George Washington’s Birthday Cake
Scholastic publishers evidently thought United States school children needed a new picture book to help them celebrate George Washington's birthday. Unfortunately the book also seems to celebrate slavery in the United States and has now been recalled. The book is narrated by an enslaved African young girl named Delia. Images show happy slaves baking George Washington a birthday cake. One panel announces that "Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president's cake. But this year there is one problem — they are out of sugar." But evidently that was not the only problem in the new nation.
According to the book's author, the story was intended to shed light on the "complex and varied nature of enslaved existence" including "enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and 'close' relationships with those who enslaved them."
Actually George Washington's relationship to slavery was not that complex and illustrates have deeply imbedded the slave system was in the United States.
According to the Mount Vernon website, Washington became a slaveholder at the age of eleven when his father died. By the time George Washington died in 1799, the enslaved population on his Mount Vernon planation included 318 people, 123 who were "owned" by Washington himself and the rest who were part of the estate of his wife's children from a previous marriage. Instead of freeing the people he claimed to own in his will, Washington transferred ownership to his wife. Some of these people were freed in 1801.
During the American Revolution, George Washington refused to enlist enslaved Africans who wanted to secure their freedom by joining the Revolutionary army and at the end of the war he sent a letter to British commanders demanding that they return formerly enslaved Africans who were freed when they escaped to the British lines. Washington objected to British plans to evacuate formerly enslaved Africans as a violation of the provisional peace agreement and sought to find and reacquire people he claimed as his own property.
Slavery was illegal in Philadelphia while it was the national capital in the 1790s. Enslaved Africans brought to Pennsylvania would officially be free after six months in the state. To evade the law, Washington rotated enslaved Africans back to his Virginia planation before that would have to be emancipated. Apparently Hercules so "enjoyed" being enslaved by George Washington that he later escaped to freedom. When Hercules escaped bondage in 1797 Washington wrote a letter to his personal secretary Tobias Lear where he demanded Lear assist in Hercules' capture. After discussing new carpets, furniture, pots, and pans, Washington requested that Lear "desire Mr. Kitt to make all the enquiry he can after Hercules, and send him round in the Vessel if he can be discovered & apprehended."
Martha Washington's personal "servant" also escaped while the family was in Philadelphia. According to a runaway slave ad posted in the Pennsylvania Gazette, "Absconded from the household of the President of the United states, Oney Judge, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair, she is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age . . . it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman . . . Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home, if taken in the city, or on board any vessel in the harbor; – and a reasonable additional sum if apprehended at, and brought from a greater distance . . . "
Upon learning that Judge had escaped to New Hampshire, Washington wrote officials there demanding her return because it "would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness." Judge was interviewed by abolitionists in 1845 while living in New Hampshire. She explained, "Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty."
These stories about George Washington and slavery would have been a more important history lesson for students.