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The Blog is intended to be a place for me -- "The Man Behind The Curtain" -- to add my two cents to the topics we cover in the podcast, where my role as Director and Editor is hidden behind the curtain (a reference to "The Wizard of Oz, "who as we all know is no Wizard at all -- just a puller of levers and a facilitator of others' better angels).

 

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George Washington & Slavery

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

By Julian G. Simmons



Last year on Independence Day we released an episode in our series on Civility in America based on a pamphlet written by a young George Washington, "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior." It is a tongue-in-cheek dramatic reading from a list copied into his notebook when he was just a schoolboy. It's a fun episode, with its many anachronistic ideas about proper behavior seeming slightly absurd today, but it also gives us insight into the character of the man considered the father of our country. There are also links to music of the period, and a metaphoric mouse who chewed up parts of the manuscript.



Many of his "rules" still apply, and do indeed define civility, and illustrate how far we have come from a time when decency, good manners and civility were essential. However, Washington's list steps around one profoundly uncivil behavior: the fact that Washington was a slave owner.



The episode stirred up some serious discussion of that fact, with some listeners feeling it negates his legitimacy as a role model. We feel compelled to address that perspective, and why we still feel the episode has value and relevance.


Much of the criticism was based on current revisionist politics, the application of today's values and standards to the past. Historical revisionism itself is controversial; is it fair to judge past behavior by today's more evolved ethics? We can only talk about slavery in the past tense and through the historical records that were left, simply because we weren’t there. We know now that the very idea of owning another person is a horrendous wrong, no matter the circumstances. We can question how any "decent" human being could possibly have thought otherwise. We can agree that it was a major character flaw, an egregious error in judgment by Washington. Instead of setting an example for the new nation, he merely accepted the status quo and gave his tacit approval to one of our most shameful legacies.


But we weren’t privy to Washington's thoughts. His achievements -- rising from a middle-class farmer's son to lead the Revolution and become our first President -- largely depended on political calculation and his deft navigation of society and its limitations. We do know that one of his closest confidantes was his slave/personal assistant, William (Billy) Lee, who was freed upon Washington’s death. His other slaves were all freed upon Martha Washington’s death.


In fact, according to the Mount Vernon Library historical record, Washington's views on slavery evolved, and privately he was opposed to the practice and wished it could be abolished. As reflected in the Mount Vernon records,



"George Washington began questioning slavery during the Revolutionary War, when he led the North American colonies’ battle for independence from Great Britain.


"As a young Virginia planter, Washington accepted slavery without apparent concern. But after the Revolutionary War, he began to feel burdened by his personal entanglement with slavery and uneasy about slavery’s effect on the nation. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Washington stated privately that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner, that he did not want to buy and sell slaves or separate enslaved families, and that he supported a plan for gradual abolition in the United States.


"After the Revolution, George Washington repeatedly voiced opposition to slavery in personal correspondence. He privately noted his support for a gradual, legislative end to slavery, but as a public figure, he did not make abolition a cause.



"I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase: it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees." -GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1786

"When he drafted his will at age 67, George Washington included a provision that would free the 123 enslaved people he owned outright. This bold decision marked the culmination of two decades of introspection and inner conflict for Washington, as his views on slavery changed gradually but dramatically. "Yet, Washington did not always act on his antislavery principles. He avoided the issue publicly, believing that bitter debates over slavery could tear apart the fragile nation. Concerns about his finances, separating enslaved families, and his political influence as president led him to delay major action during his lifetime. Ultimately, Washington made his most public antislavery statement after his death in December 1799, when the contents of his will were revealed.


"Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported throughout their lives by his estate. Children without parents, or those whose families were unable to see to their education were to be bound out to masters and mistresses who would teach them reading, writing, and a useful trade, until they were ultimately freed at the age of twenty-five. Washington’s will stated that he took these charges to his executors very seriously:


"And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors...to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled ...without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm."


 


My own basis for my beliefs is that we live in an imperfect world and that instead of denying or changing the past, we should let it stand as an example of what to admire and what not to repeat.


In my own heritage, I can think of some very distinct examples of what was once acceptable and is no longer, and see that the world is a better place for the change. I reject revisionism. I believe it is important to acknowledge that the world my ancestors lived in is not the world we live in now.


Back in the early 1900s, my maternal grandmother was married at 14 to my grandfather who was 19. Today, my grandfather could be arrested for sex with a minor or worse, but in his time, it was not unusual for girls my grandmother’s age to marry. To judge my grandparents by today’s laws and morality is flatly unfair. In doing so, we commit a disservice to them and us. We corrupt a clean understanding of history, confusing what life was like then with what we consider "normal" today.


It was also not unusual for children to work in the 1800s and early 1900s. Historically, children were bred and raised to help in the house or with the chores. Childhood was short and not often sweet, because they were afforded none of the luxuries children have today, where a child is offered time to grow at their own pace, to play, to go to pre-school, or school at all, so they can prepare for college and a career beyond. Those things, those dreams simply didn’t exist for working-class children. Now, we consider that deplorable ... but the fact is that was simply the way it was.


Facts matter. Yet historical revisionism often erases established facts, and can gloss over the darker truths of our history, like today's movement to banish books that reflect our racist past, or the "Don't Say Gay" policies of Florida's governor. Clearly, putting blinders on our educational system to suit the myopic morality of today's religious right is a dangerous trend. I believe that progress can only happen when we are honest about our mistakes and learn from them. We grow stronger only when we own up to our errors and correct them, not pretend they never happened.


I am painfully reminded of the 1980s when President Reagan could not bring himself to say the word "AIDS" and would often make jokes about homosexuals as if they weren’t worthy of being called human. His cruel negligence translated into a delay in the development of treatment, while hundreds of thousands of young, talented, gay Americans needlessly died, made into pariahs by our own president, one of whom was my own beloved brother.


As repugnant as Reagan's behavior was, should he be erased from the history books? Should we teach our children that Hitler did not exist, that the Holocaust never happened?


No. I believe that we must be constantly focussed on the facts of history, and that the truth -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- must remain inviolate for us to advance. In the words of the writer and philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Auschwitz Memorial cautions "Never Again." If we deny the evil embedded in our evolution, it will return. There is always another dark-hearted person waiting to lead.


With some notable exceptions, most leaders possess both astounding strengths of character, as well as weaknesses. In the end, I think a fair view of history rests on the fact that we are imperfect as human beings. Yes, we do expect better of our leaders, but at the end of the day, I am happy if they can be most things for most people. Asking them to be everything is simply not possible. In the words of poet John Lydgate, later adapted by President Lincoln, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time".


But back to George. Washington was a man of his time, an imperfect man in an imperfect time. He knew it, too; he never wanted to be our first president, but was pressured into two terms by his fellow Founding Fathers.


I hope this Independence Day you'll listen to this episode, which is a useful and amusing example of what was considered Decent and Civil during Washington’s time and is ingrained in our national character -- just as slavery was.


Thank you and Happy Independence Day!

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