By the end of the American War for Independence 10-20% of the Continental army were colored people; we wouldn’t have that degree of integration until the end of World War II or the beginning of the Korean War. That would mean the Colonial Army would have been one of our most integrated armies. Was this Washington’s intent? On the contrary my dear fellow, at the beginning of the war the General issued a proclamation stating that there will not be any Blacks allowed in the Continental Army, neither slave nor free. Why would he have done that? Hadn’t Blacks already been fighting in the cause of independence since Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill? Those like Peter Salem, Salem Poor, and many others fighting for the common cause of freedom. But you say it doesn’t seem right that Washington would have done this? If you would, come and pretend with me. Become George Washington and let me discuss five points of his life.
First, Where are you from? Virginia. That means you’re a southerner. As a southerner you grew up with the practice of slavery. To you it’s just away of life. You don’t think of it in terms of right and wrong. To you it’s just the way things are.
Second, you own a great deal of land. In fact, you have more land than you or your family can work. You need someone to work your land.
Thirdly, whom do you get to work your land? You use slaves to work your land. Let’s talk as people of the world. If your slaves are not working will you make a profit? Of course not. But you still will have to buy necessities. Which means your debt will increase, but since you are not making any money, you will not be able to pay what you owe. Tell me, what do you think will happen to your land if you don’t pay your bills? Will it not be taken from you and sold? Your debtors will be paid. And you and your family will be put off your land and kicked out of your home. You will be among us humble poor. Would you like to be among us humble poor? Not if you have any choice in the matter, I dare say. So, you really want those slaves working your land!
The fourth point, you’re a man who wants to make something of himself. You want to become a better person. Is there anything wrong with that? Shouldn’t we all be trying to become better people?
Lastly, Mr. Washington, you believe you have leadership skills. Skills you wish to use to help other peoples lives to be better. You would not make any decisions that would make your fellow countrymen mistrust you or doubt you? Would you? Absolutely not! You would never betray their trust.
Two years have passed, General. You are in charge of our Continental Army. Things haven’t gone very well. In fact, you have lost about half of your army. You desperately need men to fill the dwindling ranks. What are you going to do?
Suddenly, as if inspired, a thought comes to you. Let’s take the slaves, arm them, teach them how to fight, and let them fill our ranks. You tell the General.
What do the General think of such an idea? Let’s say you, being in the General’s shoes, think it’s an excellent idea! Those of you slave owners who are observing this, are probably thinking, there are some problems with this concept. Let’s say you’re from the North. You, the one with the curly hair, your father has saved almost half his life to build a grist mill on your property. This is the property that you have wheat growing on. Grow the wheat, grind it to flour, you’re going to do quite well financially. Except! The war comes. Who harvests the wheat? Who operates your mill?
My slaves. Quite right! But what slaves? They’re not there. They’re off to war. What’s going to happen to your wheat? It will probably rot in the fields. All that work during planting season, for naught. And your land and mill? Hopefully, when they take your land from you and kick you and your family out of your home and sell it, it will cover your debt. If not, you and your family might be sold as indentured servants.
Why? Because of that man! [As Washington you feel all eyes fall upon you.] He’s the one! Your slaves are in his army. Are you happy about this?
And you northern business owners, without slaves to work your factories, what will become of you? Your lives are ruined, your family homeless. Why? Because of the actions of that man! Are you pleased with this?
I would say, General, they don’t seemed too pleased. But maybe the Southerners will be more understanding. You, the lad from North Carolina, your father’s a proud man who is working land that has been in his family for many generations. He has increased the size of the property and brought extra slaves to work it. Your father has a hard decision to make. Do you and your son go off to war and leave the burden of tending it to your wife or do you send your slaves in your place? This is going to be a big year. Or at least it was going to be a big year, but without the slaves you can’t get the land to produce enough profit to cover the cost. You made the decision to send the slaves to take your and your sons places in the army, so you could tend to the plantation. Bad news. Your slaves were killed in battle. All that investment, all those dreams and hopes gone. Shattered! Why? Because of that man! You’re going to lose it all! Do you like this man? Are you upset? I can see that you are quite upset. You southern ladies, you are more fortunate that the last gentleman. Your slave returned home. In fact, at this very moment they are down in the slave quarters. These slaves, who have fought for freedom, your freedom, are discussing something with their fellow slaves. Are you feeling a bit insecure up in the main house? Even a bit worried? It’s him; it’s that man’s fault! Things were fine until he took your slaves. Your whole southern way of life will collapse. And it’s his fault!! This man wants to lead you. This man wants you to vote him into office. He wants the power to make decisions for you. Are you going to vote for this man?
No! No! No!
I’m sorry General Washington they don’t want you. It seems like such a simple question with an easy and obvious answer. But as you can tell it is not. The truth of the matter is if you had to choose between family and loved ones or choose someone else, who would you choose? Most of us would pick family or self. So now you know what gives life to slavery. Does this make slavery right? No, only understandable in terms of our human condition. Now you can understand what might have been reasons why Washington would have been so hesitant to allow blacks to be in the army.
Morally, in view of treating others the way you would have wanted to be treated, it would have been right to allow the the slaves to fight and given them freedom for fighting. During this time there were people who thought Blacks were equally human. They thought it was wrong to own a person. These were abolitionist. Among these were the Quakers, who freed their slaves. In Pennsylvania there are more free blacks than of all the thirteen colonies. Many of these free Blacks gather to form free Black communities. I, Ned Hector, comes from one located near Conshohocken, on the Schuykill River, near Matson’s Ford, about 12 miles north of Philadelphia. There are many free Black communities.
At the end of Washington’s life he frees his slaves. He even takes action to help his enslaved Blacks. It seems George Washington had a change in attitude toward People of Color as he became older. It may have been what he had seen in the people of Color of his time. People such as James Forten, Phillis Wheatley, The Rhode Island Regiment, Peter Salem and Salem Poor as well as many more.