The first printing of Washington’s will, constituting a remarkable legacy from a remarkable man.
“The extraordinary care and precision with which he spelled out how and under what conditions his land and other possessions should be distributed among the numerous members of his extended family, among his old friends, and among various dependents, provide further insight into the workings of his mind and the impulses of his heart. The language of Washington’s will and its contents combine to make it a document of particular importance among his papers.” (“George Washington’s Last Will and Testament,” at The Papers of George Washington, http://gwpapers.virginia.edu)
Washington finalized his will the Summer before he died, with the document signed and dated July 9, 1799, just months before his death the following December. It was presented for probate at the Fairfax County Courthouse on January 10, 1800, where it remains today. Given Washington’s stature, it was natural that the document would be published for the edification of the nation. Offered here is the first of many printings, issued within days in Alexandria, Virginia.
The will is best known for Washington’s manumission of his slaves, albeit of a qualified sort: “Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom” (The manumission did not-and could not-extend to the “dower slaves,” those brought to the marriage by his wife Martha.) However limited the gesture, Washington was clearly concerned with the welfare of the individuals to be freed, providing for the care and education of those in their minority and ongoing financial support for those in need.
A national university
Another clause with broad implications was his wish to fund a future national university in the District of Columbia, toward which end he left his shares in the Potomac Company. He wished to avoid what he saw as the unfortunate practice of sending one’s children abroad for education:
“ 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 & extravagence, but principles unfriendly to Republican Governmt and to the true & genuine liberties of Mankind; which, thereafter are rarely overcome.”
His hope was that the institution would imbue promising youth with both patriotism and republican virtue, thereby binding the national more closely together. This vision of a national university never quite came to pass, though Washington surely would have been pleased at the establishment in 1802 of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Disposition of land holdings
Also of great interest is the treatment of his enormous land holdings, outside of the estate at Mount Vernon, which were to be sold and the proceeds divided into 23 shares to be distributed primarily among his nieces and nephews. These holdings are enumerated in a long “Schedule of Property,” also dated July 9, 1799 and reprinted following the text of the will. The scale is astonishing, including more than 50,000 acres in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as along the Ohio River, the Great Kanhawa River and the Little Miami River, with the aggregate value estimated at a staggering $530,000. Washington also provides guidance about maximizing the proceeds from the sales:
“And by way of advice, I recommend 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, & on the Western Waters) have been progressively rising, and cannot be long checked in its increasing value.”
The will also includes more minor, yet interesting touches, such as Washington passing to his brother Charles “the gold headed Cane left me by Doctr Franklin in his will” and returning to the Earl of Buchan “the box made of the Oak that sheltered the Great Sir William Wallace after the battle of Falkirk.” Most dramatically, he presents a sword to each of his nephews, with a stirring injunction:
“not to unsheathe them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence 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.”
The Will is rather scarce on the market: As of March 2015 Rare Book Hub (formerly Americana Exchange) lists only three copies appearing since one offered by Goodspeed’s in 1967 (assuming that the four listings from MS Rare Books in the late 1980s and -90s reflect a single copy). The most recent recorded sale was a “remarkably fine example” sold at Heritage Auctions in 2013 for $8750.
Evans 39000. Howes W145. Sabin 101752. Some background from “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament,” at
The Papers of George Washington.
Area of loss to final leaf (affecting several lines of type including Washington's signature) reinstated in facsimile. Moderately toned throughout, outer corners trimmed, wraps a bit ragged.