Friday, August 5, 2011

George Washington's Will

One hundred years ago today (August 5, 1911), the United States Senate published the Last Will and Testament of George Washington. I own that document in the form of a thin book of 66 pages. Forty-three pages constitute the actual will, and it's quite interesting reading.

As you may know, though George Washington was orphaned at an early age, he came from a wealthy planter family, was a physically impressive figure, an extremely shrewd businessman, and he married well. By the time he died, he was not only wealthy, but if his estate were to be valued in today's market, he would undoubtedly be the wealthiest of all our presidents.

Washington began his career as a surveyor and he liked to own land. He gladly took land in lieu of cash payments and at his death he owned tens of thousands of acres in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, the Northwest Territory (which comprised a number of present-day states) and the City of Washington (Washington, D.C.). He owned stocks in the Potomac Company, the James River Company, the Bank of Columbia and the Bank of Alexandria.

Washington owned 36 horses, 15 asses, 57 mules, 329 head of horned cattle, 640 head of sheep, and a large stock of hogs that he didn't bother to count.

It's painful to recount that George Washington owned slaves as well. He was conscious that he would be judged for that and therefore wrote in his will that, upon the death of his wife, all his slaves would be set free. An alarmed Martha Washington, not wishing to hurry that day, freed them all immediately.

Washington's will is particularly interesting in the disposal of personal possessions. General Lafayette received two steel pistols, Washington's brother Charles received a gold-headed cane that had been a gift from Benjamin Franklin, a Doctor Craik received Washington's wartime spy glass, and a Doctor Stuart received Washington's shaving table.

The Smithsonian

One paragraph of George Washington's will reads as follows:

"To each of my nephews — William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington, and Samuel Washington — I give one of the swords or cutteaux of which I may die possessed, and they are to choose in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood except be it for self defence of their Country and its rights, and in the latter case to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof."

Samuel Washington, who was a military man himself,  chose the sword seen above. The story of the sword and other Revolutionary War memorabilia can be seen at the Smithsonian website, here.


  1. Hello Mark:
    This is indeed of great interest. We had no idea of the extent of land holding that George Washington had accrued and it is not surprising that by the time of his death the land alone would have increased in value many times over since its original acquisition.

    And, the slave owning, that was a complete surprise. One can only hope that working for GW was infinitely preferable to many other occupations required of slaves at that time. How very wise of his wife to set them free.

  2. This a great read Mark. It is little wonder that Washington was universally regarded as the "Father of his country".

  3. How absolutely fascinating. To tell you the truth I do not know much about Washington. I am even more intrigued when we are given glimpses such as this one into the private man and not the public figure.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Your collections are wonderful. How/where do you store all your old documents?

    I love U.S. history, and enjoyed reading your post about George Washington's will.

    You know Mark, I'm hoping I'll live long enough to see all of your collections on your website.

    Would like to see photos, glimpses of your museum at home.

    All of us are so impressed with your collections and can't wait until your next post.

    Have a great weekend Mark.

    Mrs. D

  5. Hello Mark, A most interesting post. Was especially intrigued by the number and type of animals Washington kept. Perhaps, his slaves were well taken care of... Living in a farm community, as we do, one could consider our farm workers as slaves. They certainly work hard. Being a worker at a large estate is not easy today and probably was even more difficult in earlier times. I remember thinning beets all day... my pay was a sandwich and a cup of beef broth.

  6. Hello Jane and Lance - You probably would not have wanted to work for George Washington. While Washington was no more cruel than the average slave owner, he was a tough taskmaster. He ordered time/motion tests for his workers and cautioned his overseer not to think of himself (Washington) as a friend. Business was business. Period.

  7. Hi, Rosemary - Reading the will, one supposes that Washington had many more swords and canes than the ones mentioned.

  8. Hi, David - It is a shame that the mythic Washington has so obscured the private man, especially because there are so many interesting stories connected to him. I've read several of his biographies and have been struck by how many disappointments the man endured. Ironically, his greatest ambition in his early adulthood was to be recognized by the British for his talents, and to be made a British officer. A very good recent biography is Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.

  9. Hi, Mrs. D. -

    Thanks for you nice comments!

    I am continually editing collections which I keep in filing cabinets, bookcases, flat files, and albums. I keep some better daguerreotypes in a bank vault because I know it's temperature-controlled, but I'm certainly a big proponent of using and enjoying whatever you collect. I keep a lot of paper antiques within plastic sleeves, and I'm conscious that antique paper items that are framed should be matted in materials that are acid-free.

  10. Hi, Gina - Wow, that sounds like a lot of hard work! And yet, I look at your lovely spread and know that you realize the value of hard work. I have had jobs that required the cleaning of latrines, and I've come to believe that every young person should experience at least once, such a reality.

    I could go off on a rant here, but I'll just say that we all now have access to so many digital toys that we are easily distracted (and that's the perfect word) from the more important issues of the day.

  11. A great way to link the surviving sword with its historical context.

    I remember reading a small book that Washington wrote on Rules of Etiquette, and with the Will you quoted, these documents give us greater insight into Washington's character than the usual "cherry tree" and "dollar across the Rappahannock" platitudes.

  12. Hi, Panassus - I'm familiar with Washington's Rules of Etiquette, essentially a code of honor that Washington set forth for himself when he was about sixteen. And when one reads of his later life, one can see how he adhered to that list, and how it became a part of him.

  13. I also own this book.Does the book have any monetary value?

    1. The book was a birthday gift, so its value to me is in the subject material and in remembering the gifter. I don't know its value otherwise.