- Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
"Never caught" is a phrase that aptly describes the escaped Ona Judge's efforts to avoid her far more famous masters, George and Martha Washington. In May 1796 Martha's enslaved maid surreptitiously boarded a sloop in [End Page 672] Philadelphia bound for New Hampshire. Despite placing a runaway slave advertisement and arranging two concerted attempts to retrieve Judge from Portsmouth, George failed to lure his wife's dower property back to Virginia. In 1845 an elderly, long-widowed Ona Judge Staines recalled telling one of Washington's would-be slave-catching agents, "I am free now and choose to remain so" (p. 166). She was, indeed, never captured. By implication, history has also never fully captured the turpitude of the revered founder and his wife.
For the Washingtons, slavery was not merely an inheritance but also a personal prerogative consciously exercised, even as some of their black and white contemporaries worked to weaken slavery's grip. Judge was part of a retinue of slaves attending the president and his wife in Philadelphia, where the gradual emancipation legal regime granted freedom to enslaved people who remained in Pennsylvania for six consecutive months. Accordingly, the Washingtons periodically rotated Judge and other enslaved people out of the state. Regardless, Judge's extensive time in the northern city during Washington's presidency showed her alternatives to plantation slavery. When she learned that her mistress intended to make her a wedding present to a tempestuous granddaughter, Judge planned her escape. She departed the Executive Mansion while her masters ate dinner, soon thereafter embarking for the Granite State, where slavery was in terminal decline.
The engaging, fast-paced narrative places Judge, not George Washington, in the role of protagonist. Her calculations and emotions matter most in this story, even though, or especially because, Washington left behind mountains of papers and Judge only scraps, specifically two abolitionist newspaper articles based on late-in-life interviews. Her mother, Betty, was Martha's enslaved seamstress, and her father, Andrew Judge, was a white servant whose indenture was purchased by George Washington. As author Erica Armstrong Dunbar makes clear, Ona's status as a favorite of Martha's in a presidential household on the move, first to Manhattan and then to Philadelphia, did not mean that Ona could ignore the dangers of being an enslaved female coming of age. The possibilities of sexual predation and the potential disruptions of a master's death or displeasure fueled fears that burdened even the most well-placed enslaved people. Turning fugitive as a young woman, Judge had to keep her wits about her, most dramatically when the now-retired president sent Martha's nephew to Portsmouth to bring Judge back to Mount Vernon. Judge fled her home, child in tow, before the slave-catcher's dissembling promises of future freedom could turn into forced rendition. Dunbar draws on what historians have learned about slavery in a variety of early American settings for context and deploys informed inference to recreate what Judge "must have" or "would have" thought or felt (p. 79).
The book aims for a popular audience. Points of contention are confined to the citations, and overt academic theorizing is avoided. The author does not stake out explicit positions on the ever-growing historiographical debates on slavery, the Revolution, the founders, and the Constitution; she also does not attempt a comprehensive assessment of Washington and slavery, either in comparison with other founders or on Washington's own terms. Even so, at a time when, from Barnes & Noble to Broadway, founders such as Washington and Alexander Hamilton claim such a prominent place in the public's [End Page 673] imagination, a compelling portrait of a black woman determined to assert her liberty in the Age of Revolution makes an important contribution to the literature and...