William Lee: The Patriotic Devotion of Washington’s Confidant and Bodyguard in War and Peace
By Paul Dowling
“If Billy Lee had been a white man, he would have had an honored place in American history because of his close proximity to George Washington during the most exciting periods of his career. But because he was a black servant, a humble slave, he has been virtually ignored by both black and white historians and biographers.” – Fritz Hirschfeld, in George Washington and Slavery, pointing out that William Lee’s rightful place in history has been equally ignored by black and white historians alike.
An Important Influence
George Washington’s loyal slave and bodyguard, William Lee, achieved celebrity status in the eyes of many for his dedicated service to the new American nation during the Revolutionary War. It was Lee’s dedication to Washington that forced the general to struggle throughout the war years with the issue of enslaved people remaining in bondage in the aftermath of winning a war for freedom. Arguably, an important byproduct of Washington’s association with Lee was that, of the nine presidents who owned slaves, George Washington alone would free all the slaves he owned outright in his will.*
George Coussoulos has pointed out that, although Washington had begun his life as a slaveholder as a fairly severe master, upon inheriting slaves from his father at age 11, he did mature over the years into a far more sympathetic adult who became “determined to never break up families” when selling any of his slaves. Eventually, in the time of his life during which he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington would direct “his Mount Vernon overseer to no longer buy or sell any slaves.” And, ultimately, Washington would write in a letter to fellow Virginian John Mercer, in correspondence dated September 9, 1786, “I never mean . . . to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted . . . by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptable [sic] degrees.”
Washington, already sympathetic to the dilemma of the enslaved population, would have experienced a heightened exposure to antislavery influences during his time as Commander-in-Chief. Most important among these would have been the simple humanity of William Lee, the loyal holder of his spyglass and the trusted custodian of his papers. Added to this would have been the constant exposure to Lafayette’s aversion to slavery, as well as the opportunity to witness across jurisdictions that self-motivated freemen were actually “more productive than those forced to work by threat of the lash.”
It is, however, to Washington’s credit that before the formal commencement of hostilities with the Crown – by 1774 already – he had “endorsed a document, known as the Fairfax Resolves, which condemned the slave trade as ‘unnatural’ and recommended that no more enslaved people be imported into the British colonies. Five years later, he approved a plan to grant enslaved men their freedom in exchange for service in the Continental Army.”
Before his purchase of William Lee, Washington, like most of his fellow Americans, had taken slavery for granted. One must keep in mind that, before and during the Revolutionary War, “one-fifth of the colonies’ population lived in bondage. Although most enslaved people were in the South, slavery was a legal institution in each of the thirteen colonies. Fourteen percent of the state of New York’s population was enslaved, for example, and New York City had more enslaved people than any other city in the colonies except Charleston, South Carolina.”
There has been a tendency of late for people, living in a modern-day world of equal opportunity, to judge Americans who lived in the past based upon the standards of today. The irony is that the seeds for the culturally transformational Civil Rights Movement – that ultimately instituted a sea-change in the application of rules seeking to guarantee liberty and justice for all – were first sown by the written words and exemplary deeds of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. It was Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence that created America’s founding creed that “all men are created equal.”** And it was Washington’s increasing sensitivity to, and ultimate emancipation of, his slaves that set a powerful example for others down through the years. But many Americans seem to have lost their ability to imagine what it must have been like to walk in the shoes of those Founding Fathers who sought to pioneer a new way of thinking by struggling against odds that were heavily stacked against them, legally as well as culturally.*** And the influences of enslaved personalities – such as Sally Hemmings (who had children with a Jefferson male, possibly Thomas himself) and William Lee (who was arguably George Washington’s most intimate companion) – cannot be discounted.
Washington, in comparison to other Virginians of his day, had become quite forward-looking when it came to slavery, especially by the time he had decided to free the 124 slaves belonging solely to him in his will – most to be emancipated upon his wife Martha’s death, but with William Lee to be freed immediately. According to Lee Lamensdorf, after Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, Martha Washington went ahead and freed the remaining 123 of her husband’s slaves, a little more than a year later, on January 1, 1801. Martha could not legally free any slaves other than her husband’s, even though “his will stated his ‘earnest wish’ for the emancipation of enslaved people.” The reason for this was that Martha Washington “held enslaved people in trust for her children and grandchildren as part of the inheritance from her first husband. Though George Washington had the management rights to these people and their labor . . ., he did not own them. Therefore, he could not free them in his will.”
Sixty-One Pounds Well-Spent: Lee’s Life of Influence on Washington Begins
Washington purchased William Lee and his brother Frank in the spring of 1768. According to John C. Abercrombie, “Lee was purchased by George Washington while he was a teenager. Washington paid a premium price for William and his brother Frank as they were slated to be household slaves rather than field laborers.” William Lee’s purchase date was May 3, 1768, and he was described by Washington in his account book as “Mulatto Will.” He was acquired from the “estate of the late Colonel John Lee of Westmoreland County, Virginia, for sixty-one pounds and fifteen shillings.”
Household slaves generally had skills that were not required by fieldhands; they were, therefore, costlier to obtain. Such slaves could often read, write, and do math. And they were much more familial than the other slaves, as a rule. This is likely the reason for George Washington’s almost exclusive use of the name Billy for William Lee until he reached adulthood, at which time it is often customary among families to cease using diminutive forms of names with family members. According to Jessie MacLeod, Associate Curator of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, “Washington only referred to his valet by that diminutive until about 1771.” That is the year Billy would have reached the age of majority and become Will or William, had he been born in 1750. Thus, 1750 is probably the correct birth year for William Lee.
Valet, Huntsman, and Intimate Friend
To illustrate just how familial Lee was in his ties to the Washingtons, there is a peacetime portrait, The Washington Family, painted by Edward Savage. Pictured in the portrait, along with the Washingtons, is a household slave. According to the National Gallery of Art, “Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren, adopted by the Washingtons after the deaths of their parents,” also appear in the portrait, along with the Washingtons’ manservant. The slave in Savage’s family portrait is likely William Lee, George Washington’s trusted valet. In George Washington: An American Icon, by Wendy C. Wick (aka Wendy Wick Reaves), the author – who is one of the leading experts at identifying painted representations of Lee – names Lee as being the man in the portrait, a fact that is cited by historical researcher Fritz Hirsch: “Washington’s personal virtues as a family man were suggested as well by depicting him surrounded by his wife, his black servant Billy Lee, and two of Martha’s grandchildren, Eleanor Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis.”
In peacetime, “William and [his brother] Frank were often chosen to serve as domestic servants, who were given responsibilities and privileges most slaves never enjoyed. Frank became Washington’s butler at Mount Vernon, while William served in a variety of roles, including Washington’s valet or manservant. As valet, Lee performed chores such as brushing Washington’s long hair and tying it behind his head. Washington was a frequent fox hunter, and Lee became his huntsman (the person in charge of the hounds or dogs), a role that required expert horsemanship.” Prior to the Revolutionary War, William Lee would have traveled on many occasions with Washington to the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg, Virginia. It is also known that he would go with Washington on other trips; for example, he would have accompanied Washington on “a surveying expedition to the Ohio Valley in 1770 and to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774.”
Curator, Confidant, and Trusted Companion
During wartime, “Lee served at Washington’s side throughout the eight years of the Revolutionary War, including the winter at Valley Forge and at the siege of Yorktown,” according to El Aemer El Mujaddid. There is a famous portrait of George Washington and William Lee painted by John Trumbull in 1780, who, early in the War for Independence, had served on Washington’s staff as an aide-de-camp. In the portrait, Washington is pictured on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River with his loyal “valet, groom, and military aide, on horseback.” The turban worn by Lee in the painting is likely not an accurate depiction of his dress but only a stylized portrayal, as was commonplace during the 18th century with respect to the depiction of black people. In France, too, Lee was depicted in this Moorish fashion in a famous engraving of Washington holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence, with an orientalist representation of William Lee in the background. It is likely that Lee actually donned a tricorne, as was the custom during the time of the Revolutionary War.
More famous than the paintings described above would be Emanuel Leutze’s painting. J. Dennis Robinson writes, “In Washington Crossing the Delaware, just beside General Washington’s right knee, is one African American soldier among a sea of white faces. He is wearing a large hat and red shirt and rowing frantically in the icy river from Valley Forge towards Washington’s critical victory against the British at Trenton . . .. Some suggest the black figure is William Lee, Washington’s trusted and enslaved valet.”
The Indispensable William Lee
William Lee’s horsemanship was on par with that of George Washington himself, who was considered by many, including Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to Dr. Walter Jones, of January 2, 1814), to be among the greatest horsemen of his age: “His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”
While Washington’s style was graceful, Lee’s style of horsemanship – perhaps equally deserving of praise – was described, in counterpoint to Washington’s (in the private memoirs of George Washington Parke Custis, the natural grandson of Martha and the adopted son of George) with these words: “Will, the huntsman, better known in Revolutionary lore as Billy, rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling . . . this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style at which modern huntsmen would stand aghast.” In peacetime or wartime, Lee would have been one of the few who could have kept up with Washington, on a foxhunt or on the battlefield.
William M. Ferraro writes, of William Lee’s wartime interactions with an important military prisoner, that “Lee acted within the circle of Washington’s top military subordinates and was not excluded from their banter. He also was trusted enough by Washington to spend time alone with an important prisoner. . .. Lee felt comfortable discussing a touchy subject with a highly educated professional.”
William Lee was almost exclusively the one who was entrusted with the responsibility of holding General Washington’s horses. In the midst of prosecuting a high-stakes war against the most powerful military machine on earth, it was Lee who was the trustee and organizer of the information and intelligence being used to facilitate Washington’s efforts. The American Battlefield Trust records the following:
When Congress appointed Washington Commander-in-Chief of Revolutionary forces in 1775, Lee followed him into the Continental Army. As Washington’s valet, Lee was responsible for grooming the horses, preparing his master’s clothing and equipment, delivering messages, and attending to the General’s needs. During battle, Lee stayed close at hand, ready to provide a sword or field glass at Washington’s request. Lee survived the cruel winter at Valley Forge and witnessed the world-shattering victory at Yorktown, marking just a few of the momentous historical events to which Lee bore witness while serving at Washington’s side.
It was well-known to American patriots, during the Revolutionary War, that “Washington, usually mounted on horseback when outdoors, was a highly visible figure throughout the war, and everyone who saw him could not help but notice the black man riding along with him wherever he went. The master and his slave were inseparable . . ..”
Other Points of Interest in the Life of William
During the summer of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, William Lee “tended to [Washington’s] personal needs” and could be found standing directly behind his chair during the entire time of Washington’s service as president of the convention.
During the time that William Lee served with Washington throughout the War for Independence, he had been responsible for organizing the general’s “personal affairs, including his voluminous papers.” After the war, visitors to Mount Vernon often wanted to meet with Lee. And during his time with the President of Constitutional Convention, Lee is likely to have met with a number of admirers among the delegates.
Washington’s views on slavery had evolved during the war into a “newfound abhorrence of slavery and a commitment to neither buy nor sell enslaved people and to avoid separating enslaved families. Many factors likely influenced Washington’s evolution, but his close relationship with William Lee may have helped him understand more fully the humanity of those he enslaved.” Washington’s respect for Lee’s growing autonomy would have been the main reason he chose to support Lee’s marriage to a “free black woman named Margaret Thomas from Philadelphia” who had once washed and sewn clothes for the general. It has been reported that – concerning Lee’s request that his wife be allowed to join him at Mount Vernon – “[a]lthough Washington grumbled that he ‘never wished to see her more,’ he acquiesced, noting that he could not refuse his valet’s request ‘(if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long and followed my fortunes with fidelity.’ There is no evidence, however, that Margaret Thomas ever lived at Mount Vernon. Washington’s correspondence notes that she had been in ‘ill health,’ so she may have passed away before or shortly after arrival.”
After Washington was elected President of the United States, Lee wanted to work for Washington in New York City, the early seat of government for the fledgling nation the president would serve. Lee was barely able to make the trip, “even with metal braces fashioned for him by doctors in Philadelphia.” While Lee was under medical care in Philadelphia, there was a flurry of correspondence with New York. Jessie MacLeod reports: “Washington’s affection for Lee is clear in correspondence between his secretary and agent in Philadelphia as they conferred on Lee’s situation. Washington’s secretary wrote, “if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful Servt. This is enough for the Presidt to gratify him in every reasonable wish.”
The stubborn Lee made a noble attempt to serve his Commander-in-Chief, as Washington began the first presidential administration. However, “[u]pon arrival, Lee’s injuries prevented him from continuing his service as the new President’s valet. Instead, Washington arranged for Lee to return to Mount Vernon and work as a cobbler.” Lee was also permitted to oversee some of the other slaves. And it would seem that Washington’s fondness for Lee may have played a strong role in influencing his “decision to manumit his slaves at the end of his life.”
Lee’s Retirement and Death at Mount Vernon
Upon Washington’s death in 1799, his will called for William Lee’s immediate emancipation:
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 ha⟨v⟩e 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 thirty dollars during his natural life, whic⟨h⟩ shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test⟨im⟩ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
These services, in a footnote to Washington’s will, have been delineated as follows:
As early as May 1770 Will Lee began going to Williamsburg as Washington’s body servant for the meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses. For the next two decades Will was in constant attendance upon Washington as his personal servant, acting by turns as valet, waiter, butler, or huntsman. He accompanied Washington to the meeting of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774, remained by his side “through the War” and returned with him to Mount Vernon at the end of 1783, went back with him to Philadelphia in 1787 at the calling of the Constitutional Convention, and, even though by then badly crippled, traveled to New York when Washington became president in 1789.
After becoming a freeman, William Lee chose to remain at Mount Vernon. He lived in quarters that had been set aside for him and received a freeman’s pension of $30.00 per month, a good sum of money at that time. William Lee lived out his life on the Washington estate at Mount Vernon, a patriot until the end of his days. Lee died, reportedly, in 1810, and was buried at Mount Vernon.
*Footnote and Commentary: Washington Freed All His Slaves, While Jefferson Had Legal Issues
There may have been legal reasons why some slaveholding Founders may have been unable to free their slaves. For example, John Boles, a history professor at Rice, has shared important information about the fact that Thomas Jefferson, an abolitionist at heart, inherited tremendous debt when his father-in-law died and that this would have negatively impacted Jefferson’s ability to manumit his slaves:
A law was passed in Virginia in 1792 that said if a person was in debt, any slaves he might free could be seized by his debtors. So Jefferson was always under the cloud that he couldn’t free his slaves because they could be seized by his debtors.
Also, in 1806, a law was passed in Virginia that said if a person freed slaves, those slaves had to leave the state within one year or they’d be seized by the state [as slaves]. So Jefferson realized that even if he avoided that 1792 law about debt and freed his slaves, they had to be expelled. He didn’t have the means to buy animals or land or tools to set them up [in another state]. He felt hamstrung by that. He also had a lot of kin – children and grandchildren – whom he was supporting. At any one time, Jefferson was supporting 15–20 family members at Monticello.
In contrast, George Washington was wealthy and was not in debt, so he wasn’t affected by the 1792 law. Washington had no biological relatives – no children, no dependents he was taking care of. When he decided to free his slaves after his and Martha Washington’s death, they could stay on the land there because that 1806 law hadn’t been passed [when he died in 1799].
The reason for the 1806 law was that many emancipated slaves had no way to support themselves, being unable to do much in the way of reading, writing, or arithmetic; furthermore, these illiterate and innumerate freemen often were without comprehensive training in any trade. Being unable to support themselves, the fear was that these freemen would soon fall into lives of crime or alcoholism. This became a dilemma in the minds of state legislators – one that did not exist, if these people were to remain enslaved or were to quit the state. Also, there were many costly expenses for a slaveholder who involved himself in setting up a freed slave in an occupation outside the state. And an even bigger problem for newly freed slaves was that, even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery altogether, “[t]he criminal-justice system was strategically employed to force African-Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.”
**Footnote and Commentary: The Term “All Men” Refers to “All Humanity”
The expression in the Declaration of Independence that announces “all men” are created equal means that “all humanity” is created equal, in the same sense that the Christmastime salutation wishing “goodwill towards men” expresses goodwill towards “humanity.” Using the male pronoun as the neutrally inclusive pronoun was once understood by all English speakers as being just that. In fact, this traditional usage of the male pronoun is still being employed, and is intuitively understood, by speakers of foreign languages, such as Spanish-speakers who utilize the male pronoun “alumnos” to denote “students” of both genders. Another example of “he” as gender-neutral pronoun is the traditional Biblical reference to God as “He.” (God has no sex organs and is, therefore, genderless.) There are countless instances of historical revisionists having done their readers the unfortunate disservice of misrepresenting the views of historical figures, at least in part, on the basis of their usage of traditional grammar that was customary in their day.
***Footnote and Commentary: The Humble Act of Withholding Judgment
Perhaps humility would be a better psychological position to take when seeking to understand people who are different, due to their hailing from a place or time far-removed from the present. Instead of judging people from the past based upon modern-day sensibilities, it might be better to ask, “How might the people of today fall short in the eyes of generations not yet born? And what prejudices and shortcomings do contemporary persons possess that may cause people living in the future to judge them based upon their own cultural standards of the future?” A problem all-too-common in today’s world is that many are not learning the empathy required to appreciate what it must be like to walk in the shoes of diverse people who grew up under different circumstances and in different places and times. The inside-out approach to comprehending and appreciating the Other in relation to the Self causes one to think, “I am a human being, like others who have gone before me and will come after me. Because human beings are such social creatures – having the same needs for love, belonging, and approval across time – what choices would I make differently, based upon living in a society that is much different from the present?” It is fallacious for critics of people living circa 1776 to think that, had they lived back then, they would surely have made choices far different from those of their 1776 contemporaries.