George Washington offers many lessons on how to understand the common good and living well together: it begins with character.
In my “Age of Washington” class the other day, I stumbled over the start of his Last Will and Testament. I regard the will as a partly public and partly private document—the last of his great “farewells,” including his farewell to the Virginia Regiment in 1759, his last Circular to the States in 1783, and, of course, his Presidential Farewell Address of 1796.
It states “I George Washington of Mount Vernon—a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same, do make, ordain and declare this Instrument.” Why begin that way? It occurred to me that it may have had a public purpose in addition to a private one. “I don’t think that was typical,” I said to the class. “I wonder what Jefferson said.” Next thing I know, I was on the computer, googling “Thomas Jefferson’s last will and testament,” and up comes the link. Sure enough, Mr. Jefferson (as we Wahoo’s call him), began his will, “I Thomas Jefferson of Monticello in Albemarle, being of sound mind and in my ordinary state of health, make my last will and testament in manner and form as follows.” Fascinating.
Both begin with the names of their residences, but Washington turns immediately to his status as a citizen of the United States. Jefferson says nothing about his status as a citizen of the United States or, for that matter, of Virginia. Instead he merely lists his county of residence, perhaps simply because that was where his will would go through probate.
A few further reflections. Washington prefaced his Will with the same words with which the Mayflower Compact began, “In the name of God, Amen.” For God, and then for country. In his will, Jefferson turns immediately to bequests, “I give to my grandson Francis Eppes, son of my dear deceased daughter Mary Eppes, in fee simple, all that part of my lands at Poplar Forest lying West of the following lines, . . .” Washington is different. He begins with his legal obligations, “Imprimus. All my debts, of which there are but few, and none of magnitude, are to be punctually and speedily paid.” (Another interesting contrast with Jefferson, who begins with a bequest—and ironic given how much greater Jefferson’s debts were.) Washington then turns to his marital obligation, “To my dearly beloved wife Martha Washington I give and bequeath the use, profit and benefit of my whole Estate, real and personal, for the term of her natural life.”
And then comes his moral obligation as our founding father: “Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom.” Why not emancipate his slaves right away? That would be insuperably difficult. It would be:
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 Negroes are held, to manumit them.
The majority of slaves under Washington’s control were, in fact, held in trust for Martha’s descendants. Washington had no legal right to free them. To free those he could free and leave the others in slavery, during Martha’s lifetime, at least, was unworkable. Note that Washington insists that to free them all, and to do so right away is “earnestly wished” by him.
If we regard the Will as a teaching document, a final farewell from a founding father, the first sentence and the criticism of slavery are of a piece. America was founded upon the principles of 1776. According to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” slavery is a wrong (“in the name of God, Amen.”) As a “citizen of the United States,” and, we should add, its founding father, Washington had a special responsibility to work to make the practices of the United States come to be in line with the nation’s principles.
Washington’s Will is dated July 9, 1799 (he would die on December 14 of that year, 217 years ago yesterday). In 1799, Virginia was aflame with resistance to the federal government. In 1798, the state’s legislature had passed the “Virginia Resolutions,” suggesting that the states should “interpose” themselves between citizens and the federal government, when the federal government transgressed the Constitution’s limits. Washington was almost certainly aware that the Virginia Resolutions were moderate, compared to the constitutional doctrine of many Virginians in Jefferson’s circle. Jefferson himself, although Washington did not know it at the time, had asserted the right of states to “nullify” federal law in his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions. It is possible that by beginning with his status as an American citizen, rather than as a Virginian Washington was trying to remind Americans of the necessity of union if liberty were to survive.
He was almost certainly doing that in freeing his slaves, and in his comments while doing so. For emphasis, he added later in the document, that his heirs had better not contest that part of his will: “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.”
Washington would turn from there to make bequests to schools, both of lower and higher education, where Americans might be raised to be good citizens. He expressed his concern that Americans were going to Europe for education, and that they would learn principles contrary to those of 1776.
In contrast with his Presidential Farewell Address, which was a final public testament from the founding father as he left the stage, Washington’s Last Will and Testament is the testament of private citizen Washington, doing his duty to his family and his fellow citizens, as is incumbent upon each citizen in a free republic. Washington knew that nothing from his pen could truly be private. His Last Will and Testament is a final testament to his genius as the first among equal American citizens.
 In the edition I use, the abbreviations are removed. They are preserved in the edition available at the link. I have cleaned up the text similarly.