Monday, February 13, 2017

William Lee and George Washington

Washington and His Family, engraved by J. Sartain,
published by Wm. Smith, Philadelphia, ca. 1850
One of the first things that visitors to the Alice notice are the many images of George Washington to be found throughout the museum. In sculpture, on ceramics, in print, and in painting, his familiar face is everywhere. While many of these images emphasize his military career, others depict him in a more domestic light, as in the engraving of Washington and his family that hangs in the second-floor hallway. This engraving, produced around 1850, is based on a portrait painted by Edward Savage in the 1790s. Savage himself made a number of different engravings of Washington and his family, and its many variations were popular throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Detail of Edward Savage’s painting
Both the painting and the engravings depict George and Martha Washington seated at a table at Mount Vernon, on which plans for the new capital city are displayed. Standing with them are George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, two of Martha’s grandchildren, who came to live at Mount Vernon after the death of their father in 1781. Standing behind Martha Washington is William Lee, an enslaved man who served as George Washington’s personal valet and had accompanied him throughout the campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

During his lifetime, William (also known as Billy) Lee was something of a celebrity, and was probably one of the best known African-Americans in the nation. Because of his long and close association with Washington, we know much more about him than we do about most enslaved people of the Revolutionary era. Lee was also the only one of Washington’s slaves who was granted immediate emancipation upon Washington’s death. Billy’s story is therefore a good way to examine George Washington’s relationship to slavery, and particularly the tensions between the ideals of liberty and the reality of bondage that were at the heart of the Revolution.

George Washington became a slaveowner at the age of eleven, when his father died and he inherited ten individuals. Over the years, Washington purchased additional slaves, and inherited others. By the time of his death in 1799, he owned 123 people. Also living at Mount Vernon were 153 enslaved men and women who had belonged to Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Although they were part of Martha’s property during her lifetime, neither she nor George owned them outright. They could not be freed, and after her death they would pass to the remaining Custis heirs. 

Another (probably imaginary) depiction
of William Lee, by John Trumbull
William Lee was one of the slaves that George Washington purchased. He and his brother Frank came to Mount Vernon as teenagers after Washington bought them from Mary Smith Ball Lee. In addition to his duties as valet, Lee also accompanied Washington on surveying expeditions and served as huntsman during fox hunts. George Washington Parke Custis recalled that Billy “rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling, a French horn at his back, throwing himself almost at length on the animal, with his spur in flank, this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style which modern huntsmen would stand aghast.”

In addition to his skill as a horseman, William Lee was known for serving George Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. Lee accompanied Washington on all his campaigns from 1775 to 1783, and was responsible for transporting and safeguarding Washington’s “most precious papers.” Washington and Lee returned to Mount Vernon in December 1783 and resumed their regular patterns. However, during a surveying expedition in 1785, William fell and broke his kneecap. It never healed correctly, and three years later, he fell and broke his other knee. Despite his limited mobility, Lee was determined to accompany President Washington to the capital at New York in 1790. Washington expressed his willingness to “gratify him in every reasonable wish” in recognition of his faithful service, but William Lee stayed only for a short time in New York before returning to Mount Vernon.

Detail of census of enslaved men and women
at Mount Vernon, 1799
Nine years later, as George Washington made his will, he again singled out William. His other slaves would only be freed after Martha Washington’s death, but Billy Lee was to be given immediate freedom, if he chose. 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),” he could “remain in the situation he now is.” In either case, he was to be given an annuity of thirty dollars “as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” William lived at Mount Vernon until his death in 1810, and was the object of much interest among the many visitors who continued to visit Washington’s former home.

For over two hundred years, commentators have used Billy Lee’s story as a way to make their own points about race and slavery. For slavery apologists, Lee was an example of a good slave, one who had earned his freedom through good behavior and loyalty to his master. His life after emancipation, when he developed a drinking problem (no doubt due to his ongoing physical ailments), was seen by some as proof that black people could not really survive outside slavery. Others have looked to the relationship with Billy Lee to find  evidence of Washington’s true feelings about slavery. To some, Washington’s relatively indulgent treatment of, and his decision to emancipate, Lee, suggest that Washington came to question the morality of slave ownership. Their documented close relationship seemed to offer proof that friendship and genuine affection between slave and master could exist. 

On the other hand, Washington could have freed Billy, or any of the 122 other slaves he owned, before his own or Martha’s death. A law passed in Virginia in 1782 made it possible to emancipate slaves by deed (prior to that law, manumission required the approval of the Governor and council). However much he may have come to dislike owning slaves, Washington chose to defer any concrete action until after his death. He had no way of knowing, when he made his will, that Martha Washington would free his remaining slaves a year later, prompted by several suspicious fires that stoked fears of an uprising. When Martha herself died in 1802, the Custis slaves became the property of her grandchildren, but descendants of Washington and Custis slaves continued to live at Mount Vernon and in the surrounding neighborhood for generations, long after the Washingtons themselves were gone.


Most of the information about the life of William Lee comes from Mary V. Thompson, “William Lee and Oney Judge: A Look at George Washington and Slavery,Journal of the American Revolution. Additional information on Washington and slavery can be found at Mount Vernon’s website.

Two popular 19th-century accounts of the life of Washington that discuss Billy Lee are George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1859)  and Benton J. Lossing, The Home of Washington: Mount Vernon and Its Associations (1871).

For an example of one of Washington’s contemporaries who did free his slaves during his lifetime, read about Robert Carter III.


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