We all know George Washington’s story, or at least we think we do. We celebrate him as a man of great character and moral compass, the “indispensable man” without whom the American Revolution likely would have failed. But most of us don’t know the story of Ona Judge, a freckled, light-skinned mulatto slave at Mount Vernon, the daughter of a white indentured servant and a female slave.
In May of 1796, President Washington and his wife were living in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital, serving out the rest of his second and final term. Ona Judge was a 20-year-old seamstress and Martha’s personal servant. But one night, after Judge was informed that she would soon be given away as a wedding gift, she decided to take her future into her own hands. She slipped out of the presidential mansion and secretly fled by ship from Philadelphia to refuge farther north, in New Hampshire.
Washington and his wife were irate at Judge’s escape and felt betrayed, suggesting that she must have been “seduced” away by some Frenchman. In one letter seeking her return, Washington stressed that “the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant …. ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” They offered rewards for her capture and return, and when she was eventually spotted in Portsmouth, N.H., Washington sent orders to have her re-captured and sent back to Mount Vernon.
However, local officials balked at carrying out those orders, fearful of setting off anti-slavery riots.
Judge, aware that the most powerful man in the country now knew of her location and wanted her back, offered to return to slavery voluntarily, but only on the condition that she be promised freedom upon the deaths of George and Martha. Otherwise, “… she should rather suffer death than return to Slavery.” Washington rejected the offer and was clearly angered that a mere slave woman would attempt to negotiate.
“To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissable, … it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”
A frustrated Washington then dispatched a nephew to kidnap Judge. The nephew traveled to New Hampshire and spent the night with U.S. Sen. John Langdon, a friend of Washington and himself a Founding Father. But when Langdon discovered the nephew’s mission, he secretly arranged to tip off Judge and sent her into hiding. The runaway slave lived out the rest of her life in peace, later telling the story to the local press.
As one reporter in 1845 wrote:
“When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since than before, her reply is, “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”
The story that Judge tells of Washington complicates our image of the man. He comes off as petty and vindictive, reducing another human being’s natural desire for freedom to an act of personal betrayal and unfaithfulness. Decades later, Judge also reported “that the stories told of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation (emphasis original). Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.”
The once-overlooked story of Ona Judge is now being taught in many American history classes, including Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. It’s the story of a woman living in a time when women were once all but invisible to history; it’s the story of a black person who was condemned to slavery by individuals whom we celebrate for their ideal that “all men are created equal,” and it’s the story of a person who bucked the system and defied the fate that others tried to impose on her.
What could be more American than that?
Judge’s story may not be Washington at Valley Forge, or Washington crossing the Delaware, but it’s the story of heroic victory nonetheless. Her story complicates our story; she makes it richer and more confusing, with contradictory narrative lines that deepen its meaning rather than undermine it.
But the truth is, telling our story that way makes some people nervous.
For example, there’s a movement afoot in Georgia and elsewhere to protest a new AP U.S. history framework for high school students as “too negative” and insufficiently patriotic. According to a resolution introduced in the state Senate, the revised AP history framework pushes “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” including the role played by religion.
The Senate resolution demands that the College Board alter its AP history framework with an approach that emphasizes “America’s founding principles and the uniqueness of America’s role in the world,” among other things. If the College Board does not acquiesce to Georgia’s demand, the Senate resolution instructs the state Board of Education to stop teaching the AP history course in Georgia, thus making it very difficult for Georgia students to claim college credit.
As someone with a degree in history who has actually read much of the AP history framework, I have no idea what the authors of SR 80 are complaining about; I suspect they don’t either. For example, here’s part of the framework for the period 1754-1800, the founding period:
Every element that the Senate resolution claims is missing from the AP history framework can be found in that brief excerpt above, as well as in many others. What I suspect makes critics nervous are instead other parts of the framework, including those that stress “the (students’) ability to identify, compare, and evaluate multiple perspectives on a given historical experience.”
Washington and his runaway slave, for example, would have very different perspectives on the meaning of freedom, with the father of our country defining the term extremely narrowly, to apply only to white men of property. He was wrong in that, and wrong on a very large scale. Judge, in her own very small way, got it right. Through her story, we can come to understand that the American Revolution, officially dated 1775-1783, did not conclude in 1783 but in fact continues to this day, with expanding notions of freedom. We can also recognize that history is much more than a recounting of great men doing great deeds; it is also made by small people refusing to accept what stronger forces attempt to force upon them.
The story told that way isn’t simple or straightforward — it’s actually kind of sloppy — and some people can be unsettled by its suggestion that even now the Revolution might be unfinished. But it has the virtue of accuracy, and it is even more beautiful, heroic and reassuring than the sanitized version preferred by some.