J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Oney Judge and “the President’s Wishes”

As I reported yesterday, George Washington has been our richest President so far. Most of his property consisted of land, both plantations in Virginia and unsettled claims to the west, and slaves. A lot of those slaves had come to his wife Martha or her children, inherited from her first husband’s family, and George felt obliged to preserve that wealth.

When the federal government moved to Pennsylvania in 1791, that state’s law gradually ending slavery posed a problem for the Washingtons. If they brought their household servants to Philadelphia—and how could a rich couple live without their household servants?—then those people were entitled to be free after six months in the state.

On 24 April Washington’s plantation manager, Tobias Lear, wrote to him about what the U.S. Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, had said about that law:
But he observed, that if, before the expiration of six months, they could, upon any pretence whatever, be carried or sent out of the State, but for a single day, a new era would commence on their return, from whence the six months must be dated for it requires an entire six months for them to claim that right.
Lear then discussed the specific situations of several enslaved people, including: “Mrs Washington proposes in a short time to make an excursion as far as Trenton, and of course, she will take with her Oney & Christopher, which will carry them out of the State; so that in this way I think the matter may be managed very well.”

Oney Judge was Martha Washington’s personal maid. She had been born at Mount Vernon around 1774. Judge was part of Martha’s property, and the First Lady planned to bequeath her to a granddaughter. So the Washingtons made sure that she was never in Pennsylvania for six months at a stretch.

Five years after Lear’s letter, on 21 May 1796, Judge slipped away from the Presidential mansion. She later told an interviewer, “I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.” Frederick Kitt, the President’s steward in Philadelphia, placed an advertisement seeking Judge in the 24 May Philadelphia Gazette.

At the end of June, Thomas Lee, Jr., wrote from New York to President Washington in response to, as he wrote, “the desire you expressed that I should make enquiry about your runaway Woman.” Lee reported a cook saying that Judge had gone north to Boston, and he planned to make inquiries there. Washington knew multiple men named Thomas Lee, and I’m not sure which one this was, but he appears to have been pursuing Judge as a private favor.

Later that summer Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Sen. John Langdon, recognized Oney Judge on the street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Slavery was already unenforceable in that state. According to Washington’s understanding, Langdon “was about to stop and speak to her, but she brushed quickly by, to avoid it.”

The President moved to track Judge down—but instead of continuing his efforts through private channels, he began to use the resources of the federal government. On 1 Sept 1796 he wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott:
Enclosed is the name, and description of the Girl I mentioned to you last night. She has been the particular attendent on Mrs Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy & useful to her, being perfect a Mistress of her needle. . . .

Whether she is Stationary at Portsmouth, or was there en passant only, is uncertain; but as it is the last we have heard of her, I would thank you for writing to the Collector of that Port, & him for his endeavours to recover, & send her back: What will be the best method to effect it, is difficult for me to say. If enquiries are made openly, her Seducer (for she is simple and inoffensive herself) would take the alarm, & adopt instant measures (if he is not tired of her) to secrete or remove her. To sieze, and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria which I should like better, seems at first view to be the safest & least expensive. But if she is discovered, the Collector, I am persuaded, will pursue such measures as to him shall appear best, to effect those ends; and the cost shall be re-embursed & with thanks.
The “Collector” was Joseph Whipple (1738-1816, shown above), the head of the Customs service in Portsmouth and thus a federal employee who answered to Wolcott. He had held the same position for the state of New Hampshire until 1789, and the new President had reappointed him on John Langdon’s recommendation.

Whipple wrote back to the Treasury Secretary on 10 September, “I shall with great pleasure execute the President’s wishes in the matter.” The next month, on 4 October, he wrote again, telling Wolcott that Judge had expressed “a thirst for compleat freedom” as well as “great affection & reverence for her Master & Mistress”; she was (at least initially) willing to return to Mount Vernon if the Washingtons guaranteed her freedom on their deaths.

The President replied directly to Whipple on 28 November, rejecting those terms. He also told the Collector:
…you would oblige me, by pursuing such measures as are proper, to put her on board a Vessel bound either to Alexandria or the Federal City; Directed in either case, to my Manager at Mount Vernon, by the door of which the Vessel must pass; or to the care of Mr Lear at the last mentioned place, if it should not stop before it arrives at that Port.

I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens. rather than either of these shd happen, I would forego her services altogether; and the example also, which is of infinite more importance. The less is said before hand, and the more celerity is used in the act of Shipping her, when an opportunity presents, the better chance Mrs Washington (who is desirous of receiving her again) will have to be gratified.
Again, this wasn’t government business. Washington was asking Whipple to do him a big favor, one gentleman for another. But Whipple was a federal government employee, and he owed his position to Washington. Today that would strike us as a clear conflict of interest.

There’s more to Oney Judge’s story, and the Washingtons’ pursuit of her. Today I’m just looking at how having the resources of government presents a great temptation to a President with private interests.


Anonymous said...

The whirring noise you hear is my high school history teacher (in the 1950's) spinning in his grave -- the "sainthood" approach to our founding fathers that he taight is not looking so good --

Don Carleton said...

Wow...I thought Washington was someone who recognized slavery as incompatible with a free republic but who couldn't quite bring himself to personally dispense with its benefits during his lifetime. But this incident suggests a more vindictive and hard-core pro-slavery point of view on old GW's part.

Perhaps his insistence in recovering his escaped "servant" was conditioned by an allergy to perceived insubordination shaped by his years as a military commander, but GW's actions in the matter are, I think, truly reprehensible, both in terms of public integrity and general humanity.

It certainly casts a rather dim light on the Father of our Country.

J. L. Bell said...

George Washington clearly took Oney Judge's departure personally. Even years later, he wrote about how she had no cause to leave. I think that was because Martha Washington felt miffed. Oney was her personal servant, from a family that had belonged to Martha's family for a long time. Between Martha's feelings and his responsibility to preserve her property for her heirs, George appears to have been especially rigorous about trying to retrieve this one young woman.

Don Carleton said...

Yes, I was wondering the degree to which Martha's "attachment" to Oney was driving GW's behavior in this matter, but still!

DlDrake said...

Although I admire much about Washington (and still do), this story is a definite dark spot on his life and career. When I first read about Oney Judge, I thought Washington's reaction was due to Martha being so upset and hurt and he, as a good husband, acted accordingly. However, while that may be a part of it, I do truly believe (and this no way excuses them of their actions) that he and Martha could just not understand the reasons behind her drive for freedom. The idea was just so completely foreign to them (perhaps more to her than he) that they could not even comprehend the reasons behind why she wanted to leave.

Tameri T. said...

I spent the last 5 years writing Ona's life story as a novel but based entirely on all real people, places and events. Currently seeking a publisher.