When George and Martha Washington took a houseful of slaves with them to the fledgling nation’s second capital, Philadelphia, they faced major anti-slavery sentiment. They also came up against a local law granting automatic freedom to any slave in residence for six months, leading the First President to cobble together a plan to work around the law. More important, though, in the course of their domestic chores, the Washington slaves came into contact with the city’s population of free blacks. Ona Maria Judge, Martha Washington’s personal maidservant/slave, was inspired by what she saw and made a perilous run for freedom in the North, New Hampshire to be exact. In Never Caught, historian and author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Philadelphia born and raised, recounts the way George Washington pursued his “property” to bring her back. The title of Dunbar’s book, published last month by Atria / 37 Ink, lets us know the outcome, but the details are fascinating. Dunbar will share some of them at Politics and Prose tomorrow afternoon, Saturday, March 18, 2017, at 1pm.
SURROUNDED BY ANTI-SLAVERY sentiment and laws that undermined their financial investments, the Washingtons knew they had to work quickly and quietly if they were to protect their wealth and their reputation. The president needed a solution to the problem of slaveholding in Philadelphia—one that would work for many years. So the Washingtons devised a plan: the couple would shuffle their slaves to and from Mount Vernon every six months, avoiding the stopwatch of Pennsylvania black freedom. If an excursion to Virginia proved a hardship for the family, a quick trip to a neighboring state such as New Jersey would serve the same purpose. The hourglass of slavery would be turned over every six months, and the president knew there was no time to waste.
Still in Virginia, the president sent clear and direct orders back to Philadelphia; the slaves at the Executive Mansion needed to leave the state, and soon. Washington decided that his wife should plan an expedited trip home to Virginia, bringing all of their slaves back to the safety of Southern laws. The president was primarily concerned with his adult slaves, who he (erroneously, as it turned out) believed were the only ones capable of freeing themselves under Pennsylvania law.
But while the president was adamant about protecting his human property, he was only two years into his first term, and in no hurry to agitate the powerful antislavery forces in Philadelphia. Washington preferred to handle his private affairs with discretion and “to deceive” the public if necessary. The president directed his secretary to reveal his intentions to no one except his wife, stating, “I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.”
Just as she had prepared for the move to New York, Martha Washington executed important plans in the absence of her husband, but this time it had to be done in secrecy. Although they faced significant time constraints, the president wanted his wife to quickly gather up their human property without setting off any alarms. The slaves had to be kept in the dark, for if they knew why they were to accompany Mrs. Washington on her trip to Virginia, they might run off, just like Randolph’s slaves. As directed, Martha Washington began to think strategically about a trip back to Virginia. She always looked forward to her Mount Vernon visits, but now, her trips would not only be for rest and relaxation. The first lady was tasked with protecting an investment in human property, property that would eventually be passed down to her heirs.
On April 19, just seven days after the president corresponded with Tobias Lear, Mrs. Washington wrote to her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington, who was back home at Mount Vernon. She inquired about family and friends and prodded for news, hoping that she would hear word about an impending pregnancy. But most importantly, embedded in the first lady’s letter was an excuse for why Ona Judge’s brother, Austin, would be returning to Mount Vernon (ahead of the others) on such short notice. Mrs. Washington explained to her niece that while she was really in no position to spare Austin’s services in Philadelphia, she needed “to fulfill my promises to his wife” and to allow Austin to reunite with his family. Austin’s stay in Virginia would be short, a gift from a benevolent slave owner, or so it would seem.
Excerpted from the book Never Caught, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, published by 37 Ink/Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2017 by Erica Armstrong Dunbar.