GEORGE WASHINGTON SIGNED SLAVE SALE PROMISSORY NOTE FOR HIS PERSONAL VALET WILLIAM 'BILLY' LEE.
Document Details: 6x7.25" financial document in a 19.25x26" custom frame. Signed by Washington and his brother John Augustine Washington in black quill pen ink. Text, written in an unknown hand, reads "We Do Promise To Pay To Mary Lee, Acting Executor Of John Lee, Deceased, Or To Her Assigns The Sum Of One Hundred And Forty Nine Pounds Fifteen Shillings Current Money On Or Before The Fifteenth Day Of April Next Ensuing For Value Received Of Her; To Which Payment Well And Truly, To Be Made We Do Bind Ourselves, Our Heirs, Executor And Administrators Jointly & Severally By These Presence In The Penal Sum Of Three Hundred Pounds. In Witness Whereof, We Have Here Unto Set Our Hands & Seals This 15th Day of October 1767. Valid And Delivered In Presence Of" and signed at conclusion by "James Davenport" (manager Dogue Run farm at Mount Vernon), George Washington and John Augustine Washington. Repair just affecting text along a thin vertical band at left. Otherwise only light handling with ink remaining bold. Fine. Washington signature has but a few trivial skips with its size and placement in the lower right field allowing it to stand out boldly. Comes w/Hake's COA & JSA LOA. This document has been confirmed to be for the purchase of four slaves including Washington's personal valet William Lee and comes with copies of these supporting documents. Its appearance here marks the first time this document has been offered at public auction.
William 'Billy' Lee: Financial ledgers at Mount Vernon list the completion of this transaction in an entry dated "1768 May 3" as "£149.15 Cash Paid Capt. John Lee" with listing on reverse identifying the prices paid for "Mulatto Will £61.15/ Ditto Frank £50/ Negro Boy Adam £19/ Jack £19." Mary Smith Ball Lee was the widow of Captain John Lee and inherited the use of his Westmoreland County land and his slaves upon his death. "Mulatto Will" and his brother "Frank" were teenagers at the time Washington purchased them and were most likely fathered by Capt. Lee or another white male on his estate. Given their higher cost, they were both destined to work in Washington's household. "Mulatto Will" is referred to in Washington's papers as "Will" or "William" and was also known by the diminutive "Billy Lee." Washington's last will and testament notes that he was "Calling Himself William Lee." Upon his arrival at Mt. Vernon William Lee became Washington's personal valet spending the next two decades by the side of the founding father at social events, on surveying expeditions in the Ohio Valley, at the First Continental Congress and the totality of the American Revolution, including the winter at Valley Forge and the Siege of Yorktown.
A skilled horseman, William Lee served as huntsman on many of Washington's renowned fox hunts famously remembered by George Washington Parke Custis, grandchild of Martha Washington, in his book Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington in which the author recalls that William Lee "Rode A Horse Called Chinkling, A Surprising Leaper, And Made Very Much Like Its Rider, Low, But Sturdy, And Of Great Bone And Muscle. Will Had But One Order, Which Was To Keep With The Hounds; And, Mounted On Chinkling, A French Horn At His Back, Throwing Himself Almost At Length On The Animal, With His Spur In Flank, This Fearless Horseman Would Rush, At Full Speed, Through Brake Or Tangled Wood, In A Style Which Modern Huntsmen Would Stand Aghast."
His role in the history of the Revolution and the fight for colonists' freedom from the British is as critical as it is wholly ironic. Washington's papers indicate that William was regarded as more than a manservant. As Washington's personal valet, he prepared the general's clothes, tied back his hair and held his telescope but he was also charged with the security of the general's most important papers and was ever-present in battles, at Washington's side. Tasks he carried out had ripple-effects across the Continental Army, and his constant presence with the general made him something of a celebrity amongst the soldiers and, almost certainly, the most famous enslaved African American of his era. When Joshua Hett Smith was being held in solitary confinement during his court-martial, related to his role in the Major General Benedict Arnold treason affair, William Lee tended to him. Smith, a trained lawyer, noted that William Lee spoke of French Major General the Marquis de Lafayette's private reaction after a cross examination by Smith that seized on contradictions in Lafayette's testimony related to Smith's interrogation by Gen. Washington. The misstep had caused Lafayette personal embarrassment and became a joke amongst Washington's officers. Smith wrote later that he recalled William Lee noting that when his [Smith's] name was mentioned, Lafayette "Expressed Himself With Great Asperity." That William Lee should be tending to such an important prisoner alone and that he relayed this information to which few were privy, indicates that he had the confidence of Washington and those around him.
William Lee left the battlefields unscathed but suffered a broken kneecap after the war and then another leaving him nearly crippled. Upon Washington's ascent to the Presidency, William Lee, intent on staying with Washington, attempted to travel to New York but fell ill in Philadelphia. Once he did finally arrive in New York he found he was unable to serve in the same capacity and returned to Mt. Vernon where he became a shoemaker. Upon Washington's death he stipulated that all of his over 120 slaves were to be freed after the death of his wife Martha with only one exception, William Lee, who he freed immediately and provided a $30 yearly salary stating, "This I Give Him As A Testimony Of My Sense Of His Attachment To Me, And For His Faithful Services During The Revolutionary War." William Lee chose to stay at Mt. Vernon where he was frequently sought out by former soldiers for his recollections of the Revolution and remained on the property until his death.
Washington and Slavery: The abhorrent institution of slavery is an immutable reality within the context of our nation's history, and our founding father's participation in that institution has received extensive scholarship in recent decades. This document is a tangible testament to one of the most famed instances of the use of that institution by the most iconic figure of our nation's founding. It serves as a sobering "witness" to the early African American experience in America. Although William Lee became a famed member of Washington's circle, others who were "purchased" that day are lost to history. William Lee's brother Francis (Frank) is rarely mentioned in Washington's papers but did received an obituary in the Alexandria Gazette in 1821. Little is known of the lives of Adam and Jack. It is our hope that this document will forever be viewed as an important historical artifact that leaves no doubt to the shameful realities of its time. Through the illumination of this document's history, we can celebrate William Lee's contributions toward the founding of our nation and reflect on the efforts of all enslaved men and women who suffered and labored without respite to serve the needs and wishes of the very people who had shackled them.