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Mount Vernon's checkered past

One woman's story exemplifies the complex history of a national monument.


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When George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799, 316 slaves lived at Mount Vernon. There is a general misconception that upon his death, all were freed.

In fact, in Washington's last will and testament, he bequeathed his slaves to his wife Martha, and upon her death he requested that they be emancipated. No doubt our heroic first president's heart was in the right place, but what was he thinking? Might not people who'd been promised their freedom upon the death of their owner try to precipitate that event prematurely?

Although there were sincere friendships between Martha and some of the enslaved African-Americans who lived at Mount Vernon, according to Abigail Adams, Martha "did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their hands." So, after rumors of an attempted fire, Martha freed them on New Year's Day in 1801.


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