addicted to scandal should be sufficient proof that no such scandal exists else it would have been trumpeted from the house tops!

Now, it is fair to say that physically, George Washington was, in the modern vernacular, a “stud” – though it is difficult for modern Americans to envision him in that light. And it was certainly well known at the time that he was both attractive to and attracted by the ladies, in proof of which he bore the nickname “the Stallion of the Potomac!” But despite his physical and social allure and the apparent universal favor he found with the fair sex – including Abigail Adams! – his relationships were morally and socially proper at all times! Though George enjoyed dancing, parties, good food, strong drink, card playing, the theatre and other such worldly diversions that frequently formed the foundation of a dissolute life, he did not live that way. Yes, he did “have an eye” for the ladies and openly appreciated their many gifts including their worship! And again, as I have not yet had the opportunity to read the books about Washington that deal directly with the issue of slavery I do not know if or how deeply they go into claims that he bedded any female slave or, if indeed, the matter is even raised. However, in keeping with the thrust of this article it is enough to know that the authors involved believed this issue of sufficient importance despite Washington’s accomplishments and sacrifices to bring it before the public for judgment. That in and of itself indicates the direction in which these opinions trend – and it isn’t favorable to Washington.

And again, with regard to the thrust of this article, that is, the use of the issue of slavery in any judgments being made of our ancestors including the Founding Fathers, there were a good many things done in Washington’s day that we do not do today. There were penalties for breaking the law that included hanging for many different and often seemingly lesser offenses and for those legally defined as lesser infractions there was the public exercise of corporal punishment including the stocks, branding, ear and nose cropping and flogging, the latter being especially prevalent in the military. That’s how it was done and any judgments must be made in relationship to the standards of the time rather than by those of today. Washington, a firm believer in discipline in the army was not averse to the lash. He was obviously not a cruel man, but he did not believe in sparing the rod when the rod was essential to the safety of his soldiers as well as ultimate victory. But, in fact, the whole point in rejecting the slavery issue as it is presently presented is that the behavior of men like Washington is being framed against the backdrop of present moral and legal standards and not against the standards of the time of the person being so judged! This deprives the individual involved of the protection afforded to him under the law of the time in which he lived and as a result he lacks any competent means of defense! In any era, that would be seen as unjust!

Therefore, if because of slavery we are going to diminish or even abandon our appreciation of George Washington, and perhaps even condemn him, by so doing we prove our lack of understanding of and appreciation for what the man was willing to risk to save the American dream of liberty! For one cannot understand the risks of the game if one neither knows nor understands the consequences of losing that game! Of course, the greatest risk is death but there are many different kinds of death – and that matters! Washington’s fate, had he been captured by the British (an effort that was certainly made numerous times!) would have resulted in him being taken to London and undoubtedly convicted of the crime of high treason. The penalty for that greatest of crimes was considered the worst and most cruel form of execution ever performed by any nation; that is, being “hanged, drawn and quartered,” a penalty that remained on the books in Britain until the 1870s! George Washington knew this and yet willingly embraced the possibility of such a fate when he accepted the commission given to him by the Continental Congress to wage a war that was not only exceptionally onerous, but probably – according to most of the “experts” of the day – impossible for him to win!

And this is not speculation! The matter is recognized to this day! Both the FOX history series and at least one internet presentation clearly declares Washington’s fate had matters ended differently. Indeed, in one You Tube video addressing the treason of Benedict Arnold, the historian-narrator pointed out – and with some emotion! – that, had the British won, “ . . . Arnold would have been Duke Arnold and Washington would have been hanged, drawn and quartered.” This is not a small matter, especially when considering any overall judgment of a man and his actions! Everything must be weighed together; that is, a great and deliberate sacrifice against actions that were nothing more than the ordinary behavior of the times! These are not equable in value!

Thus, to suggest that George Washington’s actions become somehow less noble and his life less worthy because he owned slaves in an era of slavery is not simply unjust but strongly testifies to a different motive behind this condemnation! For those making such “judgements” do not address or even acknowledge the fact that blacks not whites created the institution of slavery and that blacks could be born and/or become free in the colonies in Washington’s time – in other words, not all blacks were slaves! –  and neither do they bother to point out that the first black legally owned as a slave for life* in those same colonies had as his master a black former slave named Anthony Johnson! Therefore, “the slavery blame game” used against the Founders in general and George Washington in particular is more than just inaccurate, it is demonstrably unjust and I think clearly indicates an effort to destroy the reputations of our Founding Fathers and in so doing, the history of our nation – a matter far more sinister than most Americans realize. No, this particular “Virginia hero” has no apologies to make for his life on this earth and those who condemn him for matters beyond his control are to be themselves condemned by all good and reasonable men.

(*The slave sued Johnson in court saying that he was enslaved for a definite but limited period. The judge’s ruling found otherwise, thus making of him the first black chattel slave for life as determined by a colonial court.)

Books About Washington and Slavery

An Imperfect God: Washington, His Slaves &etc. by Henry Wiencek

Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of Mount Vernon by Carla Killough McClafferty

George Washington and Slavery by Fritz Hirschfeld

George Washington’s Mulatto Man by James C. Thompson

In the Name of The Father  by François Furstenberg

Master George’s People by Marge Ferguson Deland

The Ballad of Billie Lee (f) by Joseph J. Ellis

The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret by Mary V. Thompson

Slavery at the Home of George Washington by Philip J. Schwarz, Editor

*The Trials of Phyllis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

**Washington’s Decision by Patrick Charles

***Tomorrow Came Yesterday by Janet S. Allen

* Phyllis Wheatly was a black poet whose work was famous from the beginning of the Revolution. Her poem at the grave of a Boston child (accidentally) killed by a bullet fired by a Tory was only the beginning of her fame. Later she wrote a poem about Washington (see below) that he took very much to heart, speaking with the lady privately and thanking her for her kind words – hardly the act of a man who refused to recognize the human value of blacks! Interestingly enough, it was Wheatly who offered, in her poem of praise, a “kingly crown” to the General, a matter that caused him considerable embarrassment when some suspected that he wanted more from his efforts in the war than mere victory and the repayment of his expenses!

**This book is of particular interest because it reports on Washington’s decision to permit blacks into the Continental Army though the Southern Colonies were very much against arming blacks, slave or free. As Commander in Chief, Washington stated that individual colonies could forbid their own units from admitting blacks – he had no power to prevent! – but they could not force other colonies to refrain from doing so. And as many of Col. Glover’s excellent mariners were black and performed so well in times of need, Washington never had cause to doubt his decision.

***I do not have this book but it involves the claim that Washington had a son by a slave named Venus. I have read that those who have studied the work give it no credence for many reasons including the location of the child’s mother when such a tryst was supposed to have taken place as well as the age of the child. (There is also another book on this subject or the same book with a different title, but I am not able to locate it.)


Phillis Wheatley

1753 – 1784

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,

Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.

Valerie Protopapas

Valerie Protopapas is an independent historian and the former editor of The Southern Cavalry Review, the journal of The Stuart-Mosby Historical Society.


  • Matt C. says:

    Appreciated the article. Thank you.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    The word “slave” is derived from Slav…Slavs were the people who had been mistreated by Negro and Arab raiders for centuries…when your opponents do not have a moral code, to attempt negotiation is futile.

  • Yates says:

    “The story was of particular interest to myself as it involved a man whom my grandmother once assured me was one of my ancestors, Continental Colonel John Glover.”

    “..a charge later refuted in a report that having discovered one of his slaves deathly ill, Washington had the man moved to Mount Vernon by carriage and cared for by his own physician in a spare bedroom of his home!”

    I dont think that we need to condemn Washington or justify slavery, not saying that this in any way is your intent. I would not really have had any problem at all with taking all the agricultural lands from slave owners and breaking it up as compensation to those enslaved, after the war, because the ‘law’ may permit a lot of things but everyone knows what is right and wrong. Washington was living in a particular area where it was basically a fast train to bankruptcy to own lands and not also own slaves, in that time, because you had to pay taxes in hard currency, and could not get much in the way of hard currency via a subsistence family farm without export trade.

    Similar to your family, I am a descendant of Washington’s neighbor, Moses Ball, and the story you are telling reference the disabled enslaved man may actually involve both Washington and Ball.

    “Took an early breakfast at Abingdon; & accompanied by Doctr. Stewart & Lund Washington, and having sent for Mr. Moses Ball (who attended);
    My Servant William (one of the Chain Carriers) fell, and broke the pan of his knee wch. put a stop to my Surveying; & with much difficulty I was able to get him to Abingdon, being obliged to get a sled to carry him on, as he could neither Walk, stand, or ride;”

    “In his will, GW gave William his freedom but allowed him, if he preferred, to remain at Mount Vernon in his present situation. In either case, he was to have an annuity of $30 for the rest of his life.”


    Moses Ball and his son, also my ancestor, were the ones who carried Billy to the wagon for evacuation. So, while I have no interest in accepting any excuse for anyone claiming someone elses labor, I agree that you have to see these as human beings living in compromised times just as we do. Just as we all have misdeeds on our hands, in the end Washington tried to made amends, which no one could have made him do at that time – he chose to do so.

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    My problem with today’s “historians” is that many make measure of the good and evil of the past by virtue of what we today consider in those terms. Yet, if we do so, we must certainly admit that the morals of past ages ~ even with slavery! ~ were distinctly elevated compared to what we today willingly find acceptable. The tenets of Western Civilization, that is, the culture that undergirded the nations that form the foundation of this nation, were based upon Scripture with its distinct morality. Today it is easy to see that we no longer hold to that tradition and that means that behaviors formerly considered uncivilized, uncouth and unacceptable in the 18th century are, today, “no big deal” as they say. But whether one agrees or disagrees with either the present or the past, ONE CANNOT JUDGE THE ONE BY THE STANDARDS OF THE OTHER! Hence, Washington cannot be made a moral monster because he lived according to his time and that is what this article is all about! It is my belief that condemnation of Washington or Jefferson or any Founder based upon behavior that was altogether normal in their time speaks more of the intention of the person making the judgment than it does about the validity of their conclusions. To destroy any nation or culture, one must first destroy its history and that is, at least in my opinion, what these efforts are all about.

  • Joyce says:

    I realized reading this wonderful essay how much there is to know about Washington and how fascinating a personality he was.

  • David Sweatt says:

    A great reminder that those who attack through “history” often do not know that history.

    So they make it up to meet the ever-present need and search for “narrative”.

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