America’s first president was wealthy and powerful, and his possessions included false teeth, tricorne hats and nearly 150 slaves. George Washington owned slaves and relied on their labor—and, as Erica Armstrong Dunbar reports for the New York Times, he used legal loopholes to avoid freeing them even as Northern states worked to abolish slavery.
Washington inherited his first ten slaves when he was just ten years old, Dunbar reports. In the days before Washington, D.C., was the nation’s capital, the new president lived in New York and Pennsylvania, states that were gradually abolishing slavery. But Washington wasn’t eager to get rid of his own slaves, says Dunbar, even when he moved to Philadelphia.
In 1780, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act, a law that freed people after they turned 28 and that automatically freed any slave who moved to the state and lived there for more than six months. Dunbar tells the story of how Washington got around it:
Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. The president was secretive when writing to his personal secretary Tobias Lear in 1791: “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”
Despite these attempts to hold on to his property, Ona Judge, a 22-year-old slave, escaped when she learned that the Washington’s intended to give her to a relative as a wedding present. She made it to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she married and began life as a free woman. Judge was one of thousands of blacks who escaped to freedom, both independently and as part of the loose network that would later be known as the Underground Railroad.
The New England Historical Society reports that Washington was enraged by what he saw as Judge’s “ingratitude” and that he assumed she had been convinced to escape rather than deciding to run away on her own volition:
… it is certain the escape has been planned by some one who knew what he was about, and had the means to defray the expence of it and to entice her off: for not the least suspicion was entertained of her going, or having formed a connexion with any one who could induce her to such an Act.
Despite three years of searching, Washington never recovered Judge. And he was far from the last president to own slaves—Zachary Taylor, the 12th president, owned 100 slaves while in office, and Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president, freed his slaves before the Civil War.