The Unmasking of George Washington in Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (2017) (Book Review)

Finding Phibby (see blog from July, 2011) changed my entire life as it relates to my desire to study history.  I have read about many enslaved people who ran away from their enslavers, but none have had the same impact on me as Phibby. For the first time, ever, I found someone and that someone became real to me. Once, just a notation at the top of a page in an overseer’s journal, Phibby became a person, about whom, I wanted to learn everything. As I worked to breath life into a scribbled name, to turn that scribble into flesh and blood, I realized Phibby would always be a part of me, and she has been. She came alive that day and, for me, she is no longer a faceless, nameless, forgotten enslaved person. I will never know what Phibby looked like, but I imagine her in my mind. In my mind’s eye, Phibby is a very strong, loving woman, capable of running away from her enslavement with both of her children in tow during a time of war.  There are very few days in my life when I do not think of her.  Did she run north? How far north? Did she go farther than Virginia? Farther than New York? Farther than Ohio? Did she walk through the woods in total darkness? Did her children survive? Did she? If they all survived the war, are her descendants living close to me? Will I ever know what happened to her? To all of them? To any of them? These questions are constants for me.  I am committed to finding the answers and believe, in my heart, I will one day know more.

So, imagine my excitement when I came upon a book about another brave soul.  Historian, and University of Delaware Professor, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, has written a wonderful book that sheds light on the experience of one of those who ran. Her book, titled, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (2017), is the story of one woman’s amazing journey to freedom and how it was that she lived free, in plain sight of her enslaver, President George Washington, without ever being returned to her life of enslavement.

I enjoyed this book very much. My enjoyment went far beyond the research and details of Ona Judge and her “runaway story.” The book truly offered little in the way of new scholarship on the topic of slavery, other than offering new understanding of how and why a runaway might not be caught. I am always hoping for more insight about the institution of American slavery with every book I read. The lack thereof is in no way a negative for Never Caught. I mention it only to say it was my personal disappointment. For someone who has an interest in George Washington or slavery in general, but who has not done much reading about slavery, they will learn a considerable amount and discover many takeaways. I am not being critical here. I understand that there may not have been much more information about Ona Judge than what was written within the pages of Never Caught. I was just surprised to realize, with the title being what it is, that the book is not so much about Judge, as it is about the Washingtons’.

Despite the absence of more information about Judge herself, her life before, during, and after escaping slavery, Never Caught illuminated my lack of knowledge and understanding of our favorite Founding Father and first President, George Washington, as an enslaver. Armstrong provides clear evidence of the Washingtons’ treatment of, and behaviors toward, those they enslaved, as well as George Washington’s interactions directly, and/or indirectly, with them. Armstrong is very careful that the book does not appear as though her intention was to harm Washington’s reputation and his place in history. With that being said, the fact that Armstrong covertly brought Washington’s reputation under a microscope is exactly why I enjoyed this book. I am as patriotic as the next American and George Washington certainly holds a place in my heart as a man of importance in history, but to read a book where he, as a man, an enslaver, has been unmasked made it impossible for me to put this book down once I opened it. To get the chance to see another side of our larger-than-life national hero was unexpected. I would have never sought out a book specifically for the purpose of reading something aimed at tearing down the reputation of #1. But as I turned the pages, it was an unexpectedly delightful surprise, curiously, and I am glad this book exists. Armstrong shows our first Commander in Chief respect in her writing of this story, but she also leaves the reader fully aware that Washington was a man with character flaws beyond his heroic reputation. Never Caught provides the reader the opportunity to see there are layers to Washington we still need to to peel back.

This is an important book for anyone wanting a story demonstrating how the desire not to lose valued “property” and the desire for a lasting “legacy and reputation” collided for the Washingtons, specifically, George. Lin Manuel Miranda, in the Broadway Musical Hamilton, certainly presented that Washington just might have been keenly aware that “history had its eye on him” and Never Caught proves this true as it relates to his relationship with those he enslaved. This is a fast read at only 288 pages, but it is enlightening and worth the time. The reader will find Judge engaging and will root for her at every turn of the pages where she appears – which sadly, are not as many as it should be for her name to appear in the title. Mostly, the reader will gain insight to the first President and the manner in which he managed his enslaved “property” and a look into how he very carefully ensured we would still revere him for many generations after his death.

Remember, you can learn more about the Washingtons and Ona Judge when you visit Mount Vernon. If visiting Washington, DC, the short trip, approximately 30 min) to Washington’s home is well worth the time you spend there.

Purchase your copy of Never Caught at the link below:

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