George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Edward Rushton, 20 February 1797

20 February 1797

Expostulatory Letter to George Washington, of Mount Vernon, in Virginia, on his continuing to be a proprietor of Slaves. by Edward Rushton.

Oh! reflect that your rights are the rights of mankind That to all they were bounteously given, And that he who in chains would his fellow man bind Uplifts his proud arm against heaven.

Liverpool Printed.


In July last the following letter was transmitted to the person to whom it is addressed, and a few weeks ago it was returned under cover, without a syllable in reply As children that are crammed with confectionary have no relish for plain and wholesome food; so men in power who are seldom addressed but in the sweet tones of adulation, are apt to be disgusted with the plain and salutary language of truth. To offend was not the intention of the writer; yet the president has evidently been irritated; this however is not a bad symptom, for irritation causelesly excited will frequently subside into shame and to use the language of the moralist Where there is yet shame there may in time be virtue.

Liverpool February 20th 1797.

Expostulatory Letter

It will generally be admitted, Sir, and perhaps with justice, that the great family of mankind were never more benefited by the military abilities of any individual, than by those which you displayed during the American contest. Your country was injured your services were called for, you immediately arose and after performing the most conspicuous part in that blood–stained tragedy, you again became a private citizen and unambitiously retired to your farm, There was more of true greatness in this procedure than the modern world at least had ever beheld; and while public virtue is venerated by your countrymen, a conduct so exalted will not be forgotten The effects which your revolution will have upon the world are incalculable. By the flame which your have kindled every oppressed nation will be enabled to perceive its fetters and when man once knows that he is enslaved the business of emancipation is half performed—France has already burst her shackles neigbouring nations will in time prepare, and another half century may behold the present besotted Europe without a peer without a hierarchy and without a despot. If men were enlightened, revolutions would be bloodless; but how are men to be enlightened when it is the interest of governors to keep the governed in ignorance? "To enligten men," says your old correspondent Arthur Young, is "to make them bad subjects," Hurricanes spread devastation; yet hurricanes are not only transient but give salubrity to the torrid regions and are quickly followed by azure skies and calm sunshine. Revolutions, too for a time may produce turbulence yet revolutions clear the political atmosphere and contribute greatly to the comfort and happiness of the human race What you yourself have lived to witness in the United States is sufficient to elucidate my position, In your rides along the banks of your favourite Potowmack in your frequent excursions through your own extensive grounds how gratifying must be your sensations, on beholding the animated scenery around you and how pleasurable must be your feelings on reflecting that your country is now an assylum for mankind that her commerce her agriculture and her population are greater than at any former period, and that this prosperity is the natural result of those rights which you defended against an abandoned cabinet with all that ability which men who unsheathe the sword in the cause of human nature will I trust ever display. Where liberty is there man walks erect and puts forth all his powers while slavery like a torpedo benumbs the finest energies of his soul. But it is not to the commander in chief of the American forces, nor to the president of the United States, that I have aught to address. my business is with George Washington of Mount Vernon in Virginia, a man who not withstanding his hatred of oppression and his ardent love of liberty holds at this moment hundreds of his fellow beings in a state of abject bondage—Yes! you who conquerd under the banners of freedom—you who are now the first magistrate of a free people are (strange to relate) a slave holder, That a liverpool merchant shoud endeavour to enrich himself by such a business is not a matter of surprize but that you an enlightened character strongly enamoured of your own freedom you who if the British forces had succeeded in the eastern states would have retired with a few congenial spirits to the rude fastnesses of the western wilderness, there to have enjoyed that blessing without which a paradise would be disgusting and with which the most savage region is not without its charms, that you, I say should continue to be a slave holder a proprietor of human flesh and blood creates in many of your British friends both astonishment and regret You are a republican, an advocate for the dissemination of knowledge and for universal justice—where then are the arguments by which this shameless dereliction of principle can be supported? Your friend Jefferson has endeavoured to shew that the negroes are an inferior order of being but surely your will not have recourse to such a subterfuge Your slaves it may be urged are well treated—That I deny man never can be well treated who is deprived of his rights They are all well treated well fed well lodged, &c. Feed me with ambrosia and wash it down with nectar yet what is all this if liberty be wanting You took arms in defence of the rights of man Your negroes are men. Where then are the rights of your negroes They have been inured to slavery and not fit for freedom, Thus it was said of the French but where is the man of unbiassed common sense who will assert that the French republicans of the present day are not fit for freedom? It has been said too by your apologists that your feelings are inimical to slavery and that you are induced to acquiesce in it at present merely from motives of policy; the only true policy is justice; and he who regards the consequences of an act rather than the justice of it gives no very exalted proof of the greatness of his character, But if your feelings be actually repugnant to Slavery then are you more culpable than the calous hearted planter who laughs at what he calls the pityful whinining of the abolitionists because he believes slavery to be justifiable: while you persevere in a system which your conscience tells you to be wrong. If we call the man obdurate who cannot perceive the attrociousness of slavery, what epithets does he deserve who while he does not perceive his attrociousness continues to be a proprietor of slaves. Nor is it likely that your own unfortunate negroes are the only sufferers by your adhering to this nefarious business. consider the force of an example like yours consider how many of the sable race may now be pining in bondage merly for Sooth, because the president of the united states who has the character of a wise and good man does not see cause to discontinue the long established practice. Of all the slave holders under heaven those of the United states appear to me the most reprehensible, for man never is so truely odious as when he inflicts upon others that which he him self abominates; When the cup of slavery was presented to your countrymen they rejected it with disdain and appealed to the world in justification of their conduct, yet such is the inconsistency of man that thousands upon thousands of those very people with yourself amongst the number are now sedulously employed in holding the self same bitter draught to the lips of their able brethren. From men who are strongly attached to their own rights and who have suffered much in their defence one might have expected a scrupulous attention to the rights of others did not experience shews that when we ourselves are oppressed we perceive it with a linx’s eye but when we become the oppressors no noontide bats are blinder Prosperity perhaps may make nations as well as individuals forget the distresses of former times yet surely the citizens of America cannot so soon have forgotton the variety and extent of their own sufferings When your country lay bruised by the iron hand of despotism and you were compelled to retreat through the jerseys with a handful of half-naked followers when the bayonets of the mercenary glistened at your back and liberty seemed about to expire, when your farms were laid waste your towns reduced to ashes and your plains and woods were strewed with the mangled bodies of your brave defenders when the events were taking place every breast could feel and every tongue could execrate the sanguinary proceedings of Britian: yet what the British were at that period you are in a great degree at this; you are boastful of your own rights; you are violators of the rights of others and you are stimulated by an insatiable capacity to a cruel and relentless oppression. If the wrongs which you now inflict be not so severe as those which were inflicted upon you, it is not because you are less inhuman than the British, but because the unhappy objects of your tyranny have not the power of resistance. In defending your own liberties you undoubtedly suffered much; yet if your negroes, emulating the spirited example of their masters, were to throw of the galling yoke, and retiring peaceably to some uninhabited part of the western region, were to resolve on liberty or death, what would be the conduct, of the southern planters on such an occasion? Nay what would be your conduct? You who were "born in a land of liberty" who "early" learned its value "you who engaged" in perilous conflict to defend it you who in a word devoted the best years of your life to secure its permanent establishment in your own country whose anxious reccollection whose sympathetic feelings and whose best wishes are irresistably excited, whensoever in any country you see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom possessed of these energetic sentiments what would be your conduct? Would you have the virtue to applaud so just and animating a movement as a revolt of your southern negroes No! I fear that both you and your countrymen would rather imitate the cold blooded British cabinet and to gratify your own sordid views would scatter among an unoffending people terror desolation and death. Harsh as this conclusion may appear yet it is warranted by your present practice: for the man who can boast of his own rights yet hold two or three hundred of his fellow beings in slavery would not hesitate in case of a revolt to employ the most sanguinary means in his power rather than forego that which the truely republican laws of his country are pleased to call his property.

Shame! Shame! That man should be deemed the property of man or that the name of Washington should be found among the list of such proprietors. Should these structures be deemed severe or u[n]merited on your part how comes it that while in the Northern and middle states the exertions of the virtuous Quakers and other philanthrophists have produced such regulations as must speedily eradicate every trace of slavery in that quarter: how comes it that from you those humane efforsts have never received the least countenance If your mind has not sufficient firmness to do away that which is wrong the moment you perceive it to be such one might have expected that a plan for ameliorating the evil would have met with your warmest support; but no such thing. The just example of a majority of the states has no visible effect upon you and as to the men of Maryland, of Virginia, of the two Carolinas of Georgia and of kentucky they smile contemptuously at the idea of negro emancipation and with the state constitutions in one hand and the cow skin in the other exhibit to the world such a spectacle as every real friend to liberty must from his soul abominate.

Then what is man, and what man seeing this

And having human feelings does not blush

And hang his head to think himself a man.

The hypocritical bawd who preaches chastity yet lives by the violation of it is not more truely disgusting than one of you slave holding gentry bellowing in favour of democracy. Man does not readily perceive defects in what he has been accustomed to venerate, hence it is that you have escaped those animadversions which your slave proprietorship has so long merited. For seven years you bravely fought the battles of your country and contributed greatly to the establisment of her liberties, Yet sir you are a slave holder. You have been raised by your fellow citizens to one of the most exalted situations upon earth, the first magistrate of a free people Yet sir you are slave holder, A majority of your countrymen have recently discoverd that slavery is injustice and are gradually abolishing the wrong, Yet sir you continue to be a slave holder. You are a firm believer too and your letters and speeches are replete with pious reflections on the divine being Providence &c. Yet sir you are a slave holder, [O]! Washington Ages to come will read with Astonishment that the man who was foremost to wrench the rights of America from the tyrannical grasp of Britaian was among the last to relinquish his own oppressive hold of poor unoffending negroes. In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot—Avarice is said to be the vice of age Your slaves old and young male and female father Mother and child might in the estimation of a Virginian planter be worth from fifteen to 20 thousand pounds. Now sir, are you sure that the unwillingness which you have shewn to liberate your negroes does not proceed from some lurking pecuniary consideration. If this be the case and there are those who firmly beleive it is, then there is no flesh left in your heart, and present reputation futur fame and all that is estimable among the virtuous are for a few thousand peices of paltry yellow dirt, irremediably renounced.

Edward Rushton.


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