Ona Judge and George Washington: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 15

Small programming note, Gentle Readers: Over to the side of this post, and probably a bit down, you’ll find a Goodreads panel tracking my present reading. I almost only read history these days and have fallen out of giving occasional updates about it. Michael Holt’s Whig book has sat on top of my currently reading, untouched, since November but the display should otherwise match reality. Also you’ll discover my habit of doing things on the internet under assumed names. I hearken back to the carrier anomalocaris days when no one used their real name online.

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14; full speech

We left Charles Sumner denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act as worse than the Stamp Act. He told the Senate that popular will would no more sustain this infamous law than it had the old one. The men of the North would not sit idle in the face of such tyranny, but rise up and make it a dead letter. They had done so before, as any Massachusetts man knew. If his audience might protest that the North rose for its own freedoms, not those of slaves, Sumner had another example ready: George Washington.

As longterm readers may remember, one of Martha Washington’s slaves stole herself from Philadelphia. Ona Judge made it all the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. George wanted Ona back and wrote a letter to the Collector of the port, Joseph Whipple, asking him to get her back. It appears that Whipple wrote to Washington first with the news that Judge had arrived, but I’ve never seen that letter. It may not survive. Sumner had Washington’s answer to it, which he claimed “has never before seen the light.”

Washington opens with a testy answer to Judge’s proposed compromise for return:

I regret that the attempt you made to restore the girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little success. To enter into such a compromise, as she has suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this Moment) it would neither be politic or just, to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent, beforehand, the minds of all her fellow Servants; who by their steady adherence, are far more deserving than herself, of favor.

The Father of the Country liked the idea of gradual emancipation, but didn’t see fit to reward a slave with any promises of it. A runaway deserved punishment, not reward. But Sumner drew out a different quote. After advising Whipple to make another go of it, Washington asked that he not cause a scandal in Portsmouth:

I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens. rather than either of these shd happen, I would forego her services altogether; and the example also, which is of infinite more importance. The less is said before hand, and the more celerity is used in the act of Shipping her, when an opportunity presents, the better chance Mrs Washington (who is desirous of receiving her again) will have to be gratified. [Sumner’s emphasis.]

George Washington

Whipple wrote back, indicating that he understood Washington’s concerns. He ought to do nothing that would arouse Portsmouth against him, or even create those uneasy sensations. In other words, Whipple should act quietly and avoid a spectacle that might bring failure anyway. Whipple told Washington that he had no way to know just what would happen even then; he would have to feel things out as he went. The lack of a ship ready to sail for Virginia, Judge’s pending marriage to a free man, and popular sentiment all pushed against any rendition. Whipple gave it up and Ona Judge enjoyed her freedom in New Hampshire into the 1840s.

Washington gave up the quest too. He wanted Judge back, but even at the height of his powers he bowed to the popular will.  Surely no American could turn from Washington’s example, or neglect the startling fact that Americans in his time refused to do his bidding and return Ona Judge to slavery in Virginia. Even that greatest of men might err, and Sumner made it clear that Washington had, but the “Washington on earth” thought one thing and the “Washington in Heaven” another. “His death is above his life,” Sumner averred, because in his will the first President freed his slaves.

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