George Washington on the abolition of slavery (1786)


In April 1786 George Washington wrote to Robert Morris, expressing his views on abolitionist movements in Philadelphia:


“I give you the trouble of this letter at the instance of Mr. Dalby of Alexandria; who is called to Philadelphia to attend what he conceives to be a vexatious lawsuit respecting a slave of his, which a Society of Quakers in the city have attempted to liberate. The merits of this case will no doubt appear upon trial, but from Mr. Dalby’s state of the matter, it should seem that this Society is not only acting repugnant to justice, so far as its conduct concerns strangers, but, in my opinion extremely impolitickly…

I hope it will not be conceived from these observations that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people who are the subject of this letter [African-Americans] in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]. But there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage [vote] will go, shall never be wanting.

But when slaves who are happy and contented with their present masters are tampered with and seduced to leave them; when masters are taken unawares by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other, and when it happens to fall on a man [who] loses his property for want of means to defend it; it is oppression in the latter case, and not humanity in any; because it introduces more evils than it can cure.”