After the slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter became a slogan for the movement against racialized police brutality in this country. Viewed from a wider political spectrum, it becomes apparent that, although the slogan is new, black lives have rarely mattered in this country, and that’s true even among our Founding Fathers.
George Washington is highly regarded as America’s first president, but few historians focus on how Washington aided the enterprise of slave catching in this country. Washington not only inherited and acquired slaves, but also created schemes to circumvent laws designed to free slaves.
The New York Times describes how Washington willfully circumvented Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1780:
“The act began dismantling slavery, eventually releasing people from bondage after their 28th birthdays. Under the law, any slave who entered Pennsylvania with an owner and lived in the state for longer than six months would be set free automatically. This presented a problem for the new president,” explained Erica Armstrong Dunbar for the Times.
“Washington developed a canny strategy that would protect his property and allow him to avoid public scrutiny. Every six months, the president’s slaves would travel back to Mount Vernon or would journey with Mrs. Washington outside the boundaries of the state. In essence, the Washingtons reset the clock. “
Also, in 1793, Washington signed the fugitive slave law which allowed slaves to be captured in any state and turned over to their owners. It also punished those who harbored fugitive slaves with fines and prison.
Washington stalked one escaped female slave until twelve weeks before his death. The slave had heard that she was being sold to the couple’s granddaughter as a wedding gift and fled.
We may’ve celebrated Washington and all the other American presidents earlier this week, but we should be clear that black lives never mattered to the first Founding Father.