Farmer Washington
George Washington (1732 - 1799),

All the Presidents’ Slaves: Bondage Within the White House

Happy Black History Month! For each of the 28 days of February, we at The Mary Sue will have a post about a black woman you should know about—some you may have heard of, some a little bit more obscure, and some fictional who still deserve a lot of love. 

Recommended Videos
Farmer Washington

George Washington (1732 – 1799),

Day Nineteen: President’s Day Edition + Ona Judge 

Today is Presidents’ Day in which all collectively pretend that we know the accomplishments and failures of the men who’ve been elected to the highest office in our country. Whenever the issue of slavery, Native genocide, and other human rights violations come up in connection with the Founding Fathers, the usual response is “well it was an issue of time and everyone thought it was okay.”

Which is, point-blank, bullshit. Many, many, people of the time believed that slavery was an evil institution, including many of the people who owned slaves themselves.

Of the first 18 presidents of our country, twelve of them owned slaves, of the original “founding fathers” only two of them did not own slaves (those Adams boys), and eight of them held slaves while in office. That’s not even counting those who didn’t own slaves, but still supported the institution itself.

George Washington had over 300 slaves and while he did free them after his death, it only came after years of dealing with the “slavery issue”. Also, it was his wife, Martha Washington, who was a widow when she married Washington, who owned a majority of their slaves and wealth. Therefore, when he died she only freed the slaves he brought into the marriage and the rest were sent back to her first husband’s family when she died. Throughout his presidency, Washington both supported laws for and against slavery, including the Fugitive Slave Act, which he would have to use himself later in life, but we will save that for the main course later.

Thomas Jefferson had over 600 slaves during his lifetime, a majority of which were, again, brought in by his marriage to wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. Jefferson’s main reason for keeping his slaves, despite his complex moral issues about slavery was because he was always in a huge amount of debt. Jefferson’s spent money like crazy and therefore his slaves were some of his main assets that could be sold in order to clear off debts. In fact, after his death, his remaining 130 slaves at Monticello were sold to pay the debts left on his estate. Jefferson also had a “relationship” with his wife’s half-sister Sally Hemings, a slave, when she was around 14 and he was 44, and fathered children with her. Also here is your reminder that slaves can not have consensual relationships with people who own them, therefore this was rape.

James Madison owned over 100 slaves and was the mastermind behind Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and legislative representation. He did not free his slaves in his will and one of his slaves, Paul Jennings, who served him during his presidency and later published the first memoir of life in the White House.

James Monroe was critical of slavery, despite owning around 75 slaves himself. He supported sending freed slaves to the new country of Liberia because it would be an “easier” solution than, you know, giving black free people equal rights in the country they were in. Andrew Jackson, of course, being a heartless human and racist owned slaves, didn’t free them and slept like a baby thinking of all the brown people he killed and subjugated. Yay populist president.

Martin Van Buren owned one slave because of his father and when that slave escaped, he was sort of whatever about it. William Henry Harrison tried to expand slavery as governor, and probably would have advocated for expanding slavery in the West, but died of pneumonia before doing anything of worth just 31 days into his term. He was also suspected of having fathered six children with a slave he owned.

John Tyler thought slavery was evil but also believed in state’s rights, holding on to his 70 slaves until his death and helping to expand the institution. So apparently he and Monroe thought it was a lawful evil rather than chaotic evil. James K. Polk supported slavery because it was his way to live comfortably after the presidency because he did not want to work anymore. So you know, just own people. He did free his slaves in his will so I guess…that’s something.

Zachary Taylor was a lifelong slave owner but did not actually expand slavery into the West during his presidency as expected. He was the last president to own slaves while in office. However, both Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant owned slaves during their lifetime. Johnson’s slaves were freed after the Civil War and he became president post-Lincon so there you go. Grant owned slaves through his wife’s inheritance and the one slave he was known to personally own William Jones, he freed despite his hugggeee amount of debt. Grant was the last president to ever hold slaves.

This brief history lesson is here to remind everyone that our history as Americans is fraught with contradictions that even the founding fathers and early presidents knew about. These men knew slavery was wrong, but for economic reasons, most of them still continued to own slaves, with the exception of Grant.

Of non-presidents, Patrick Henry, who once said “give me liberty or give me death” kept slaves because he found it “inconvenient” to not have them. Benjamin Franklin used to own slaves before changing his mind before working to abolish slavery. Philip Schuyler–father of Peggy, Angelia, Eliza, The Schuyler sisters of Hamilton‘s fame–also owned slaves in upstate New York. Kinda makes that “Cabinet Battle #1” rap feel a bit different now?

Is it great that Washington freed his slaves after he died? Yes. However, he freed them after he died because it freed him from the guilt he felt during his lifetime for holding slaves in the first place. Otherwise, why not do it sooner?

Which brings us to the true subject of this post: Ona Judge.

Ona Judge was a runaway slave who escaped from the plantation of George and Martha Washington and was never caught.

In May of 1796, Ona Judge left the Philadelphia house, where the Washingtons were staying. In Philadelphia, the law stated that slaveholders would have to free their slaves after six months, but George Washington thought that by sending his slaves south every six months he was basically hitting a reset button on that timeline. Plus, he was George Washington.

Ona was a mixed-race woman in her twenties when she escaped and was apparently finely dressed and calm during her escape, which was why she drew no attention as she walked down the streets of Philadelphia. Slavery had been made illegal there in 1780 so seeing black women walking feely wasn’t rare. Ona made her way to friends who helped her get aboard a ship called the Nancy which took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Martha Washington apparently felt “shocked” and “betrayed” that the young woman would want to leave “an honored position in this great home.” But this was the same Martha Washington who thought slaves should have “gratitude for the kindness that may be [showed] to them.” I wonder why Ona would have ever wanted to leave…

Both Martha and George were deeply offended by Ona’s escape and Washington was apparently upset that someone would challenge his authority. Because who would dare challenge the authority of someone who treated them poorly, gave them no rights, no representation, and took from them of the spoils of their labor? Who would do such a thing?

Washington had signed into law three years ago the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which entitled him to make full use of the federal court to get his property back. Which is exactly what Washington did.

Washington found out Ona was in New Hampshire pretty quickly because just like today, Portsmouth is like over 90% white. Washington contacted Joseph Whipple, who was the collector of customs in the city, to help him seek out and return Ona to them. Whipple found Ona and she ended up bargaining with him saying that she would only return to Mount Vernon if she was granted her freedom. Ona had already planned to marry a free black man and live a full life, she was not going back to the Washingtons to be enslaved. Washington was upset that Whipple bargained with Ona rather than just dragging her back home.

Two years after Ona’s escape, Washinton even asked his nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., who was heading up to New Hampshire on business, to find Ona and bring her back, along with whatever children she may have had. When Bassett confided this to Senator Langdon, the Senator sent one of his servants to warm Ona about the plan and she went into hiding until Bassett left.

Once George Washington died, the search for her pretty much stopped and, as stated before, Martha did end up freeing all of her husband’s slaves because she was “afraid” of them.

Ona died “poor but free” on February 25, 1848. She outlived both George Washington (1799) and Martha Washington (1802).

Recommended Reading

In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed

(image: Three Lions/Getty Images)

Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!

The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—


The Mary Sue is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article 13 Best LEGO ‘Minecraft’ Sets for 2024 To Prove to Your Little Cousins That You’re Cool
A player with a sword rides a horse while Villagers look on in "Minecraft"
Read Article The Best LEGO Car Sets for 2024 To Impress the Hotties, Ranked
A LEGO Corvette.
Read Article We Can’t Get Enough of These ‘Bleach Blonde Bad Built’ Memes
(L-R) Marjorie Taylor Greene frowns at a podium, Jasmine Crockett speaks to a crowd while wearing a fur coat.
Read Article Kelly Yazdi Claps Back After Ex-Husband Zac Brown Sues Her Over a Personal Poem
Composite image of Zac Brown as a Miami Heat game and Kelly Yazdi in an Instagram post
Read Article Rue21 Set To Shut Down After Filing For Bankruptcy a Third Time
Storefront of Rue21
Related Content
Read Article 13 Best LEGO ‘Minecraft’ Sets for 2024 To Prove to Your Little Cousins That You’re Cool
A player with a sword rides a horse while Villagers look on in "Minecraft"
Read Article The Best LEGO Car Sets for 2024 To Impress the Hotties, Ranked
A LEGO Corvette.
Read Article We Can’t Get Enough of These ‘Bleach Blonde Bad Built’ Memes
(L-R) Marjorie Taylor Greene frowns at a podium, Jasmine Crockett speaks to a crowd while wearing a fur coat.
Read Article Kelly Yazdi Claps Back After Ex-Husband Zac Brown Sues Her Over a Personal Poem
Composite image of Zac Brown as a Miami Heat game and Kelly Yazdi in an Instagram post
Read Article Rue21 Set To Shut Down After Filing For Bankruptcy a Third Time
Storefront of Rue21
Author
Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.