My research on what will be my next book continues. An important part of the story will involve slavery. There is a delicious irony in the fact that Justice Washington, who owned slaves all of his life and inherited America’s most famous plantation, wrote the opinion (Corfield v. Coryell) that was later seen as a defining text for Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment. Complicating that narrative was Washington’s leadership of the American Colonization Society, which advocated the freedom and deportation of slaves to Africa, at the same time that he was selling many of his own to pay the considerable debts of Mount Vernon.
There is, though, an even more extraordinary tale to tell. Let’s start with George Washington’s will, which stated that his slaves would be freed upon Martha Washington’s death. This created a rather knotty problem; Martha was soon petrified that these slaves would kill her to hasten their freedom. At one point there was a suspicious fire at Mount Vernon, and Bushrod was summoned by his aunt and asked for his advice. He told her to free George Washington’s slaves immediately, and she did.
Washington may have feared that history would repeat itself. In March 1821, he called all of his slaves together at Mount Vernon and told them that they would never be freed by him. (I learned this from a terrific book on Mount Vernon’s slaves by Scott Casper called Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon.) Such a statement against liberty by a Supreme Court Justice at the home of the Father of the Nation is remarkable enough. What’s more, just two years later Washington was writing the famous passage in Corfield about “those privileges and immunities which are, in their nature, fundamental; which belong, of right, to the citizens of all free governments.”
To paraphrase Tolkien, Bushrod Washington’s life is a story that grows in the telling.