During his press conference on Tuesday, President Donald Trump equated Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson with the Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, wondering if statues of the two Founding Fathers will be the next to be taken down. “George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump told the media.
“George Washington as a slave owner,” the President said. “Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me. Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him. Good. Are we going to take down his statue? He was a major slave owner.”
Washington, the nation’s first president and the leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, did own slaves during his life, although the Mount Vernon website notes that he questioned slavery for much of his adult life and wanted to end it. Washington became a slave owner when his father died in 1743, when Washington was 11 years old. His father willed him 10 slaves and he bought at least eight more to work on his 280-acre farm. In 1755, he bought more slaves to work on the farm.
When Washington died in 1799, there were 317 slaves living on Mount Vernon, with 123 of them owned by Washington. The other slaves were owned by the estate of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband.
According to the Mount Vernon website, there are different accounts of how Washington treated his slaves. One Englishman who lived near Mount Vernon wrote that Washington’s neighbors thought he treated his slaves “with more severity than any other man,” but a foreign visitor said he thought Washington treated his slaves “far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia.”
Although Washington did sign the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, giving slaveowners the right to capture fugitive slaves in any state, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1794, which was the first step to Congress’ eventual 1807 law that banned the importation of slaves into the U.S.
As the Mount Vernon site notes, Washington wrote in his will that the slaves he owned will be set free upon his Martha Washington’s death. However, this didn’t cover the slaves Martha Washington inherited from her first husband. When Martha Washington died in 1802, those slaves became the ownership of Custis’ family.
Washington also put in his will that slaves who were too old or too sick to support themselves would be supported by his estate until their deaths. Martha Washington decided to free her husband’s slaves in January 1801, over a year before her death in May 1802.
Trump’s comments came during a long press conference, where he defended his responses to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia where one woman was killed during a “Unite the Right” rally. There, white supremacists were protesting the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.