Brian Shea seeks to come to terms with the legacy of George Washington, and without the usual excuses.
People who live near Washington, D.C., often get complacent about the many historical landmarks in the area, rarely visiting them to reflect upon where we have been as a nation.
This month, the Washington area displays more bunting than usual to commemorate George Washington’s birthday, which evolved to become the Presidents’ Day holiday. I’m a frequent visitor to Washington’s home, Mont Vernon, and a small bust of Washington stands watch on my desk at work. I graduated from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., making the first president a regular visitor in my life.
Not long ago, my wife asked me who my heroes were and George Washington was the answer she likely anticipated. And if she had asked me 20 years ago, I would have answered in the affirmative.
But today, he does not rank among my heroes, though he did change where I look for them.
Like anyone confronted with the question of heroes, I first hesitated to answer at all. It’s a complicated question and George Washington was a complicated man in a complicated time, at least when examined through the lens of hindsight I had chosen.
My Webster’s dictionary offers a simple solution. A “hero” is defined as a “man noted for his courageous acts of nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his life.” By this definition, one can assign hero status to George Washington with little ambiguity.
Of course, the meanings we assign to words evolve to new formations just as they are still spelled with letters no longer pronounced. Our language slowly forgets the past to better express its contrast to the present. In discussions of George Washington’s unapologetic ownership of slaves, we usually highlight the contrast between the past and our presumably enlightened present, but typically reward him with a forgiving edge when we tally up the moral ledger.
Days after America won its freedom from British rule, one of Washington’s first goals was to reclaim thousands of slaves who had joined the British army. In 1783, Washington met with the British commander in charge of evacuating New York City, Baron Guy Carleton. On board the ship Perseverance, Washington demanded Carleton return the slaves who had fought for Britain in exchange for their freedom.
The number of slaves who joined the British equaled the size of the American army itself, including several owned by George Washington. Carleton refused Washington’s demand. Washington was enraged.
It is an unsettling scene not normally shared with American history students. George Washington, the icon of individual liberty in America’s historical narrative, insisting that Africans who fought for their freedom be returned to their masters. Baron Carleton, the villainous archetype of British monarchical tyranny, insisting that a promise made to men who fought for their freedom must be kept. Washington’s often-quoted Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior include “undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.” Yet, no promise made to an African was a promise that need be honored. There were fields to plough and shoes to polish in the new republic.
I have always known Washington was a slave owner, including the years I have ranked him among my heroes. Like most Americans, I would make no excuses for him owning other human beings or denying them their freedom. But at the same time, the conversation usually changed course to Washington’s positive legacies, and sometimes quickly.
I would sometimes contemplate this problem while strolling the grounds of Mont Vernon. But like most white visitors, I spent more moments imagining Washington in full dress uniform riding off to defend America’s freedom than picturing the slaves who bridled his horse before returning to their dirt-floored living quarters.
And like most white students of history, I contorted my language to allow Washington the hero to coexist with his determination to keep humans in bondage. We all do it, from history buffs to teachers to politicians to documentarians. We want to have it both ways, because for many of us, merely acknowledging that Washington owned slaves seems good enough. And, his good side is an easy sell.
His humble surrender of power after serving as president set a template for civilian rule that distinguishes democratic governments around the world. In many ways, George Washington seeded the ingredients for liberties we enjoy today, some of which he did not intend.
He interpreted the “people” to include only landed, white males. But his adoption of deliberately modest titles and traditions echoed, however unintentionally, the wishes of the poor and disenfranchised in ways that legitimized a fragile political system that would eventually depend on their participation to survive. Whatever his prejudices, Washington’s legacy of institutionalized humility may partly explain the slow expansion of popular participation in American politics.
The word “complex” is often used in the discussion to argue that reconciling Washington’s racism with his valiant service requires a grasp of a multifaceted question that prohibits us from judging the man by only one of his dimensions or independent of his time in history. He was a “man of his time.”
For many years, I indulged in this sanctuary of nuance. But as Noah Berlatsky recently argued in the Atlantic, the “man of his time” defense not only mischaracterizes history but undermines its importance.
When discussing racism among classic figures in literature, Berlatsky argues that the “man of his time” defense “assumes that the past was self-evidently worse than the present, that culture progresses in some sort of straight-line fashion, and that we can therefore assume that folks are smarter and more enlightened than folks in the past. This is unduly flattering to the present, which has by no means overcome prejudice or stereotype.”
And, history is replete with men who would agree. In 1838, barely 40 years after Washington’s death, the future U.S. Senator Charles Sumner arrived in Paris, France, to attend medical school. Among his classmates were several Africans who mingled with their French schoolmates as equals in manners and intelligence. To Sumner, it was a revelation that would change the course of his life. In his diary, he wrote, “it must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.”
Sumner would go on to become a vehement abolitionist in America and was beaten almost to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate by a pro-slavery representative from South Carolina who was offended by Sumner’s anti-slavery attacks. Sumner would never fully recover from his injuries but continued to live as a man ahead of his time.
Unlike Sumner, no single formative experience prompted me to reassess my regard for Washington as a personal hero. I have never been asked or challenged to reconcile the two sides of Washington’s “complex” character; one personifying personal liberty, the other dedicated to its curtailment. And that above all has given me pause.
If you live enough years cultivating your assumptions free of challenge, their roots can penetrate the deepest measure of your own soul and spread horizontally to the full range of your world view.
It’s true that we shouldn’t judge a man by only one of his dimensions. But like most I know, I had chosen to display only one of Washington’s—the revolutionary hero. And gradually, that started to bother me.
I do not know what Washington would think of the America he helped create. In all likelihood, He would not approve of African-Americans holding public office or having an equal voice in national debate. He would stand aghast at the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, her able crew including African-Americans he did not deem worthy of the freedoms his naval namesake defends around the globe.
Of more than 100 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior that guided his life, at least 13 address how to interact with one’s “superiors,” “equals,” “betters,” those of “higher quality,” and, of course, “inferiors.” Washington was known for his civility and decency, but he directed both towards reinforcing a hierarchical society in which he chose to live.
As a white male with a sufficient income, it is easier for me to indulge in the belief that we have realized the word and spirit of our founding documents. The temptation to ask no questions is a strong one and the appeal of “good enough” still thrives among my kind. The path to unalloyed truth presents disquieting obstacles for many of us.
For white admirers of George Washington, acknowledging certain truths may bring the spectre of association and guilt. Holding George Washington accountable for his slaveholding perhaps raises the question of why we only do so now, and hence, why we appeared to endorse it previously by marginalizing it in our discourse. And for most of us, the path to that truth is a tempting one to leave unexplored.
Charles Sumner once stated that nothing from man’s hands can be final. “Truth alone is final,” he said.
They are the words of an absolutist but leave us knowing that avoiding truth does not prohibit us from embracing it, however late. Sumner was not young when he realized the fallacy of his beliefs in Paris. Rather than shelter behind pride, he allowed his revelation to change his very nature. Truth was never difficult to define, it was just difficult to face. And, against the constant current of his own race and age, he did precisely that.
George Washington’s bust still stands watch on my desk at work, but not because he reminds me of all that was complex and nuanced in his time and mine. He remains there because he reminds me of all that is not, and how long it took me to admit it.
Nevertheless, the small daily reminders I display in my office speak to the limits of my presumed enlightenment. There is no bust of Senator Charles Sumner on my desk and not because they are difficult to find in stores.
It is because I have never looked for one.
I don’t know how hard it might be to find Sumner’s likeness, but surely it won’t be as difficult as all he endured to earn his spot next to our first president. My Webster’s dictionary requires that it be occupied by a man of courage who risked his life for a noble purpose. These are the qualities of a hero, it tells us. Surely being beaten close to death with a wooden cane for insisting that all men are created equal is good enough.