Abbildungen der Seite

grateful to Washington, especially as the words of the speaker bodied forth the feelings of Virginia. Such an atmosphere, filled with deserved respect and praise, was pleasant to begin with, and then he had everything else too. He not only continued to sit in the House year after year and help to rule Virginia, but he served on the church vestry, and so held in his hands the reins of local government. He had married a charming woman, simple, straightforward, and sympathetic, free from gossip or pretence, and as capable in practical matters as he was himself. By right of birth a member of the Virginian aristocracy, he had widened and strengthened his connections through his wife. A man of handsome property by the death of Lawrence Washington's daughter, he had become by his marriage one of the richest men of the country. Acknowledged to be the first soldier on the continent, respected and trusted in public, successful and happy in private life, he had attained before he was thirty to all that Virginia could give of wealth, prosperity, and honor, a fact of which he was well aware, for there never breathed a man more wisely contented than George Washington at this period. He made his home at Mount Vernon, adding many acres to the estate, and giving to it his best attention. It is needless to say that he was successful, for that was the case with everything he undertook. He loved country life, and he was the best and most prosperous planter in Virginia, which was really a more difficult achievement than the mere statement implies. Genuinely profitable farming in Virginia was not common, for the general system was a bad one. A single great staple, easily produced by the reckless exhaustion of land, and varying widely in the annual value of crops, bred improvidence and speculation. Everything was bought upon long credits, given by the London merchants, and this, too, contributed largely to carelessness and waste. The chronic state of a planter in a business way was one of debt, and the lack of capital made his conduct of affairs extravagant and loose. With all his care and method Washington himself was often pinched for ready money, and it was only by his thoroughness and foresight that he prospered and made money while so many of his neighbors struggled with debt and lived on in easy luxury, not knowing what the morrow might bring forth. A far more serious trouble than bad business methods was one which was little heeded at the moment, but which really lay at the foundation of the whole system of society and business. This was the character of the labor by which the plantations were worked. Slave labor is well known now to be the most expensive and the worst form of labor that can be employed. In the middle of the eighteenth century, however, its evils were not appreciated, either from an economical or a moral point of view. This is not the place to discuss the subject of African slavery in America. But it is important to know Washington's opinions in regard to an institution which was destined to have such a powerful influence upon the country, and it seems most appropriate to consider those opinions at the moment when slaves became a practical factor in his life as a Virginian planter. Washington accepted the system as he found it, as most men accept the social arrangements to which they are born. He grew up in a world where slavery had always existed, and where its rightfulness had never been questioned. Being on the frontier, occupied with surveying and with war, he never had occasion to really consider the matter at all until he found himself at the head of large estates, with his own prosperity dependent on the labor of slaves. The first practical question, therefore, was how to employ this labor to the best advantage. A man of his clear perceptions soon discovered the defects of the system, and he gave great attention to feeding and clothing his slaves, and to their general management. Parkinson" says in a general way that Washington treated his slaves harshly, spoke to them sharply, and maintained a military discipline, to which he attributed the General's rare success as a planter. There can be no doubt of the success, and the military discipline is probably true, but the statement as to harshness is unsupported by any other authority. Indeed, Park. inson even contradicts it himself, for he says elsewhere that Washington never bought or sold a slave, a proof of the highest and most intelligent humanity; and he adds in his final sketch of the General's character, that he “was incapable of wrong-doing, but did to all men as he would they should do to him. Therefore it is not to be supposed that he would injure the negro.” This agrees with what we learn from all other sources. Humane by nature, he conceived a great interest and pity for these helpless beings, and treated them with kindness and forethought. In a word, he was a wise and good master, as well as a successful one, and the condition of his slaves was as happy, and their labor as profitable, as was possible to such a system. So the years rolled by ; the war came and then the making of the government, and Washington's thoughts were turned more and more, as was the case with all the men of his time in that era of change and of mew ideas, to the consideration of human slavery in its moral, political, and social aspects. To trace the course of his opinions in detail is needless. It is sufficient to summarize them, for the results of his reflection and observation are more important than the processes by which they were reached. Washington became convinced that the whole system was thoroughly bad, as well as utterly repugnant to the ideas on which the Revolution was fought and the government of the United States founded. With a prescience wonderful for those days and on that subject, he saw that slavery meant the up-growth in the United States of two systems so radically hostile, both socially and eco

* Tour in America, 1798–1800.

nomically, that they could lead only to a struggle for political supremacy, which in its course he feared would imperil the Union. For this reason he deprecated the introduction of the slavery question into the debates of the first Congress, because he realized its character, and he did not believe that the Union or the government at that early day could bear the strain which in this way would be produced. At the same time he felt that a right solution must be found or inconceivable evils would ensue. The inherent and everlasting wrong of the system made its continuance, to his mind, impossible. While it existed, he believed that the laws which surrounded it should be maintained, because he thought that to violate these only added one wrong to another. He also doubted, as will be seen in a later chapter, where his conversation with John Bernard is quoted, whether the negroes could be immediately emancipated with safety either to themselves or to the whites, in their actual condition of ignorance, illiteracy, and helplessness. The plan which he favored, and which, it would seem, was his hope and reliance, was first the checking of importation, followed by a gradual emancipation, with proper compensation to the owners and suitable prepara. tion and education for the slaves. He told the clergymen Asbury and Coke, when they visited him for that purpose, that he was in favor of emancipa, tion, and was ready to write a letter to the assembly to that effect." He wished fervently that such a

* Magazine of American History, 1880, p. 158.

« ZurückWeiter »