William Lee

General George Washington stands on a bluff above the Hudson River while his enslaved manservant William Lee holds the reigns of his horse.
John Trumbull, “George Washington and William Lee,” The Met Fifth Avenue, 1780.
One of the best-known representations of William Lee, Trumbull depicted him wearing a turban based on a European “orientalist” convention associated with Black figures.

William Lee (c.1752-1810) – George Washington’s enslaved manservant. In 1768, Washington purchased William Lee from Mary Lee, a wealthy widow.1 Described as “mulatto,” or mixed race, William Lee probably had a white father and an enslaved mother.2 During the American Revolution, Lee’s responsibilities included laying out Washington’s clothes, as well as combing, powdering, and tying back the general’s hair. Lee also delivered messages and maintained the commander-in-chief’s collection of often confidential letters. An excellent horseman in his own right, Lee remained at Washington’s side throughout the war, which John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale depicted in their paintings.

As the commander in chief’s constant companion, William Lee became a minor celebrity, and postwar visitors to Mount Vernon frequently asked to meet Lee.3 Washington’s close relationship with Lee during the eight-year war may have contributed to the general’s views on slavery later in life.4

In the mid-1780s, Lee twice suffered injuries to his knees, which left him nearly crippled. Yet, after Washington’s election to president in 1789, Lee insisted on joining him at the executive household in New York City despite his disability.5 Along the way, his condition worsened, forcing him “to stop in Philadelphia, where doctors fitted him with a steel brace.”6 In New York, Lee could no longer physically fulfill his duties to Washington, and so he returned to Mount Vernon, where he began work as the estate’s shoemaker.

In his will, Washington left instructions to free his own enslaved people, but only after the death of his wife Martha. Martha freed them after one year, however, as she feared a slave insurrection among those not content to wait. William Lee was the sole exception, as Washington stipulated his immediate freedom and provided an annuity of $30.7 Washington wrote “This I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”8 Lee chose to remain at Mount Vernon for the rest of his life. He died in late winter of 1810 and was buried at Mount Vernon.

 

1. “Cash Accounts, May 3, 1768,” The George Washington Financial Papers Project, accessed August 10, 2020, http://financial.gwpapers.org/?q=content/ledger-1750-1772-pg261. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008), n2.]

2. “William (Billy) Lee,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/william-billy-lee/#1.

3. “William (Billy) Lee,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

Last updated: December 22, 2020

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