In the late 1700s, when the decision was made to build a new capital in the American colonies, two pro-slavery states (Maryland and Virginia) ceded land for it. That later influenced the builders to use some slaves for construction. As the architect was European, the builders had planned to import labor from Europe, but much to their surprise, they were unable to recruit many workers.
So the builders decided on local white laborers, and some immigrants who were mostly from Ireland and Scotland. To complete the labor force, they used some free Negros and some enslaved Negros. The owners of the slaves were paid for outsourcing them.
At the Democratic Convention in July of 2016, Michelle Obama was criticized for saying; “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” She probably only meant to show how far Negroes have come since that time, but innumerous interpretations have been read into her words. But that’s what happens when you are a president or a first lady.
The first president of the United States, George Washington, never lived in the White House and died before it was completed in Washington Village, as the District of Columbia was called then. But it was George Washington who gave his approval for the design of the house, built under the supervision of James Hoban, the Irish-born architect who had won the contract in an open competition. His wife, Martha, was a wealthy widow who owned 100 slaves and a lot of good farming land when she married him in 1759. She had had 4 children with her first husband, a wealthy planter, but only 2 survived infancy.
When they married, George Washington was already a military officer with experience from fighting the French in battles during the French and Indian War. This war was fought in the Americas and often called the Seven Years’ War (1754-63), was between France and Great Britain, who were fighting each other for world domination. And George Washington’s military experience had been as a colonel in the British army. Both George and Martha had been born in the American colonies, but both were born as British subjects.
George Washington had been born into a wealthy home, but his father died when he was 11 and left most of his land and slaves to his sons from his first marriage. For that reason, George inherited only 10 slaves, and his formal education ended with his father’s death. George and Martha had a lavish wedding and the purple wedding shoes she ordered from London are still on display in their original Virginian home, Mount Vernon, where they first set up housekeeping. We can be pretty sure it was a love match because at that time, many widows wrote legal premarital contracts to protect their assets, and Martha chose not to.
But in 1775, 16 years after they were married, the Revolutionary War began and George Washington was named Commander in Chief of the Patriots, as the rebelling colonists were called. You can see where the name and logo of the football team, The New England Patriots, came from. The Patriots were the people who were fighting for the independence of the thirteen colonies that had been established in America. The Loyalists were the group of colonists who supported the British. Martha Washington followed her husband to his winter encampments for all of the eight years the war lasted. She took care of him, and coordinated donations that were raised to support the soldier’s families. Unfortunately, one of her sons from her first marriage died in that war, at age 26.
The war ended in September of 1783 and The United States of America began to be formed. Martha Washington was very popular at that time, and many had begun to call her Lady Washington. George Washington agreed to become the nation’s first president, but Martha opposed his decision. When he took office on April 30, 1789, she refused to attend his inauguration. That suddenly made people stop calling her Lady Washington. Even in those days without social media, public opinion could turn quickly against someone. But gradually, Martha became his first lady and hosted many affairs in the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia. But she always resented being the first first lady and being forced to live a restricted life, obliged to listen to advisors and documented by the press, what little of it there was. She began to give formal parties and receptions, mostly because of security precautions that forbade her to go out and visit friends. People began to call her Lady Washington again.
But their lives were not all rules and tough decisions. George Washington, who was an avid hunter, had at least two hound dogs when he became president. Martha Washington had a parrot. They began the tradition of first pets, which have become so important in helping the American public relate to First Families that some of the pets have even written books. There is a Presidential Pet Museum, which is unfortunately closed at the moment, but you can visit it on-line at http://presidentialpetmuseum.com/pet_museum/.
The year in which Washington took office, 1789, the Federalist Party was formed. It was America’s first political party. They believed in a strong federal government that promoted economic growth and would keep friendly relations with Great Britain, while at the same time opposing revolutionary France. The party’s members were mostly a coalition of bankers and businessmen and would control the country until the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, would win the presidency in 1801.
In 1790, Washington’s government, deeply in debt because of the Revolutionary War, passed a law that put a tax on all distilled spirits. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had proposed it and loud protests were heard from all over the new country. The law was different for large producers and for small producers, who only made whiskey for themselves or for their families. There were tax breaks for the larger producers, just like some government laws favor the rich nowadays. Also, the tax was only payable in cash, something the small farmers, who generally traded, had little of. The population of the new country protested violently, and many of the protesters were veterans from the Revolutionary War and believed they were fighting for the same principles that they fought for in the war; taxation without representation. The situation became so violent that at one point President Washington put together a militia force to enforce the tax, and he rode west heading an army of 13,000 men. There was little confrontation and the protesters slowly quieted down, but did everything in their power to avoid the tax until Thomas Jefferson repealed the law in 1801. However, the Whiskey Rebellion proved that the new country with its new government could enforce a law and suppress a rebellion.
Neither George nor Martha ever gave up their slaves, and this was a very sensitive issue during his presidency. In 1790 Philadelphia was the capital of America, and Pennsylvania had a law that freed slaves after residing in that state for 6 months. The president and first lady did not think this law would actually affect them, as they were not permanent residents. But just to make sure, they always sent their slaves back to Virginia just before the six months ran out, and then brought them back to work and to begin to count the time again. They were, naturally, highly criticized by northerners.
Martha Washington had a personal slave, Oney, who was her favorite attendant. Oney was born a slave, the daughter of another slave who was a seamstress at Mount Vernon, and a white indentured servant who was a tailor there. Being indentured was a way for a person to learn a trade, and the first Negros in the colonies were indentured servants, not slaves. Indentured servants usually had a contract to work for about 7 years for room and board, and this was often a way for someone to pay off a debt or a ship passage that got that person to the colonies. Oney grew up to be trained to help Martha Washington bathe, dress and care for her hair. They became “friends”, according to Lady Washington, and spent hours and hours sewing together, which was Martha’s hobby. Oney became an excellent seamstress and Martha kept her well dressed and often took her out visiting with her.
In 1796, while they were living in Philadelphia and Washington was president, Martha told Oney that she was going to be given to the First Lady’s granddaughter as a wedding present. Oney, who had free black friends in Philadelphia, decided to run away. At that time, Philadelphia had a pretty large free black community and its members probably helped Oney to escape and to hide her. Things worked out for Oney, who apparently hid aboard a ship that took her to the state of New Hampshire. Technically, slavery was legal in New Hampshire at that time, but its economy did not depend on slaves, and most people were against it. She began a new life for herself in New England, learned to read and write, and also became a Christian. She lived to an old age, and we know some things about her because abolitionist newspapers interviewed her when she was an elderly woman. Abolitionists were people who advocated the abolition of slavery.
Martha was furious that “her Oney” had run away, and pressed her husband to track down the girl and bring her back. He refused to do that because of political repercussions, but allowed an ad to be placed in a Philadelphia newspaper that described the runaway slave and offered a $10 reward for her return. The First Couple came under criticism because of that classified ad. And no bounty hunter went after her for $10. However, after some time, Oney was spotted in New Hampshire and a plan was set into motion to adduct her and return her to her “rightful owners”. But times were tumultuous then and the New Hampshire customs official that knew where she was refused to carry out the plan for fear that abolitionists would cause a riot on the docks. But this same official offered to cut a deal with the First President and his wife and proposed that he would return the slave to the Washingtons if they would guarantee to free her upon their deaths.
The Washingtons refused “to reward her unfaithfulness” and the public became divided in strong opinions, for and against the First Couple. As the slave trade grew, so did the opposition, and this began to divide the nation against itself. After George Washington retired in 1797, a nephew of his traveled to New Hampshire on business and used his time there to find Oney for his uncle. He tried to convince her to return. By that time she was married to a free black man and had a baby; she of course refused. The nephew was a houseguest at a senator’s home, and over dinner talked about his plan B to kidnap Oney. But the nephew didn’t have a clue. The senator immediately sent word to Oney to go into hiding, and the nephew had to return to Virginia without her. Oney eventually had 2 more children, and died when she was about 75. Her story not only divided public opinion about the first president and first lady but also encouraged Americans to speak their minds about controversial subjects.
A year after Oney ran away, Hercules, a slave who was the chief cook in the president’s Philadelphia house, also ran away. It seems that he managed to escape on one of those trips when a slave was sent back to Virginia so as not to appear to be an official resident in Philadelphia. Only two things are known about Hercules: by 1801 he was living in New York City, and that his 6-year-old daughter, still enslaved in Mount Vernon, told a visitor that she was glad her father was free. This is a heartbreaking example of one of the ways that slaves were forced to split up their families.
George Washington served two terms as president, and refused to serve a third term; his decision contributed to the establishment of 4-year presidential terms. No other president tried to run for a third term for almost 200 years.
Washington had Federalist leanings, but remained non-partisan during all his years as president. He and Martha retired to Mount Vernon and lived out their lives peacefully. In 1799, he died there at age 67 with Martha at his bedside, and in his will, he freed his valet and slave, William Lee. If you visit D.C. or Mount Vernon, you should look for paintings of George Washington beside this trusty slave, whom he called Billy. He served alongside Washington in the Revolutionary War and was the most publicized slave of his time. Martha Washington freed all her husband’s slaves in the first year after his death, and allowed them to stay at Mount Vernon if they wanted to. George Washington had stipulated in his will that the 123 slaves that he owned were to gain their freedom after Martha’s death. This made the slaves restive. Abigail Adams, wife of the second president of the United States, paid a condolence call on Martha Washington around this time and explained her opinion in a letter following this visit. She wrote, “ . . . she did not feel as tho her life was safe in their hands . . . it was in their interest to get rid of her . . . she therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.”
Martha died at Mount Vernon in 1802 at age 70. The slaves she owned were reverted to her first husband’s family and were divided between her four grandchildren. But she specifically left her favorite slave of that time, Elisha, to a grandson. The terms of her will caused more families to be split up in diversified ways.
George Washington never spoke against slavery publically. But he did speak against it privately. He was the first American president to say one thing and do another. Critics say that because he identified with Alexander Hamilton, his controversial Secretary of Treasury and the man the modern Broadway play is based on, he added to the partisanship that he spoke against so vigorously. He had many other critics as president, because after America gained its independence, many wanted the new country to be run like a monarchy. George Washington refused, and insisted that he only be addressed as “Mr. President”, setting the tone for the office. He was offered a salary of $25,000 annually to accept the office. He initially refused any salary, but it ended up that congress talked him into accepting a salary after they established one that, even today, is reasonable but less than most candidates might make in a private business sector. But at that time, both Washington and the congress wrote that having a decent salary would make the office open to all, not just those who were wealthy and didn’t need a salary. The salary that Trump has refused is set at $400,000 annually.
When America gained its independence in 1776, almost 50 newspapers already existed. By 1800 that number had mushroomed to over 250 newspapers. They were not impartial. Mostly, they criticized Washington’s supposed “monarchial” style (the one he had carefully tried not to adopt) and his Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s economic program. Thomas Jefferson, who was Washington’s Secretary of State, became his strongest opposition, and newspapers gave his criticism a lot of space.
When in 1793 Washington formally proclaimed that the United States would remain neutral in the growing conflict between Revolutionary France and Great Britain, Americans took to the streets in protest. Many of these new Americans were pro-France, and believed that the French Revolution was a continuation of the ideals of the American Revolution. On the other side, the new Federalist Party (the ones who were anti-slavery) thought neutrality meant Washington was leaning toward the English corrupt and conquering monarchy. At that time, the Federalists called themselves “friends of the government” (the same term Loyalists, those who did not support the 1776 version of Brexit, had used for themselves during the American Revolution) and they called the opposition, which would later become the Democratic-Republican Party, the “disorganizers”. The Federalists would eventually turn into the modern-day Republican Party. What we call the Democratic Party today would not be founded for almost another 100 years.
George Washington took office in contentious times and left office in contentious times. But he certainly tried to make America great.
George and Martha Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, is open 365 days a year for tours. It is a lovely part of the United States to visit.
George Washington (in office from 1789 – 1797)
President during part of The Revolutionary Period: 1763-1783
Stay tuned for the next chapter; it will be shorter because you have just acquired a feeling for the time and the mood of the developing country, as well as lot of historical background.
Betsy was the my English teacher in Uberaba, a long time ago…. An excellent teacher, a wonderful human-being. She gave me the nickname I gladly adopted ever since. We became close friends and we are still close – in our hearts.
Aprender inglês com Betsy é um privilégio! Com aulas dinâmicas, inteligentes, divertidas, sempre tratando de assuntos atuais, consegue ensinar e cativar! Tenho aulas com ela há muitos anos! Não pretendo parar, pois além de aprender a língua, Betsy coloca assuntos muito interessantes em pauta. Nestes muitos anos, nunca repetiu uma só aula! Grande professora!
É um prazer falar das aulas da Betsy. São empolgantes, temas variados e atuais, envolventes, bem preparados e com muito amor, com certeza. Acredito que seu blog será “helpful ” para todos aqueles que têm interesse em aprender a língua inglesa ou simplesmente intensificar seu conhecimento. Um abraço carinhoso e sucesso!
Betsy and I worked together as teachers in an English School many years ago. The need of keeping my English fluent and updated inspired me to have classes with her, so, 3 other teachers and I formed a group for these classes. Betsy’s classes were always fun, full of new, challenging and interesting vocabulary, focusing on what was happening in the world and many times, with suggestions for our own classes. I still keep the material she prepared for us at that time and, surprisingly they are still fitted for my students. The environment where she teaches is so cozy that we believed we were abroad; this also contributed to the charm of the classes. Apart from that, Betsy and I have developed a strong friendship that has been kept alive up to now. I still turn to her whenever I need something and she never lets me down.