Bequests by America’s Founding Fathers

General George Washington at the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull Yale University Art Gallery
General George Washington at the Battle of Trenton by John Trumbull Yale University Art Gallery

The most popular American of his time, George Washington led the war for independence against Great Britain.  He was chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention. In 1789 he was elected President of the new nation by Congress. Washington wrote his own carefully-planned will. At his death in 1799, he was one of America’s wealthiest citizens, owning 33,000 acres of land in five states and the Northwest Territory.

Historian Jill Lepore observes that “Washington’s will was published in newspapers from Maine to Georgia, as he knew it would be.”  (These Truths: A History of the United States, p. 147)

He left most of his estate to his wife Martha, after making specific bequests for various purposes.  Washington’s first specific bequest provisions, and the longest section of his will, dealt with an objective close to his heart: freeing, supporting, and educating his slaves.

Giving his slaves their freedom and preparing them for better lives was very important to Washington.  He directed that “all the Slaves which I hold … shall receive their freedom,” shall be “comfortably clothed and fed … taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation.”  His 123 slaves were freed shortly before the death of his wife Martha.

Washington never attended college, but education was his top priority.  In addition to educating his former slaves, he and made specific bequests to Alexandria Academy for a scholarship fund, to Liberty Hall Academy (now Washington and Lee University), and to a proposed college in the U.S. capital that was founded in 1821 as George Washington University.

Benjamin Franklin Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was the leading champion of private, nonprofit organizations in America.  For example, the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia (known as Benjamin Franklin’s “Bucket Brigade”) was a volunteer fire department formed in 1736.

In his will, Franklin made specific bequests in 1790 to grammar schools in Boston, and for improving travel on the Schuylkill River. He originally directed a gift to the Pennsylvania Hospital, but in a codicil Franklin revoked that bequest and instead set up two complex and ambitious trusts: 1,000 pounds sterling (roughly $150,000 in today’s dollars) for a revolving loan fund to benefit young, married tradesmen in Boston, and 1,000 pounds for the same purpose in Philadelphia. Management of Franklin’s trusts was uneven. After 200 years, when his funds were disbursed according to his directions, his Boston fund had grown to $4.5 million, while his Philadelphia fund was worth $2 million.

In 1836, U.S. President James Madison, “Father of the Constitution,” gave his personal library and $1,500 to the University of Virginia, and $1,000 each to the libraries at Princeton University and a college in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.  Madison’s bequest was the largest monetary gift to Princeton’s library until after the Civil War.

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