Washington Wanted His Runaway Slaves Returned at War’s End
In October, 1781, America’s War of Independence reached its climax in Virginia. An allied Franco-American force trapped, besieged, and forced the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. It was the war’s final major pitched battle. The British, exhausted by years of fruitless fighting and high costs in blood and treasure, threw in the towel. Defeat at Yorktown led to the fall of the pro war government in London, and its replacement with one that sued for peace.
From the perspective of the escaped slaves who had fought for Britain, that was calamitous news. The side that had offered them freedom had lost, and their former masters had prevailed. Thousands of slaves-turned-freedom-fighters were bottled up with the British in enclaves such as Charleston and New York, unsure whether the Crown would honor its promises to them. They had good reason to worry: American negotiators, strongly urged by slave owners like George Washington, added a last minute clause to the 1783 Treaty of Paris. It forbade the British from “carrying away” American property. That “property” included the escaped slaves who had fought for the British.
Washington Was Furious When the British Refused to Hand Over Escaped Slaves
After the war ended in 1783, the fate of the escaped slaves became a bone of contention between the Patriots and British military commanders. Per the terms of the treaty, the British were bound to deliver their black comrades in arms to their former masters. However, the British on the ground refused to do so. In addition to honor and basic decency, the contest over the fate of the escaped slaves offered the British an opportunity to demonstrate moral superiority over the victorious Patriots. As the British commander in South Carolina put it: “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters“.
The British commander in chief concurred, and directed that: “such that have been promised their freedom, to have it“. That enraged George Washington, and it was touch and go for a while whether hostilities would erupt anew over the issue. The British in New York finally resolved the issue, to the ire of the slave owners, by issuing thousands of “Certificates of Freedom” to the escaped slaves. The documents entitled their bearers to decamp to British colonies such as Nova Scotia “or wherever else He/ She may think proper.” In South Carolina, the British also honored their commitment to the slaves who had fought for them, and took them with them when they evacuated the state.
To hear some sources, George Washington wasn’t done even after he shuffled off the mortal coil. His home, Mount Vernon, has been the site of numerous ghost stories. The best ones involve the ghost of the great man himself. One such is attributed to members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, America’s first national historic preservation organization, and the country’s first women’s patriotic society. The MVLA raised money to purchase a dilapidated Mount Vernon in the nineteenth century, in order to restore and preserve it for posterity. In the early years, when members were in the area, they slept in the mansion, sometimes in the four poster bed in which Washington died.
Many who slept in Washington’s bed were adamant that they felt the presence of his ghost, often described as “a strange and brooding spectre“. On one occasion, as two MVLA members shared Washington’s bed one night, they saw a figure as their bedside candle went out with a noise. Alarmed, one of them told her friend: “You are on the side of the bed where Washington died!” Her friend replied: “No, I’m not. He died on your side!” That killed their sleep that night. Both got up, dressed, and sat around wide awake until sunrise, terrified by every squeak. As an 1890 newspaper article put it: “They all agree that Washington visits his chamber in the still watches of the night“.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Josiah Quincy III (1772 – 1864) was one of Massachusetts’ more prominent figures. He served in the US House of Representatives from 1805 to 1813, as mayor of Boston from 1823 to 1828, and as President of Harvard University from 1829 to 1845. In 1806, he visited Mount Vernon, inherited by George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington. Quincy stayed overnight, and Bushrod hosted him in George Washington’s bedroom – the one which the great man had died. By then, rumors already abounded of spooky encounters with Washington’s ghost in that bedroom. Quincy, who like most Americans of his generations revered George Washington, was not afraid.
Quincy actually hoped “that he might be found worthy to behold the glorified spirit of him who was so revered by his countrymen“. As his son Josiah Quincy Jr. recounted decades later, his father was not disappointed. At some point that night, he reported that he did, indeed, meet the ghost of George Washington. Frustratingly, however, Quincy Jr. gave no details, other than inform readers that his father’s “assurance in this matter was perfect“. We are thus left to wonder what might have passed between the Massachusetts bigwig and the spooky ghost of America’s first president.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading