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Month: September 2023

George Washington’s Real Right Hand Man

George Washington and William Lee

While some may consider Alexander Hamilton George Washington’s “Right Hand Man,” the more compelling choice is William Lee, the African American enslaved valet who served Washington for approximately twenty years, including over seven years of the Revolutionary War. (1) From helping the command-in-chief arrange his personal business, to delivering dispatches, to assisting with sartorial tasks, to accompanying Washington on fox hunts, Lee was the ever-present assistant. (1)

In the 1780s, Lee suffered a number of falls that affected his knees. Washington noted in his diary, April 22, 1785, “My Servant William (one of the Chain Carriers) fell, and broke the pan of his knee wch. put a stop to my Surveying; & with much difficulty I was able to get him to Abingdon, being obliged to get a sled to carry him on, as he could neither Walk, stand, or ride. . . ” (2) When Washington became president in 1789, Lee travelled from Mount Vernon to serve Washington in New York City. On his way to the new capital, Lee needed took a detour in Philadelphia to be fitted with a steel brace. Tobias Lear, Washinton’s secretary, wrote that if Lee “is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful servant. This is enough for the Presidt to grafiy him in every reasonable wish. . . ” (3) Washington’s loyalty was evident, but Lee’s loyalty to his enslaver, was even more so. Due to his injuries, in the summer of 1790, Lee returned to Virginia to serve as the Mount Vernon cobbler. (4)

In George Washington’s will, William Lee is the only enslaved person freed on his death. Washington also left him with a $30 annuity. “And to my Mulatto man William,” Washington wrote, “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.” (5) Washington continued, “This I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” (6). Lee was it seemed, Washington’s right hand man. See above for John Trumbull’s 1780 painting, “George Washington,” with the general accompanied by William Lee.

  1. “William (Billy) Lee,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia,
  2. George Washington, “Diary of George Washington (April 22, 1785),” Encyclopedia Virginia: Virginia Humanities,
  3. “William Lee,” Encyclopedia Virginia: Virginia Humanities,
  4. Ibid.
  5. George Washington, “George Washington’s Last Will and Testament (July 9, 1799),” Encyclopedia Virginia: Virginia Humanities,
  6. Ibid.

John Laurens and George Washington

John Laurens and George Washington

South Carolinian John Laurens, close friend to Alexander Hamilton, was fervent in plans to enlist enslaved people in the Continental Army. On March 29, 1779, the Continental Congress agreed to compensate Georgian and South Carolinian slaveholders as much as $1,000 for enslaved men serving in the army, even going as far as emancipation. The Continental Congress stated:

Resolved, That congress will make provision for paying the proprietors of such negroes as shall be inlisted for the service of the United States during the war, a full compensation for the property at a rate not exceeding one thousand dollars for each active able bodied negro man of standard size, not exceeding thirty five years of age, who shall be so inlisted and pass muster.

That no pay or bounty be allowed to the said negroes, but that they be cloathed and subsisted at the expence of the United States.

That every negro who shall well and faithfully serve as a soldier to the end of the present war, and shall then return his arms, be emancipated and receive the sum of fifty dollars.

However, in a letter to George Washington on May 19, 1782, Laurens reported that the plan was rejected by South Carolina. “The single voice of reason,” he wrote, “was drowned by the howlings of a triple-headed monster in which Prejudice Avarice & Pusillanimity were united.”

Responding to that letter on July 10, 1782 George Washington (in the letter photographed above) expressed dismay that South Carolina rejected the proposal. He lamented that “it is not the public but the private Interest which influences the generality of mankind.” Washington wrote:

The last Post brought me your Letter of the 19 May.

I must confess that I am not at all astonished at the failure of your Plans.

That Spirit of Freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object has long since subsided, and every selfish Passion has taken its place—it is not the public but the private Interest which influences the generality of Mankind nor can the Americans any longer boast an exception—under these circumstances it would rather have been surprizing if you had succeeded nor will you I fear succeed better in Georgia.

Other states, such as Rhode Island enlisted African Americans into service. However, many more African Americans escaped and fought on the side of English.

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“Journals of the Continental Congress, March 29, 1779” Encyclopedia Virginia,

John Laurens, “To George Washington from John Laurens, 19 May 1782,” National Archives Founders Online,

George Washington, “From George Washington to John Laurens, 10 July 1782,” National Archives Founders Online,