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George Washington’s Will.

Posted by wrmahugu on October 26, 2009

Last Will and Testament

by George Washington1799


George Washington signed his last will and testament on July 9, 1799, five months before his sudden death. Among other provisions, the will directed that his slaves be freed (not, however, until the death of his wife) and that certain funds be used to establish a national university. The latter stipulation was never fulfilled.

The Writings of George Washington, Worthington C. Ford, ed., New York, 1889–1893, Vol. XIV, pp. 271–298.


I, George Washington of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States and lately President of the same, do make, ordain, and declare this instrument, which is written with my own hand and every page thereof subscribed with my name, to be my last will and testament, revoking all others.

Imprimus — All my debts, of which there are but few, and none of magnitude, are to be punctually and speedily paid, and the legacies hereinafter bequeathed are to be discharged as soon as circumstances will permit and in the manner directed.

Item — To my dearly beloved wife, Martha Washington, I give and bequeath the use, profit, and benefit of my whole estate, real and personal, for the term of her natural life, except such parts thereof as are specially disposed of hereafter. My improved lot in the town of Alexandria, situated on Pitt and Cameron streets, I give to her and her heirs forever, as I also do my household and kitchen furniture of every sort and kind, with the liquors and groceries which may be on hand at the time of my decease, to be used and disposed of as she may think proper.

Item — Upon the decease of [my] wife it is my will and desire that all the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom. To emancipate them during her life would, though earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties, on account of their intermixture by marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor; it not being in my power under the tenure by which the dower Negroes are held to manumit them. And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this device, there may be some who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves, it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs while they live and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and in cases where no record can be produced whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the court upon its own view of the subject shall be adequate and final. The Negroes thus bound are (by their masters and mistresses) to be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of orphans and other poor children. I do hereby expressly forbid the sale or transportation out of the said commonwealth of any slave I may die possessed of, under any pretense whatsoever. And I do moreover most positively and most solemnly enjoin it upon my executors hereafter named, or the survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting slaves and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the epoch at which it is directed to take place without evasion, neglect, or delay after the crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm, seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it, not trusting to the uncertain provisions to be made by individuals.

And to my mulatto man, William (calling himself William Lee), I give immediate freedom or, if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have befallen him and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment), to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so. In either case, however, I allow him an annuity of $30 during his natural life, which shall be independent of the victuals and clothes he has been accustomed to receive, if he chooses the last alternative; but in full with his freedom, if he prefers the first; and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

Item — To the trustees (governors or by whatsoever other name they may be designated) of the academy in the town of Alexandria, I give and bequeath, in trust, $4,000, or, in other words, twenty of the shares which I hold in the Bank of Alexandria towards the support of a free school, established at and annexed to the said academy, for the purpose of educating such orphan children, or the children of such other poor and indigent persons as are unable to accomplish it with their own means, and who in the judgment of the trustees of the said seminary are best entitled to the benefits of this donation. The aforesaid twenty shares I give and bequeath in perpetuity, the dividends only of which are to be drawn for and applied by the said trustees for the time being, for the uses above mentioned, the stock to remain entire and untouched unless indications of a failure of the said bank should be so apparent or discontinuance thereof should render a removal of this fund necessary. In either of these cases the amount of the stock here devised is to be vested in some other bank or public institution whereby the interest may with regularity and certainty be drawn and applied as above. And to prevent misconception, my meaning is … that these twenty shares are in lieu of and not in addition to the £ 1,000 given by a missive letter some years ago in consequence whereof an annuity of £ 50 has since been paid toward the support of this institution.

Item — Whereas by a law of the Commonwealth of Virginia, enacted in the year 1785, the legislature thereof was pleased (as an evidence of its approbation of the services I had rendered the public during the Revolution — and partly, I believe, in consideration of my having suggested the vast advantages which the community would derive from the extension of its inland navigation, under legislative patronage) to present me with 100 shares of $100 each in the incorporated company established for the purpose of extending the navigation of James River from tidewater to the mountains, and also with 50 shares of £ 100 sterling each in the corporation of another company likewise established for the similar purpose of opening the navigation of the Potomac River from tidewater to Fort Cumberland — the acceptance of which, although the offer was highly honorable and grateful to my feelings, was refused as inconsistent with a principle which I had adopted and had never departed from, namely, not to receive pecuniary compensation for any services I could render my country in its arduous struggle with Great Britain for its rights — and because I had evaded similar propositions from other states in the Union, adding to this refusal, however, an intimation that if it should be the pleasure of the legislature to permit me to appropriate the said shares to public uses, I would receive them on those terms with due sensibility. And this it having consented to in flattering terms, as will appear by a subsequent law and sundry resolutions, in the most ample and honorable manner, I proceed after this recital for the more correct understanding of the case to declare:

That as it has always been a source of serious regret with me to see the youth of these United States sent to foreign countries for the purpose of education, often before their minds were formed or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own, contracting too frequently not only habits of dissipation and extravagance but principles unfriendly to republican government and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind, which thereafter are rarely overcome. For these reasons it has been my ardent wish to see a plan devised on a liberal scale which would have a tendency to spread systematic ideas through all parts of this rising empire, thereby to do away local attachments and state prejudices as far as the nature of things would, or, indeed, ought to admit from our national councils. Looking anxiously forward to the accomplishment of so desirable an object as this is (in my estimation), my mind has not been able to contemplate any plan more likely to effect the measure than the establishment of a university in a central part of the United States to which the youth of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might be sent for the completion of their education in all the branches of polite literature in arts and sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government, and (as a matter of infinite importance in my judgment) by associating with each other and forming friendships in juvenile years, be enabled to free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices and habitual jealousies which have just been mentioned and which when carried to excess are never failing sources of disquietude to the public mind and pregnant of mischievous consequences to this country under these impressions so fully dilated.

Item — I give and bequeath in perpetuity the fifty shares which I hold in the Potomac Company (under the aforesaid acts of the legislature of Virginia) towards the endowment of a university to be established within the limits of the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the general government, if that government should incline to extend a fostering hand towards it; and until such seminary is established, and the funds arising on these shares shall be required for its support, my further will and desire is that the profit accruing therefrom shall, whenever the dividends are made, be laid out in purchasing stock in the Bank of Columbia or some other bank at the discretion of my executors, or by the treasurer of the United States for the time being under the direction of Congress, provided that honorable body should patronize the measure. And the dividends proceeding from the purchase of such stock is to be vested in more stock and so on until a sum adequate to the accomplishment of the object is obtained, of which I have not the smallest doubt before many years pass away, even if no aid or encouragement is given by legislative authority or from any other source.

Item — The 100 shares which I held in the James River Company I have given and now confirm in perpetuity to and for the use and benefit of Liberty Hall Academy in the county of Rockbridge, in the Commonwealth of Virginia. …

Item — To my nephew, Bushrod Washington, I give and bequeath all the papers in my possession which relate to my civil and military administration of the affairs of this country. I leave to him also such of my private papers as are worth preserving. At the decease of my wife, and before, if she is not inclined to retain them, I give and bequeath my library of books and pamphlets of every kind. …

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 unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood except it be for self-defense, or in defense 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. …

And by way of advice, I recommended it to my executors not to be precipitate in disposing of the landed property (herein directed to be sold) if from temporary causes the sale thereof should be dull; experience having fully evinced that the price of land (especially above the falls of the rivers and on the western waters) have been progressively rising and cannot be long checked in its increasing value. I particularly recommend it to such of the legatees (under this clause of my will) as can make it convenient to take each a share of my stock in the Potomac Company in preference to the amount of what it might sell for, being thoroughly convinced myself that no uses to which the money can be applied will be so productive as the tolls arising from this navigation when in full operation (and this from the nature of things it must be before long) and more especially if that of the Shenandoah is added thereto.

The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of brick, and upon a larger scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Enclosure, on the ground which is marked out, in which my remains, with those of my deceased relatives (now in the old vault) and such others of my family as may choose to be entombed there, may be deposited. And it is my express desire that my corpse may be interred in a private manner, without parade or funeral oration.

Lastly — I constitute and appoint my dearly beloved wife, Martha Washington; my nephews William Augustine Washington, Bushrod Washington, George SteptoeWashington, Samuel Washington, and Lawrence Lewis; and my ward, GeorgeWashington Parke Custis (when he shall have arrived at the age of twenty years), executrix and executors of this will and testament — in the construction of which it will readily be perceived that no professional character has been consulted or has had any agency in the draft — and that, although it has occupied many of my leisure hours to digest and to put it into its present form, it may notwithstanding appear crude and incorrect. But having endeavored to be plain and explicit in all the devises, even at the expense of prolixity, perhaps of tautology, I hope and trust that no disputes will arise concerning them; but if contrary to expectation the case should be otherwise from the want of legal expression or the usual technical terms, or because too much or too little has been said on any of the devises to be consonant with law, my will and direction expressly is that all disputes (if unhappily any should arise) shall be decided by three impartial and intelligent men, known for their probity and good understanding — two to be chosen by the disputants, each having the choice of one, and the third by those two — which three men thus chosen shall unfettered by law or legal constructions declare their sense of the testator’s intention. And such decision is, to all intents and purposes, to be as binding on the parties as if it had been given in the Supreme Court of the United States.

In witness of all and of each of the things herein contained I have set my hand and seal this 9th day of July, in the year 1799, and of the independence of the United States, the twenty-fourth.

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