Considering the volume of books about George Washington and his storied life, it must be a daunting task for a historian to try to find something new and interesting to say. By now it seems as if everything that can be said about our first president has already been said--several times over. In the face of this challenge, it is quite impressive that someone can discover a way into his life that reveals something about the man and his world. Erica Armstrong Dunbar has accomplished this quite well in her recent book, Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.
Using Judge's story as her framework, Armstrong Dunbar provides an intriguing narrative about George and Martha Washington's treatment of their sizable population of slaves. Contrary to the view of Washington as the exceptional man, she shows that the first president was very much in line with the rest of white America's view of slavery and the people they owned. This demystification of Washington allows Armstrong Dunbar to align the Washingtons with the tragically common slave experience. In describing George and Martha's pending wedding, she emphasizes how seemingly joyful changes created immense anxiety for enslaved people. Armstrong Dunbar writes, "[Judge] was unfamiliar with her new master's preferences; or more importantly, if he would choose to exercise his complete control over her body" (7). It felt jarring at first to think of Washington as a potential rapist, but she allows us to see inside the slave's mind, which would not have the benefit of hindsight. Washington may have been a great man in many ways, but for his slaves, especially the women, he was a white man and, as such, a dire threat and source of concern.
We see a similar moment when learning about Washington's dealings with his slaves while serving as president. Along with establishing what the presidency would be, Washington was also occupied with his other role as slave master. While living in Philadelphia, he had to remain aware of the state's policy towards slavery. By law, any slave spending more than thirty days within the state's borders could become free. Therefore, Washington had to remain vigilant about finding ways to work around this. Armstrong Dunbar explains, "So the Washingtons devised a plan: the couple would shuffle their slaves to and from Mount Vernon every six months, avoiding the stopwatch of Pennsylvania black freedom" (66). What I find powerful about this passage is Armstrong Dunbar's ability to highlight Washington's moral failing while also making clear that he was far from a passive slave owner.
Ona Judge's story offers a promising way for the author to ground this narrative in a concrete personal experience. At the same time, she poses a challenge to any historian due to the relatively light amount of primary sources available for examination. As a result, I found it hard to feel connected to Judge on a personal level. Too much has to rest on speculation, which is understandable, but it ultimately weakened the book's power. For example, Armstrong Dunbar tries to show us how Judge would make the most of the little downtime available to her in the presidential mansion. "In a home that was filled to the rafters,...Judge would have relished the time [alone]. In her stolen moments of leisure, it is very likely that she spent time talking to Austin, her brother, or the other slaves about current events...Perhaps, in these moments, Judge talked with some of the hired servants about New York and its environs. These fleeting respites...allowed for moments of autonomy that helped the young bondwoman come to know her new city and refine her understanding of freedom and slavery in New York" (42). I've emphasized specific aspects of this quote to show how much of this reading rests on things that the author, or anyone for that matter, could not possibly know. And to ground Judge's burgeoning desire for freedom in such shaky speculation causes the larger argument to come up short. Surely it is enough that a woman held in slavery would want to take any opportunity to obtain her freedom. I'm not sure if we need to make these speculative leaps about how she got to that mindset.
I appreciate Armstrong Dunbar's desire to fill in these gaps in the historical record in order to arrive at a narrative behind her escape from slavery. Judge's story is undeniably worth telling and the author has no alternative other than piecing things together. At the same time, the book is weakest when Armstrong Dunbar attempts to connect Judge's story to larger historical events. In describing the negative response to black efforts to help during a yellow fever outbreak, she argues "Judge would have noticed more than just grief in the air; the city was rife with racial tension of a sharper kind. Blacks had just buried their own family members only to suffer accusations of hideous behavior. Judge most certainly heard the stories of black anger and resentment from those who had lost loved ones in a grand attempt to prove themselves worthy of freedom and equality" (85). In the aftermath of tremendous death and suffering, whites accused the blacks who helped them of robbing the dead and other nefarious behavior. While this is disturbing and helps show the immense challenges free blacks were up against, it is hard to see a direct connection to Judge and her eventual quest for freedom. She very well may have heard these stories, but we can't know if she did. More importantly, we can't understand how she would have responded and if this response had anything to do with her decision to run away from enslavement. Suppose she did not hear about these rumors. Would her drive for freedom be any less understandable?
I give Armstrong Dunbar a tremendous amount of credit for taking on such a difficult but necessary project. The issues I had with her work are issues that any historian would have to struggle with. At the same time, she made the right decision to overcome these challenges and, in the process, provide us with a remarkable story of one slave's journey to freedom that also deepens our understanding of George Washington as a flawed, complicated man. I would much rather have a story like Judge's out there than to have a historian shy away from a complicated project.
Three stars out of a possible four.