Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (National Book Award Finalist)

December 15, 2018, is not a bad date to be getting a new perspective on the origins of the American presidency. In this case, our first President, George Washington, First Lady Martha Washington, their households, and the precarious nature of everyone’s life in those times. I have read multiple biographies and other historical writings covering this period in the history of the United States of America, and I have read the autobiography of former slave Frederic Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had a fairly good spread of knowledge of the horrible institution in the matrix of American life. 

Yet, this relatively short work (197 pages before notes and index — 254 pages in all) filled in gaps I didn’t know I had about not only the lives of slaves, but the lives of their owners and the cultural, economic, and legal cage that kept thousands in bondage long after the practice ceased to be deemed acceptable. The author also constructs, woven through her narrative of one slave — protagonist Ona Maria Judge — a timeline of the introduction of slavery into the American colonies to its gradual demise in the mid-eighteen hundreds. 

I did not know how beat up Geo. Washington was by the end of the War of Independence. I didn’t know that his uniforms were designed and sewn by a creative slave. I didn’t know how closely the Washingtons skirted poverty, even though large landowners with hundreds working their farms without pay. I didn’t know of the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush’s tragic medical mistake that set back reconciliation of blacks and whites.  

It was surprising to learn how caged-in both Washingtons were by ill health and family deaths.  I learned how difficult it was to be First Family, looking alternately though the eyes of their most valued household slaves, then through the eyes of the highly dependent owners. George Washington, long reputed for honesty, chose public duplicity when it came to maintaining his use of slaves.  He even made concerted use of his federal power and financing to try to catch the fugitive slave, his wife’s privately owned Ona Judge, inherited along with hundreds of others, from her planter father.  That fiscal move would likely be an impeachable felony today.  Who knew? 

The author comes by her detailed knowledge of slavery through many relevant connections, topped by her tenure at the University of Delaware as the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Black Studies and History.