George Washington
Highest Number of Slaves Owned: 317

George Washington George Washington bought, sold, inherited, and otherwise acquired hundreds of slaves over his lifetime, at one point even helping to manage a lottery in which slave children were "prizes."

Here, for example, are a few documented cases:

  • In a letter on July 20, 1772, Washington directed that money from the sale of flour be invested "in Negroes, if choice ones can be had under Forty pounds Sterl[ing]; if not, then in Rum & Sugar .... If the Return's are in Slaves let there be two thirds of them Males, the other third Females -- The former not exceeding (at any rate) 20 yrs of age -- the latter 16."

  • On February 4, 1787, Washington wrote Henry Lee about his desire to purchase "the Bricklayer which is advertised for Sale," telling Lee that if the slave's "price does not exceed one hundred, or a few more pounds, I should be glad if you would buy him for me. I have much work in this way to do this Summer."

  • In a letter to James Ross on November 13, 1797, Washington wrote: "The running off of my cook, has been a most inconvenient thing to this family; and what renders it more disagreeable, is, that I had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase, but this resolution I fear I must break." Washington then directed Ross to inquire about a slave cook in Fredericksburg and "discover the lowest terms on which he could be had."

Washington also arranged to have his dentures fitted with teeth pulled from slaves, and in some cases, he was deceptive about his practices concerning slavery:

  • In a letter to his secretary on April 12, 1791, Washington wrote of his slaves: "It behooves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only loose the use of them, but may have them to pay for. If upon taking good advise it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public." (misspellings in original)

  • In a letter to William Pearce on March 22, 1795, Washington offered to secretly join in the expense of recapturing a runaway slave but said "I would not have my name appear in any advertisement, or other measure, leading to it."

In contrast to the mythical story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree and confessing his act with the famous line "I cannot tell a lie," the real George Washington was the first president to cover up misdeeds from the public.

John Adams