Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in the Revolutionary War

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A Conflicted Legacy

Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, N.Y.

In many ways, George Washington himself embodied the Revolution's mixed message for African Americans. Like many of the Founding Fathers, Washington owned slaves throughout his life and was influenced by contemporary racist views about African inferiority. Initially opposed to black enlistment in the Continental Army, Washington reluctantly agreed to allow certain free blacks to fight after Lord Dunmore's proclamation threatened to bring black patriots over to the British cause. In time the valor of his patriotic black soldiers and his friendship with antislavery advocates such as the Marquis de LaFayette convinced Washington that slavery was economically unsound as well as morally wrong. Yet he maintained an ambiguous stance toward the institution, anxious to avoid fracturing the delicate sectional balance crafted at the Constitutional Convention. Washington's relationship with African Americans, like that of the new nation itself, was thus fraught with contradictions. The first President believed in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" but nevertheless signed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, viewed slavery as a moral evil but did not free his own slaves until after his death. Contradictions such as these would prove disastrous for the nation in years to come. Washington is shown here with his family and a black servant in a 1798 engraving by Edward Savage and David Edwin, entitled "George Washington, his lady, and her grandchildren by the name of Custis."

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