A Slave Named George Washington

Published:May 18, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Speaking of “separate but equal” and Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes from Edmund S. Morgan‘s American Slavery, American Freedom:

The connection between American slavery and freedom is evident at many levels if we care to see it. Think, for a moment, of the traditional American insistence on freedom of the seas. “Free ships make free goods” was the cardinal doctrine of American foreign policy in the revolutionary era. But the goods for which the United States demanded freedom were produced in very large measure by slave labor. The irony is more than semantic. American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the earth. At the time the colonists announced their claim to that station, they had neither the arms nor the ships to make the claim good. They desperately needed the assistance of other countries, especially France, and their single most valuable product with which to purchase assistance was tobacco, produced mainly by slave labor […] To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.

Look no further for an example of this terrible irony than page 4 of the Richmond Daily Dispatch, published 150 years ago tomorrow. It’s an ad for five “negro men who left the Tredegar Iron Works on Saturday last.” Joseph Reid Anderson, the company’s owner, used slave labor during the war to make up for all of his white workers who left for the army. One of those slaves—a man with “a brown skin, [and a] downcast look when questioned”—was named George Washington.

Coates goes on to quote the former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who once said this about slavery:

Slavery is more than 150 years in the past, and yes, there’s a continuing stain. I’ve often said slavery was America’s birth defect. It was there from the beginning. But we have to turn now to the present and to the future. I’d rather be a minority in this country than in anyplace else in the world.

Responds Coates: “The term ‘birth defect’ conveys the notion of other possibilities and unfortunate accidents. But Morgan would argue slavery didn’t just happen as a byproduct, it was the steward. Put differently, slavery is America’s midwife, not it’s birth defect.”

There’s more, including some unflattering words about our man Jefferson, but you can get there on your own.

IMAGE: An Overseer Doing His Duty Near Fredericksburg, Va. by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, ca. 1798 (The Maryland Historical Society)