After George Washington had retired to Mt. Vernon, he had the opportunity to reflect upon his personal legacy. The details of Washington's generous bequests are proof of his kind nature and commitment to the people around him: family, close friends, slaves under his care, orphans and the poor.
FATHER OF OUR NATION - GEORGE WASHINGTON
Although George Washington's Will beginning with, "In the name of God" was customary at that time, it is an expression of the way he lived his life. The people around him reported that he studied the Bible daily, read sermons to the members of his household on Sundays, and set aside time for personal devotions at the beginning and end of each day. Washington felt strongly that it was important to allow each citizen complete religious freedom.
What is most remarkable about George Washington's Will is his mention of slaves. Throughout history, no other American President has stipulated that slaves under his ownership were to be freed upon his death. Washington would have preferred to free all 317 slaves immediately upon his death, in 1799, but many of them had been passed down from Martha Washington's first marriage. Washington did not have the right to free these inherited slaves. It would seem that Martha did not share George's wish to free all the slaves, because there were no provisions in her will to free her own slaves. Therefore, upon Martha's death, all of the slaves that George Washington owned were freed, and the slaves that Martha Custis Washington owned herself were sold to other owners, for the benefit of Martha's heirs.
FARMER AND LAND OWNER - PRESIDENT GEORGE WASHINGTON AT MOUNT VERNON
In addition to his emancipation declaration, Washington specified that his heirs provide food and clothing for the elderly, infirm, and children among his slaves, leaving specific provisions to cover the expense of their care. He asked that many be taught to read and write and were provided with practical work skills that they could use to support themselves. Washington expressly forbade their sale or movement out of Virginia for any reason whatsoever. To avoid disrupting the farm work, he asked that the executors follow his directives after the crops had been harvested.
One slave, referred to as "my Mulatto man, William" was granted immediate freedom or, if he preferred, to stay under the family’s care for the remainder of his life. Washington further directed that $30, which would be a significantly sizable sum in today's dollars, would be given to him as a "testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War."
GENERAL GEORGE WASHINGTON WITH HIS LONG-TIME PERSONAL SERVANT WILLIAM LEE
Because George Washington valued education and had personally experienced the difficulties of financing an education, Washington stipulated that a significant portion of his estate be used to provide for the education of orphans, indigent people, and the poor. Washington also asked that the dividends paid on a portion of his wealth be used to fund scholarships for an academy in Alexandria, Virginia "in perpetuity."
Washington had been offered compensation for some of his work related to land development for which he refused stating that it was "inconsistent with [his] principle…not to receive pecuniary compensation for any services I could render my country in its arduous struggle with Great Britain…" In the end, he did ask that this provision be used to establish an American University so that Americans would not have to go abroad for higher education.
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S "SOCIETY OF CINCINNATI" - 9 5/8" PLATE NOW IN THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION
George Washington's generous provisions left behind a lasting personal legacy, separate from his efforts as our nation’s first President. He forgave the debts of his close relatives, stipulated the distribution of his land and valuables in a fair and precise manner. The descriptions that Washington included about the nature of his relationship with certain individuals including details of their time together, the ways that they had assisted him and the intended meaning of his gifts were very poignant.
Among the last remarks in the Will is Washington's wish to have a new family vault built from brick at Mt. Vernon for himself and his family members. He said, "It is my express desire that my corpse may be interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration." Few men have made such an impact. President George Washington was indeed a great man. All of the quotations herein are from the transcript of George Washington's Last Will and Testament.
RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX - HISTORIAN & COLLECTOR OF MUSEUM-QUALITY HISTORICAL ARTIFACTS
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