George Washington
George Washington, A National Treasure
The Portrait Kids Washington's Life Exhibition Calendar
Portrait for Kids
The Patriot Papers
Teacher Guide
Family Guide
Experience... is the best rule to walk by. --George Washington to John Parke Curtis, West Point, August 24, 1779


Teacher Guide


  • To read and interpret four documents George Washington wrote regarding his slaves and the issue of slavery
  • To analyze the reasons why Washington was conflicted over the issue of slavery
  • To discuss the evolution of Washington’s attitude toward slavery
  • To explain the significance of Washington’s eventual freeing of his slaves

Related standards in historical thinking:

  • Chronological thinking: identify the temporal structure of a historical narrative; establish temporal order in constructing historical narratives; create timelines
  • Historical comprehension: identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative; reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage; identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses; read historical narratives imaginatively; appreciate and evidence historical perspectives
  • Historical analysis and interpretation: compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions; consider multiple perspectives; analyze cause-and-effect relationships and multiple causation, including the importance of the individual and the influence of ideas
  • Historical research capabilities: formulate historical questions; obtain historical data; interrogate historical data; marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place to construct a story, explanation, historical narrative, or interpretation
  • Historical issues-analysis and decision making: identify issues and problems in the past; analyze the interests and values of the various people involved; identify causes of a problem or dilemma; formulate a position or course of action on an issue; evaluate the implementation of a decision


  • Biographical information on George Washington that mentions the slavery issue
  • “Of Human Bondage: George Washington and the Issue of Slavery” student worksheet (see below)
  • Pencils or pens

Procedures for elementary-level students:

  1. Distribute the four passages written by George Washington relating to slaves and the slavery issue. Have the students read them once on their own. You may wish to abridge the longer documents for the most significant passages. Then, read the documents out loud together as a class.

  2. Ask the students to answer the questions from Part One of the “Of Human Bondage: George Washington and the Issue of Slavery” worksheet. Have them answer the questions out loud in class to ensure their understanding.

  3. Tell the students to make a timeline of the documents to help them trace the development of Washington’s thoughts on slaves and slavery. They should include the date, type of document (letter, will, etc.), and purpose of the document.
    Sample Timeline
    Date of document: 1766
    Type of document: letter to a ship captain
    Purpose of document: request the sale of a “difficult” slave

  4. Ask the students to discuss how Washington’s attitude toward slavery changed from the first document to the last document. Ask them to discuss the significance of his freeing his slaves in his will.

Procedures for middle- and upper-level students:
  1. Ask the students to read the four passages from documents written by George Washington relating to slaves and the slavery issue. Have them complete the worksheet, “Of Human Bondage: George Washington and the Issue of Slavery,” for each document.

  2. Divide the class into three groups. Assign each group one of the three sides of George Washington listed below. Ask the students to research the topic and prepare a presentation on it.
    1. George Washington as a politician
    2. George Washington as a human being
    3. George Washington as a businessman

  3. Ask each group to select a spokesperson to present their remarks. Hold a class discussion following the oral presentations.

Student Worksheet

Of Human Bondage: George Washington and the Issue of Slavery

Read the following documents by George Washington and then answer the following questions for each one.

  1. To Josiah Thompson (captain of the schooner Swift)
    July 2, 1766
    With this Letter comes a Negro (Tom) which I beg the favour of you to sell, in any of the Islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch, & bring me in return for him
    One Hhd of best Molasses
    One Ditto of best Rum
    One Barrl of Lymes – if good & Cheap
    One Pot of Tamarinds – contg about 10 lbs.
    Two small Do of mixed Sweetmeats – abt 5 lb. Each
    And the residue, much or little, in good old Spirits
    “That this Fellow is both a Rogue & Runaway (tho. He was by no means remarkable for the former, and never practised the latter till of late) I shall not pretend to deny – But that he is exceeding healthy, strong, and good at the Hoe, the whole neighbourhood can testifie & particularly Mr Johnson and his Son, who have both had him under them as foreman of the gang, which gives me reason to hope he may, with your good management, sell well, if kept clean & trim’d up a little offerd to Sale.
    “I shall very chearfully allow you the customary Commissions on this affair, and must beg the faour of you (least he should attempt his escape) to keep him handcuffd till you get to Sea – or in the Bay – after which I doubt not but you may make him very useful to you.
    I wish you a pleasant and prosperous Passge, and a safe & speedy return, being Sir, Yr Very Hble Servt.”

  2. “Reflection on Slavery” circa 1788�
    “The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.”2

  3. To Lawrence Lewis (a nephew of Washington)
    August 4, 1797
    “Dear Sir: Your letter of the 24th ulto has been received, and I am sorry to hear of the loss of your servant; but it is my opinion these elopements will be MUCH MORE, before they are LESS frequent: and that the persons making them should never be retained, if they are recovered, as they are sure contaminate and discontent others. I wish from my soul that the Legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery; It would prevt. Much further mischief.”3

  4. Last Will and Testament
    “Item Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will and desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the Dower* Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same Proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negros are held, to manumit them. And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some, who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my Will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs while they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age twenty-five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgement of the Court upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read and write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. And I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; Seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their Support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, which shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first, and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” 4

*Dower Negroes refers to those slaves brought to the marriage by Martha Washington.


  1. George Washington, Writings, ed. John Rhodehamel (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 118.

  2. Ibid., pp. 701 – 2.

  3. Ibid., p. 1002.

  4. Ibid., pp. 1023 – 24.

Part One
  1. When was the document written?

  2. How old was Washington when he wrote it?

  3. What was Washington’s occupation at the time he wrote it?

  4. Was the document personal and private or public?

  5. What type of document is it?

  6. What is the main message or purpose of the document?

  7. How would you interpret Washington’s attitude toward slavery based on this document?

Part Two
Compare and contrast the documents.

  1. Do the four documents show a change in Washington’s attitude regarding his slaves and slavery? Explain your answer.

  2. What do you think contributed to Washington’s changing attitude?

Part Three
  1. Explain how slavery might be justified by an eighteenth-century Virginian.


Membership | Credits | Press | Copyright | Privacy Policy