One of the most striking historical facts I’ve learned this year is that George Washington freed all his slaves in his will despite opposition from his family, including his wife Martha. It’s surprising and revealing that this fact has never been part of the standard account of Washington’s life.
It is also one of the facts leading me to an increasingly negative view of Thomas Jefferson. The parallel between Jefferson’s unacknowledged slave children by Sally Hemings and the more recent case of Strom Thurmond is striking. (Jefferson was, quite literally, the first Southern Democrat). Until now, I’ve tended to vaguely excuse Jefferson’s actions here as a case of personal inability to resist the thinking of the times, but Washington’s example undermines this.
I think you can go from the personal to the political here as well. The course leading to the Civil War was set when the Northern States adopted emancipation around the time of the Revolution and the Southern states did not. Jefferson advocated gradual emancipation in Virginia at this time (1783), but he didn’t fight hard on the issue after this. Given Washington’s personal evolution on the issue, it seems plausible that a determined effort by Jefferson in the years after Washington’s death, during which he was president for eight years, could have achieved a peaceful end to slavery.