Washington’s Will is ‘a True National Treasure’ The will, a favorite piece for use in accounting and taxation classes at W&L, reveals much about Washington's character and views.
At first glance, the diminutive, 32 page piece is not terribly impressive. It is browned with age, and its original plain paper wrappers are hand-sewn with threads as issued in 1800. However, on closer inspection, the immensely human document reveals the moral character as well as the material estate of our country’s founding father and Washington and Lee University’s namesake, George Washington.
Dated from Mount Vernon on July 9, 1799, five months before his death, Washington’s last will and testament recorded his enlightened attitude towards slavery as well as his progressive thoughts on education and public service. Washington and Lee’s copy, which is exceedingly rare on the market (no auction records for many years), is a first edition printed by the Alexandria Gazette. Often referred to as the most famous will in American history, the unassuming piece is one of the most significant items in the Special Collections vault and has become a favorite piece for use in accounting and taxation classes, particularly those taught by Professor Jack Bovay.
After providing for his “dearly beloved wife Martha,” Washington’s next priority was to free his slaves, but he could not do so before Martha’s death.
“Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all of the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life, would, though earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by marriage with the dower [Martha’s] Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences.”
He provided for the welfare and education of his freed slaves, most notably for the helpless children and the old and infirm among them, then “most pointedly and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors…to see that this clause respecting Slaves and every part thereof, be religiously fulfilled…without evasion, neglect, or delay.” He immediately freed and gave an annuity to a biracial man, “William [Lee]…as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
The first “education president” provided for the endowment of a free school in Alexandria and confirmed his gift of 100 shares of stock in the James River Company for the “use & benefit” of Liberty Hall Academy, whose name was changed to Washington Academy upon receipt of his gift in 1798.
“It has always been a source of serious regret with me to see the youth of these United States sent to Foreign countries for the purpose of Education, often before their minds were formed …contracting too frequently…principles unfriendly to Republican government, and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind.”
Washington also reiterated “a principle which I had adopted, and had never departed from – namely –not to receive pecuniary compensation for any service I could render my country in its arduous struggle with Great Britain for its rights.” He gave Mount Vernon and all his books, pamphlets and private papers to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, was generous to many other nephews and nieces, remembered Lafayette with a pair of pistols, and forgave many large debts. Finally, he asked that the family burial vault, which was poorly placed and needed repairs, be replaced with a new, larger brick at the foot of the Vineyard Inclosure, where it can now be seen. Washington died with “but few” debts “and none of magnitude.” His property to be sold under his will amounted to $530,000, equivalent to $7.5 million dollars today. That amount did not include Mount Vernon and other farms given away, but it did include land, from Virginia and Kentucky to the Northwest Territory.
Washington died on December 14, 1799. His executors presented his handwritten will for probate on January 10, 1800, to the Fairfax County Court, where the original still resides. By mid-January, the will was printed in Alexandria at the offices of the Alexandria Gazette newspaper and distributed in pamphlet form throughout the country. More than a dozen reprints were issued in 1800 alone, throughout America and England.
While the lucid and powerful prose of the text of the will displays Washington’s distinctive style of writing, the contents reveal much about his character and his views, as well as about his diverse and valuable property, real and chattel, acquired over a lifetime. With extraordinary care and precision, he spells out how—and under what conditions—his land and other possessions should be distributed among his extended family, his old friends and his dependents, all the while providing extraordinary insight into the workings of his mind and the impulses of his heart. The language and content combine to make George Washington’s will a true national treasure.