Investigating the History of Slavery in Early America:
A Guide to Critical Reading--
Finding Your Own Answers

 E Pluribus Unum




Evaluate the Credibility of the Author, the Text, and the "Publisher" of the Interpretation

We have several tools at our disposal for dealing with such a complex statement. First, we can look for evidence of the author's intended audience and purpose in order to assess his/her objectivity. Does s/he have any credentials that suggest s/he has been trained to work with such issues? Is the person working as a journalist, reporting on local or national issues? Is s/he an editorialist, trying to stir up interests and opinions? Is the author employed by a tourist site committed to attracting more visitors? Is the individual a scholar trained in history, politics, or a related field?

What is the title of the text? The title can give you valuable insight into the author's purpose in writing and point of view. You can expect different kinds of arguments from a work entitled Vindicating the Founders, for example, than from one called "Thomas Jefferson : Radical and Racist." Does this mean you need to dismiss the ideas and evidence you encounter in these works? Certainly not. You need only remember that it is important for a reader who is interested in evaluating material in order to come to his/her own conclusions to be conscious of the viewpoint of the author.

Who is disseminating this material? Has it been published by an academic press? Is it a letter to an editor? Has it been posted on an academic web site, a site sponsored by a respected educational or cultural institution, a page hosted by a person interested in the subject as a hobby, or the newsletter or website of a conservative or liberal think tank or foundation? It is, of course, possible to find intelligent arguments and credible evidence from any of the above-named resources. However, knowing the source of the information can alert you to the viewpoints of the sponsors.


Evaluating Web Resources for Research

You can usually feel pretty confident about websites posted by:

  • College and university faculty members;
  • Museums, libraries, and universities;
  • Scholarly publications;
  • Scolarly and historical organizations,
  • Projects sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities or other major grant agencie.

You can find valuable information at other kinds of sites, but you should be careful to corroborate information and take the point of view into consideration when citing web pages posted by:

  • Students;
  • "Buffs," i.e. individuals or groups who have a personal interest in the subject as a hobby;
  • Groups lobbying for specific social, political, or religious causes.



Read the Sources -- the Primary Documents

As you could probably see from many of the previous examples, probably on eof the best ways to determine the validity of a piece of evidence is to read the original source. It is hard to accept the claim that George Washington was opposed to slavery based on the brief comment "that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it" once you read the complete letter to Robert Morris in which Washington turns out to be working to have a slave returned to his master.

Contextualize and Historicize

In some cases, reading a single source may enable a person to arrive at some reasonable conclusions.  For example, an individual who did a close reading of the Declaration of Independence should be able to develop a fairly good interpretation of some of the causes and principles that led to the revolution.  Of course, in the case of learning, more is usually better.  And in fact, a person who had the opportunity to study other documents connected with the American revolution would find it much easier to construct a substantial interpretation of the Declaration.

Contextualize your study of a particular text, person, or event by looking at a series of resources.  This is particularly important when dealing with complex and/or emotionally charged issues.  If, for example, you are investigating where Washington stood on slavery, you will want to determine whether there was a consistent pattern to his statements, a consistent pattern of behavior, and consistency between his stated principles and behavior?  Or did they evolve over time in a way you can chart?  Or is the only consistency his inconsistency?

One of the most important aspects of placing a particular element in context is to place it in its historical context.  In other words, if we're investigating George Washington on slavery, we need to know not just what HE did and said and thought, but how that fit with respect to what the other people in his neighborhood, country, and world were doing, saying, and thinking.  Although behaving in a manner that is consistent with your society does not mean that you are necessarily doing the right thing, the only way we can really hope to understand the meaning of a text, event, or person is to see them in relation to the world of that time.  As just one example,

Develop an Interpretation that Takes ALL the Pieces Into Account, Not Just the Ones that Support Your "Side"

Washington's case is difficult to assess fairly.  Over the course of his life he clearly develops a consciousness of the evils of slavery. In a letter written in 1786, Washington declared:

"...I never mean (unless some peculiar circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the Legislature by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure & imperceptible degrees.

However, he did continue to hold slaves, and when Ona Judge Staines and the cook Hercules both ran away during Washington's term as president, he actively sought them out.  "Two years after Ona's escape, the retired President asked his nephew, Burwell Bassett, Jr., who was planning a business trip to New Hampshire, to try and seize the woman along with any children she may have had, and send them all back to the Virginia plantation." (See Ona Judge Staines: Escape from Washington, a newspaper column by Evelyn Gerson.) Both Ona and Hercules succeeded in maintaining their freedom, and "although she would never see him again, Hercules’ daughter told a French visitor to Mount Vernon years later that she was happy her father had found freedom." (From George Washington's Plantation Bound by Slave History by Mary V. Thompson, Research Specialist, and Jennie Saxon, Media Relations Manager for the Mount Vernon website.)

In a letter Washngton wrote in 1787 to Henry Lee we may be able to hear the tension between Washington, the "father of the country," and Washington the man of business.  See what you can make of the transcription below.



Mount Vernon, February 4, 1787.

My dear Sir: I thank you for asking my commands to Fredericksburg. It is not my wish to be your competitor in the purchase of any of Mr. Hunters tradesmen: especially as I am in a great degree principled against increasing my number of Slaves by purchase and suppose moreover that Negroes sold on credit will go high. yet if you are not disposed to buy the Bricklayer which is advertized for Sale, for your own use, find him in the vigour of life, from report a good workman and of tolerable character and his price does not exceed one hundred, or a few more pounds, I should be glad if you would buy him for me. I have much work in this way to do this Summer. If he has a family, with which he is to be sold; or from whom he would reluctantly part I decline the purchase, his feelings I would not be the means of hurting in the latter case, norat any rate be incumbered with the former. I am, etc.64

The digitized image of this letter as it appears in a copybook is posted in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress and taken from The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.

On the one hand, Washington insists that he is "principled against increasing" his slaves.  On the other hand, if there is a good bricklayer for sale for a reasonable price, Washington wants to buy him.  Yet again on the other hand, Washington refuses to buy the slave if it would mean separating him from his family.  One of the good things about a document like this is the way it thwarts our desire to create an unrealistically simplified portrait of the man who was our first president.  We rush to brand individuals "Good" or "Evil" or to say they were "for" this and "against" that, when often it is the case they were confused, confusing, and inconsistent -- just as we are.

Why didn't Washington free his slaves earlier?  One problem had to do with dower slaves. For an example of some historical evidence you might want to consider when trying to placing Washington's stand on slavery into the context of the times in which he lived, see: George Washington and the Problem of Slavery: THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY IN WASHINGTON’S WORLD from the PBS Discovering George Washington site.

What was possible and impossible? Dower slaves:

hereafter PGW); PGW: Diaries 4:277-83; GW: Writings 37: 268. The dower slaves were those slaves that had originally belonged to the estate of Martha Washington's first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Custis had died intestate and by law his widow acquired ownership of one-third of her husband's personal property and a lifetime right to the use of one-third of his land and slaves. Her two young children by Custis each received one-third of Custis's personal property. Upon his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, GW assumed control not only of her dower rights in the Custis estate but also of a considerable number of slaves. Martha Washington's son, John Parke Custis, inherited immediately two-thirds of his father's land and slaves. The remaining third would devolve upon him or his estate on the death of his mother. During his stepson's minority Washington was able to use John Parke Custis's slaves as if they were his own, as he did Martha Washington's dower slaves. Because upon his wife's death the dower slaves would go to the Custis heirs, any plans GW had for disposing of his own slaves could not include those belonging to the Custis estate. By the time of GW's death, the two groups had extensively intermarried. For a detailed account of the distribution of the Custis property, see "Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate," in PGW, Col. Series, 6:201-313. A list of the dower slaves by name, c. 1760-61, is in ibid. 311-13.[return to document]

For a good example of how an essay that suggests that one side of the evidence about Washington should count less than the other, see George Washington and the Problem of Slavery: WASHINGTON’S ACTIONS IN RELATION TO SLAVERY at the PBS Rediscovering George Washington site.  How can you tell which side of the argument this text supports?  Do you believe there is sufficient evidence and explanation given to justify the conclusions?  A different interpretation of Washington and the other founders was offfered by Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American supreme court justice, when he spoke during the American Bicentennial.  Below is yet another interpretation, this one offered by Gary Wills in an interview on PBS.  Both Wills and Marshall are recognized as serious thinkers, and yet they arrive at completely different conclusions. Which intepretation do you think best weighs and explains the evidence?


An Example of a Complex But Clear Interpretation

On the other hand, it is possible for people to offer fair, well-reasoned, and supported interpretations of complicated subjects even in brief statements. In connection with a Ken Burns documentary, PBS set up a Jefferson website where you can read transcripts of interviews in which scholars offer their own assessments of the author of the Declaration of Independence. Here is an excerpt from Gary Wills' comments:

What do you think about a man who distilled the essence of the Enlightenment into one remarkable sentence that begins " We hold these truths to be self-evident," and yet who owned other human beings?
Well, of course, he was trapped, as all of the well-intentioned southerners were. What's disappointing about him is that, unlike some people—Washington, for instance, who did free his slaves—Jefferson knew he could never free his slaves. Freeing slaves in Virginia was a very difficult thing. The law was that you had to give them a job, an assured place, or an assured income, because obviously they didn't want masters to be able to turn loose sick, incompetent, dying old slaves and just allow them to wander the countryside. Also, they had other reasons: they didn't want a lot of freed slaves around. And so Jefferson had no way, because his own debts were so high and his own property was so entailed that he could not get the money to free slaves in any quantity. You know, he could only free a few at his death. But what's tragic is that he knew that while he was driving himself into debt.

And I think the reason is that he had this extraordinary aesthetic need, a kind of compulsion to have beautiful things around him, and he lived in a very fancy way. During the Revolution, when he was the governor of Virginia, he invited Hessian prisoners—nobles, officers—up to converse at these wonderful dinners at Monticello. You know, here's Washington out at Valley Forge and all these other places, not going home to Mount Vernon since he knows his army will fall apart. And so there's this kind of dilettante side to Jefferson.

Does that cheapen the words?
No, I don't think so. I think that he was sincere in them. Of course, he didn't know when he wrote the words that he was going to live in this high style for the rest of his life. No, they are great words and he meant them and they disturb people and they've had a tremendously benign effect through history.

A bit later Wills goes on to add:

You know, when people talk about the canon or the great people of the past or great texts, they often say, "Well, but you know, those were tainted, they came out of cultures that were wrong, that had sins and crimes and evils...." Which is all quite true. Nonetheless, when we go back in history, we choose out the things that are of continuing use. And those become meeting places, so that they're like a streetlamp where everybody comes together to talk and argue together where they can see each other. That's the way he has been. If you want to talk about liberty and the development of it in the modern world, you almost have to talk about Jefferson. And since people have been doing that for 200 years, there's a rich continuing conversation which we join when we get under that lamp.


Notice how Wills explains why he thinks that Jefferson continues to be of value, even though he conveys the idea that it is important to acknowledge and understand the fact that Jefferson owned slaves.

You are not obliged to adopt the viewpoint of Gary Wills, Thurgood Marshall, or that of any other commentator.  However, you do need to find a way of developing an interpretation that takes into consideration all of the resources you have accumulated, and, as long as you have a way of explaining and supporting your own interpretation.

If you would like to practice reading and evaluating analyses of Jefferson, you can visit the PBS Jefferson website and read other interviews. Each scholar was asked to comment on the inconsistency betweem Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and his activitie as a slaveowner. Read the answers offered by different people and think about which offer the best developed interpretations of this complex topic.


Reading in this careful way will be difficult -- and slow -- at first. However, if you persist it will become a habit, and you will find it easier to develop your own interpretation of a subject rather than having to rely on the opinions of others. By learning to research and analyse what you read, you are developing the power to read, think, and write as a free human being.

For more resources on this subject, see Making Sense of Documents/Scholars in Action at History Matters.

Index to Section on Expanding the American Revolution: If "All Men Are Created Equal," What About African-Americans?

Expanding the Revolution: Race, Slavery and the American Revolution

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: A Guide to Critical Reading

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: What the Founders Said, Wrote About and Did About Race and Slavery

Revolutionizing the Revolution in the 19th Century: Using the Founders and Founding Documents to Fight Slavery

Expanding the Revolution: An Annotated Guide on Topics and Resources on Africans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Women in the Era of the Revolution


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