NYU Black Renaissance Noire Fall 2015 Volume 15.2 - Page 88

n George Washington The first president of the United States owned slaves from the age of ten. Upon his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Custis, he not only became one of the richest men in the country, he also presided over the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia on which labored over three hundred slaves — men, women and children who George Washington owned, bought and sold. Over three hundred slaves of African descent over which he literally held the power of life and death. Historians will usually agree that there was never an easy life for slaves who could be beaten, killed or sold on the whim of their owners. As a large slave estate, Mount Vernon was the site of a harsh life for the men, women and children who were the property of George Washington. During his illustrious career Washington was known to have demanded the return to slavery of black men and women who had sided with British during the Revolutionary War based on the promise of freedom by the British. Washington demanded the return of the “property” of slave owners, condemning hundreds of men and women to a return to misery. George Washington was also known to have expressed doubts regarding the viability of slavery in a country dedicated to principles of freedom and liberty, but he went along with the legalization of slavery in the new republic when the Constitution was ratified with slavery left untouched. Washington never freed a slave during his lifetime although he has the dubious distinction of being the only so-called Founding Father to free his slaves. 86 m James Monroe The fifth President of the United States was also a slave owner. During his lifetime he managed to acquire a large plantation that depended upon the labor of many slaves. There is no record of how many slaves that James Monroe owned, but it is known that he sold slaves on numerous occasions in order to pay off debts occasioned by his lavish lifestyle. As president, Monroe articulated a view of slavery and black Americans that was held by many white Americans at the time. The thinking was that while slavery was not a sustainable institution and would and should disappear over time, black Americans were inferior and simply unfit to ever be full citizens in the United States. Therefore, the thinking went, black Americans should be repatriated to Africa, from whence their people came. And during his administration, a large number of black Americans were indeed sent to West Africa and established what became the nation of Liberia — the capital, Monrovia, having been named for President James Monroe.