U.S. Intellectual History Blog

George Washington and 18th-Century Abolitionist Thought

(Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, Christopher Cameron, will be guest-blogging for us each Saturday. This is his post for this week. — Ben Alpers)

In explaining George Washington’s evolving views on the institution of slavery, historians have posited a number of different factors, including his nationalist vision, the state of his personal finances, and even his lack of children. While not completely discounting these explanations, Francois Furstenberg, in a relatively recent article in the William and Mary Quarterly, locates the intellectual source of Washington’s gradual abolitionism in a trans-Atlantic network of antislavery activists that includes Thomas Clarkson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, the Marquis de Condorcet, and William Pitt.

Furstenberg’s article, “Atlantic Slavery, Atlantic Freedom: George Washington, Slavery, and Transatlantic Abolitionist Networks” is the first to make use of seventeen books on slavery that Washington owned, all but one of which dealt with abolitionism. Using techniques from historians of print and book culture, Furstenberg attempts to reconstruct the meaning, for Washington, of what he read and “the personal networks that helped to shape that connection.”[1] His methodological approach here is exciting in that he applies techniques to discover Washington’s views on slavery that are generally reserved for marginalized peoples. In doing so, he argues that a close examination of Washington’s library offers “fresh insight into the circulation of abolitionist knowledge and the creation of antislavery communities in the late-eighteenth-century Atlantic world.”[2]

With a library of over 1,000 volumes, it can be difficult to tell which books Washington actually read and which simply collected dust. Most of his books were given to him, and in thanking friends for these gifts, he rarely indicated that he had actually read them. Even books he was known to have read have few markings inside, as was the case with volumes in the library of John Adams, for instance. However, Washington seems to have signed many of the books he read, and the ones that were particularly important to him he had bound. Of particular importance for the study of antislavery thought, Furstenberg argues, is a bound volume of six pamphlets, five of which were from foreign authors.

Collectively, these pamphlets articulated abolitionist sentiments that Washington is known to have held in his later years. These include the idea that slavery was a stain upon a nation’s honor, that it was an inefficient economic system, and that slavery should be gradually abolished through legislation. Washington never advanced a religious argument, thus it comes as no surprise that a pamphlet from Granville Sharp did not make it into the bound volume and was clearly never read by Washington, as the pages had not been separated.

In addition to this bound volume, Furstenberg examines the personal connections with individuals whom network theorists would label nodes in a growing intellectual network. We know, for instance, that both Washington and the Marquis de Condorcet were well acquainted with Lafayette, and thus can reasonably assume Lafayette passed on Condorcet’s antislavery ideas, ideas that Washington replicated nearly verbatim in a conversation. Brissot, a key figure in the French antislavery movement and author of one of the pamphlets Washington owned, visited Mt. Vernon in 1788, providing another connection between Washington and transatlantic abolitionist networks. The bound volume that now rests in the Boston Athenaeum, Furstenberg argues, sheds important light on Washington’s antislavery thought, but it also “makes visible the contours of a largely hidden international circuit of authorship, publication, and readership that stretched across the Atlantic, connecting salons in Paris, debates in London, and publishers in Philadelphia to readers in Virginia.”[3] For intellectual historians studying the antislavery movement, the methodology that Furstenberg employs constitutes a valuable addition to the close reading of abolitionist texts to which we are so accustomed.

Christopher Cameron is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His book on black abolitionists in Massachusetts is forthcoming from Kent State University Press, and he is currently working on two book projects—one exploring liberal theology in America before the Civil War, and another on black freethinkers from the mid-19th century to the present. He blogs regularly at professorcameron.com.

[1] Francois Furstenberg, “Atlantic Slavery, Atlantic Freedom: George Washington, Slavery, and Transatlantic Abolitionist Networks” The William and Mary Quarterly 68 (2011): 251.

[2] Ibid, 248.

[3] Ibid, 274.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Cameron, one of my exam fields is Transatlantic history in the long 19th century, so I approached your post thinking that it would prove helpful for me in framing some issues there. And it is helpful. But to my great delight it seems that your post and the Furstenberg piece to which you point should also prove helpful to me in framing some issues related to my dissertation. So double thanks for this!

  2. The Furstenberg piece has some nice forensic sleuthing, but what do the Washington’s post-presidential sentiments really amount to? The article conscientiously admits:

    How did Washington interpret these texts? There is almost no internal evidence to help answer this question.

    Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is that which was already known, that in 1778, while away at war, Washington expressed the desire “to be quit of negroes.”

    But much of his wealth was tied up in them, and to sell them would involve breaking up families, which his conscience could not allow. Thus, he instructed his foreman that the slave had to agree to be sold!

    Further, the article notes, “Washington continued buying slaves as late as 1786, even as he insisted on his repugnance for the institution.” It comes later, then, during the presidential years, that Washington revisits the slavery question via the bound pamphlets, perhaps with America’s reputation in the civilized [i.e., European] world in mind.

    But he does nothing. He says nothing. That he freed his slaves not at his death but after Martha’s tells us much about his situation between a rock and a hard place. [Abigail Adams guessed that Martha freed those slaves early because they might do her in in order to speed up getting free. Now, that’s funny in that Django Unchained kind of way.]

    Anyway, I respect the scholar’s need to come up with something/anything new, and finding these bound Washington volumes on a forgotten shelf is novel. I just wish they told us more than that GWash remained troubled by the peculiar institution. Although it’s good to know.

    [That there was an “Atlantic network” of abolitionist sentiments is hardly news. Dr Johnson quite had the Americans’ number in 1775—“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”]

  3. Thanks for an interesting piece. Even (some) non-academics with only elementary knowledge of the field (or less) can be impressed by the careful effort to fill gaps in what’s known about early abolitionism.

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