Historical Fact or Fiction?

See if you can accurately finish this statement: “Our Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to…

(a)  end taxation without representation
(b)  break the hold of Great Britain and become a free nation
(c)  form a confederation of states
(d)  end slavery

Cover of Tract by Edward Rushton

Cover of Tract by Edward Rushton

If you selected “end slavery,” you would not be historically accurate. Not only did the founding fathers fail to dismantle the system of slavery in our country, but as slaveholders they themselves actively benefited from the free labor of others. The Treaty of Paris which marked the end of the Revolutionary War was signed in 1783. Three years later, George Washington, one of the wealthiest presidents, was said to have owned 216 slaves.

In 1797 Edward Rushton, an English abolitionist, wrote a tract entitled: Expostulatory letter to George Washington, of Mount Vernon, in Virginia, on his continuing to be a proprietor of slaves. While Rushton praises the standards Washington upheld as a general and as the father of his country, he also asserts that “Man does not readily perceive defects in what he has been accustomed to venerate; hence it is that you (Washington) have escaped those animadversions which your slave proprietorship has so long merited. For seven years you bravely fought the battles of your country, and contributed greatly to the establishment of her liberties, yet you are a slave-holder! You have been raised by your fellow-citizens to one of the most exalted situations upon earth, the first magistrate of a free people, yet you are a slave-holder! A majority of your countrymen have recently discovered that slavery is unjust, and are gradually abolishing the wrong, yet you continue to be a slave-holder!”

While a majority of countrymen in the North had begun to phase out slavery, in the South it was still a very strong institution. Of the first five presidents, only the second president, John Adams, did not own slaves. The remaining four, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all Virginians and all slaveholders. Of the next five men to serve in the highest office, only John Quincy Adams did not measure any of his wealth in slaves. The four men who succeeded him, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, were all slaveholders. The last president to own slaves while in office was the twelfth president, Zachary Taylor who served from 1849-1850.

It was not until December 6, 1865 that the 13th amendment abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude was enacted by the Congress. The 14th amendment defining citizenship for former slaves was proposed the following year.

Jana Meyer

3 comments on “Historical Fact or Fiction?

  1. Daniel Weddington

    What an amazing piece. Any idea how widely this was circulated at the time? I read that Washington never responded publicly to Rushton, but is there any evidence that he was able to reach the President with his message?

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  2. Judith Partington

    Dear Mr. Weddington, How nice to receive a reply to my Rushton piece. You ask an interesting question. I don’t know if the tract was widely-circulated or not. Certainly it would have been of great interest to Washington and his friends as many of them were slaveholders. He may have never replied since he freed very few of his servants in his lifetime. Martha was credited for freeing many of them in 1801, two years after the president’s death. According to Abigail Adams this was only because Martha feared her own life might be in danger. Whether this is fact or fiction, we’ll never know for certain. Judith

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  3. Robert W. Brooks

    —It is stated, “the 14th amendment defining citizenship for former slaves was proposed the following year.” The 14th Amendment, dated 28 July 1868, was proclaimed by the Secretary of State, to have been ratified by thirty of the thirty-six states.
    —Excepting one supreme court case decided prior, to the proclaimed 14th Amendment ratification, in no debates, documents, writings or legislation are inhabitants, of the land constituting the United States, called, referred to or declared “citizens of the United States.”
    —Prior, to ratification, of the 14th Amendment, you were a citizen of the State, in which you resided; period!

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