Never Caught

by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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Never Caught Themes

The main themes in Never Caught are slavery and the law, the personal costs of slavery, and liberty and hypocrisy.

  • Slavery and the law: Never Caught examines the many conflicting laws that governed slavery in the early United States and their effect on individuals.
  • The personal costs of slavery: Ona Judge’s story demonstrates the extremely high toll that slavery took on the enslaved, as well as the burden of living as a fugitive.
  • Liberty and hypocrisy: Dunbar exposes the contradictions inherent in the ideals of freedom and justice espoused by slaveholders like George Washington.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Slavery and the Law

In recounting the story of Ona Judge, one of the notable contributions that Erica Armstrong Dunbar makes is exploring the complex web of laws—both national and in individual states—that governed slaveholding in the newly formed United States, including the ways those differed from British colonial laws. The impact of clashing legal codes is prominent in Dunbar's book. George and Martha Washington were both slaveholders, but the enslaved persons that they counted as property were part of each person's individual holdings, not held in common. Many of those enslaved Black people had come to each owner as part of their separate family inheritances. In addition, some of Martha's slaves had been owned by her first husband, the wealthy landowner Daniel Parke Custis, before he died.

Ona's story was strongly affected by two significant transitions with different legal implications. The first was Martha's widowhood in 1757 and subsequent remarriage two years later. Betty, the woman who would become Ona's mother, was one of three hundred slaves who formed part of Custis's estate, which consisted of six plantations at the time of his death. Betty was a household servant on the plantation where Martha lived. Along with several young children, she accompanied her mistress to Mount Vernon, and Ona was born there in 1773. Therefore, Ona was actually considered the property of Martha rather than of George.

Another relevant feature is the numerous differences among state laws. Pennsylvania was a non-slaveholding state, while in Virginia, slavery was legal. Recognizing the practical implications of these different statutes, Pennsylvania allowed slaveowners to travel or even live with their slaves, but only for part of the year. After six months in Pennsylvania, a slave gained freedom. In Virginia, slaves were not only considered property for the duration of the owner's life but also could be passed to their owner's surviving spouse or descendants.

When elected president of the new nation, George Washington established a residence in the new capital at Philadelphia; his household included ten slaves that he brought from Virginia. Although it was legal for him to have enslaved workers in his Philadelphia household, they could not stay more than six months at a time. After that interval, he sent them back to Virginia—that is, he obeyed the letter but not the spirit of the law.

The Personal Costs of Slavery

Dunbar's book is primarily a human-centered account of the life of one enslaved person rather than a legal history. The high physical and emotional costs for enslaved people is a key theme. Ona Judge was only one of many thousands of enslaved persons who fled to freedom in the Northern United States in the late eighteenth century. A unique feature of her situation that made her flight of particular historical interest is that her master was the first president. Ona was twenty-two years old when she ran from Washington's Philadelphia home to freedom in New Hampshire. Dunbar reminds the reader of the lifelong burden that the young woman accepted: she could never stop looking over her shoulder, knowing she might be reenslaved if apprehended, and did later have narrow escapes. Despite the concerted efforts of the nation's president, Ona Judge was—as the title indicates—never caught, and she lived fifty years as a free woman.

Examining Ona's life from birth onward, Dunbar is able to extrapolate what her specific experiences would have been like at Mount Vernon through her research into what is known of slave children's lives—relatively little, especially in contrast to the amount of documentation concerning wealthy white children. The adult Ona's quest for freedom, by which she chose...

(This entire section contains 911 words.)

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to leave what some would perceive as a comfortable life in the Washingtons' home, also casts a harsh light on the idea that any kind of slavery was tolerable.

The impact of the legal system on both Black and White people is also brought home through Ona's story. Her father, Andrew Judge, also worked at Mount Vernon, as a tailor. Andrew, however, was not a slave: he was a White indentured servant who had emigrated from England. Although her father was a free man, because her mother was a Black slave, Ona was born a slave. Andrew had no say in his children's legal status; had he desired to achieve freedom for his child or her mother, he would have had to raise considerable funds and purchase that freedom.

Liberty and Hypocrisy

Dunbar's narrative of Ona's life adds to our understanding of early US history as a set of paradoxical assertions and practices. One prominent motif in this work is shared with many others that concern this time period: the unresolvable contradictions between ideals and declarations that supported liberty as a birthright, and laws and actions that deprived countless American residents of that right. Rather than treating these ideas as abstractions, Dunbar expands our understanding of how those contradictions played out in specific cases and considers their material impact on real people.

While attention has previously been paid to those contradictions in the life and business of George Washington as a Southern agriculturist and wealthy slaveholder, the close focus here is on his "relentless pursuit" of Ona Judge. He even used the powers of the presidency, not just his and his wife's personal resources, to aid his search. Dunbar's scrutiny helps readers understand how deeply embedded the beliefs that many early Americans held about their "property" were—and, by extension, why those beliefs endured for so long.


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