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On May 24, 1796, a runaway-slave advertisement was posted in the Pennsylvania Gazette by the steward at George Washington’s house in Philadelphia. 


Oney, as she was known to George and Martha Washington, was one of nine enslaved African Americans who served in the President’s House in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1796. Judge was the only slave who escaped from the Philadelphia Executive Mansion. 


George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789, and in 1790, when the capital moved to Philadelphia, Ona traveled with the family to their official residence. She served as the main personal attendant to the first lady. 


She had arrived in Philadelphia just as the Free African Society and the first independent black churches were being established


white refugees from the Haitian revolution were given refuge in the city after 1793, many of them bringing their slaves.  By 1796, over 450 Haitians had claimed their freedom under a Pennsylvania state law that enabled them to do so after a full six months’ residency.   


The Washington slaves knew that the president had taken precautions to prevent them from taking advantage of this law. His plan was to send them back to Virginia before they completed six months’ residence, then return them to the Philadelphia for another period of service. 


Washington informed his secretary about this scheme, stating his “wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them [the slaves] and the Public.” 


One historian has suggested this was “perhaps the only documented incident of George Washington telling a lie.”




Realizing that the relative freedom she had enjoyed in Philadelphia would soon become a memory, Judge carefully planned her escape.


Assisted by acquaintances in Philadelphia’s free black community, she stored her belongings at a friend’s house and found a merchant sloop, the Nancy, that would transport her to Portsmouth, N.H. Judge made her way to the Nancy one evening in late May while the first family was at dinner. 


By the time they learned of her escape, Judge had arrived in Portsmouth. She was not legally free and was at risk of recapture under the federal Fugitive Slave Law—which Washington had signed in 1793


The Washingtons were shocked, and the Gazette advertisement suggests that they initially had no idea why she had fled. Martha Washington, in particular, took Judge’s flight badly, viewing it as ingratitude and as a personal slight, and came to believe that Judge was pregnant and had been seduced by a mentally unstable Frenchman. At least, that is the story that George Washington used in his efforts behind the scenes to recapture her. 


In late August, however, Judge’s luck ran out. The daughter of Sen. John Langdon, a close friend of the Washingtons and a frequent visitor to the Executive Mansion, came upon her on a Portsmouth street and expressed surprise that she was not attending the first lady. President Washington was soon apprised of the situation and immediately ordered Oliver Wolcott, the secretary of the treasury, to engage the Portsmouth collector of customs to retrieve her.


That action was illegal by the terms of Washington’s own Fugitive Slave Law, which required a slaveholder to use the federal courts. Washington was aware, though, that a public attempt to openly return a possibly pregnant slave to bondage would be bad publicity and might even provoke a riot.


But the collector came to quite a different conclusion about her motives once he interviewed her. She convinced him that there was no seducer, French or otherwise, and that a “thirst for compleat freedom” had been her only motivation. 



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