Fact check: Trump says George Washington ‘probably didn’t’ own slaves. Washington did

Former President Donald Trump delivered another litany of false claims during two speeches on Saturday. And he expressed an opinion on American history that is clearly contradicted by the facts.

During a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group, Trump criticized proposals to change the names of schools, military facilities and other places that honor slaveowners and Confederate leaders. (Under President Joe Biden, the Army has renamed nine installations that had been named for Confederate generals.) And Trump said, “How about George Washington high school? ‘We want the name removed from that high school.’ They don’t know why. You know, they thought he had slaves. Actually I think he probably didn’t.’”

Facts First: Washington owned slaves. This is an extensively documented fact. At the time of Washington’s death in 1799, there were 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon, his home and plantation in Virginia, including 123 people owned by Washington himself.

“George Washington owned slaves. We know this by his own hand. He kept ledgers on everyone he enslaved,” said Alexis Coe, a senior fellow at the think tank New America and author of “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.” Coe said it is “reprehensible, on a personal level, to deny such a thing” and also “dangerous to our country” to have a leading presidential candidate espousing such inaccurate views on US history.

The website for Mount Vernon, which is now maintained as a historic place, says that the number of slaves at the property “grew steadily” over Washington’s time there from 1754 to 1799.

Washington inherited 10 slaves from his father at age 11. The Mount Vernon website notes that “as a young man, Washington purchased dozens of enslaved people from estate sales and in private transactions” – and that the first US president also rented slaves from others, inherited them from siblings, and enslaved the children who were born to slaves at Mount Vernon. When he married his wife Martha, the website notes, he also gained control of “a large number” of enslaved people from the estate of her first husband.

The list of 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon at the time of his death included 41 people rented from other plantations and 153 people from Martha’s first husband’s estate.

Washington privately struggled with the idea of slavery and, in the last two decades of his life, expressed private support for the idea of abolishing slavery by legislation. But when he died, he immediately freed just one person in his will, his longtime manservant, and decreed that the other slaves he owned would be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. She ended up signing a deed to free all of his remaining slaves the year after his death, but she kept the slaves she had inherited herself.

Here are just some of the other false claims Trump made in the speech to the Christian conservative group or in his rally speech Saturday night in Philadelphia:

- Trump claimed Democrats rigged the 2020 presidential election, his usual debunked lie.

- Trump claimed “every legal scholar” wanted Roe v. Wade overturned and the power to set abortion policy returned to individual states, which is not true.

- Trump claimed “just about all the Democrats” also wanted Roe overturned and abortion policy set by states, though Democrats overwhelmingly supported the preservation of Roe.

- Trump claimed “there are states that allow” the execution of babies after birth, though that is illegal in every state.

- Trump claimed that the US has record inflation, though the current inflation rate, 3.3% in May, is nowhere near the US record (23.7% in 1920) or even the 40-year high (9.1%) that was hit in June 2022.

- Trump claimed the price of bacon has increased 100% or more under Biden, though the Biden-era increase is actually about 17% as of May.

- Trump claimed Biden was the person who indicted him in the New York criminal case in which he was convicted on 34 felony counts, though a grand jury of ordinary citizens indicted him and the prosecution was led by a local district attorney who does not report to the federal government.

- Trump claimed the global prison population is “way down” under Biden because foreign leaders are emptying their detention facilities to send people to the US as migrants. But the global prison population is actually up since 2021, and there is no proof of Trump’s repeated claim about foreign leaders’ actions.

- Trump claimed crime in Venezuela is down 72%, though the limited available numbers show a much smaller decline of about 26%.

- Trump claimed crime in the US is “so much up,” though preliminary statistics show US crime dropped significantly in 2023 and again in the first quarter of 2024.

- Trump claimed he has been indicted more than notorious gangster Al Capone, though Capone was actually indicted more than Trump.

- Trump claimed China paid the entire cost of his tariffs on imported Chinese goods and that “the American people didn’t pay for it at all,” though study after study has found that Americans paid the overwhelming majority of the cost of the tariffs.

- Trump claimed the Biden administration is trying to require Army tanks to be all-electric, though the military’s move toward electric vehicles does not include tanks.

- Trump told a story in which he claimed someone told him that non-electric trucks do not have to stop when driving from New York to Los Angeles, though they do.

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