Judge’s Lesson

The observation that slavery was the original sin of the United States is hardly novel. The US was born with the moral scar of this sin. The 600,000 dead in the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s largely exculpated the US though there are undoubtedly remnants of the debt that have not yet been repaid.

One important lesson that some who suffered under slavery generously taught the rest of the country is the inherent value of freedom, a moral value ranking higher than comfort or safety. One poignant example was offered by Ona Judge.

Ona Judge was a slave in the household of George Washington. Measured by the standard of other slaves of the time, Judge’s physical situation could have been far worse. She lived in relative comfort at mansion at Mount Vernon tending to the needs of Martha Washington. She was so important to the Washingtons that she was one of the seven slaves they took with them to Philadelphia while Washington served as president.

Fearing that her opportunity for freedom would would be lost once her masters returned to Mount Vernon, she escaped and ultimate married John Staines, a free black sailor. The Washingtons, particular Martha were distraught at the loss. They viewed themselves as kind and just masters and could not fathom why she would run off. They were convinced that she must have been lured from her position by free blacks or abolitionists.

The Washingtons unsuccessfully tried to retrieve her. When the young Elizabeth Langdon, an acquaintance of the Washingtons, ran into Judge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Langdon queried Judge. Langdon could not understand why Judge had run away “…from such and excellent place? You had a room to yourself and only light nice work to do and every indulgence.’’

Judge acknowledged her situation with the Washingtons, but still desperately clung her freedom. “Yes, I know, but I want to be free, misses; wanted to learn to read and write.’’ [1] Judge lived out here life in freedom, but still liable to be enslaved if successfully returned to Virginia.

What Judge intuitively understood and teaches us is that freedom is more important than comfort. Although our current situation does not compare to the overwhelming evil of slavery, as the government grows larger and more intrusive, we are offered the bargain a little more safety and comfort for a little less freedom. Even if that were really the tradeoff, Judge reminds us that the safest choice is not always the most noble.

[1] Chernow, Ron, Washington: A Life, Penguin Press, 2010.

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