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Never Caught Themes

National and State Laws About Slavery in the New Republic

In recounting the story of Ona Judge (later Staines), 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 African Americans 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 in the 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 was 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 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 on 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 re-enslaved if apprehended, and did later have narrow escapes. Despite the concerted efforts of the nation's president, Judge was—as the title indicates—never caught and 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 entire section is 915 words.)