George Washington may have survived the winter at Valley Forge, but he may not see the end of the summer of Charlottesville. Bishop James Dukes of Chicago’s Liberation Christian Center and others are calling for the removal of his and Andrew Jackson’s statues and and stripping of their names from parks. Dukes insists that these monuments are “a slap in the face and it’s a disgrace” for African Americans given their history as slave owning presidents.
The bishop’s call for the removal of our first president’s statue is the latest effort to strip away the names of historical figures over ties to slavery or segregation. There is a movement to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson (who helped establish Princeton as a world academic institution) from buildings and schools, due to his support for segregation. The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, but last year, University President Teresa Sullivan was denounced by students and faculty for merely quoting our third president in a public message because he was a slave owner.
History is precisely where this controversy should begin and end. Washington is rightfully condemned for his ownership of slaves. There were contemporaries like John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton who were outspoken critics of slavery. Franklin called slavery “an atrocious debasement of human nature,” while Adams referred to it as a “foul contagion in the human character.” These visionaries not only saw a great evil but answered the call of history to stand steadfastly against it.
However, before Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends in the bulldozers into Washington Park, it is worth considering a few facts about our first president’s history with slavery. Washington inherited a number of slaves at age 11 and received more slaves in his marriage to Martha Custis. However, he gradually came to oppose slavery. On the interim, Washington tried to assuage his guilt by refusing to sell slaves that would break up families, telling an associate that it was “against my inclination…to hurt the feelings of those unhappy people by a separation of man and wife, or of families.”
After the war, Washington continued to discuss ways to convert his plantation from slaves to tenants at the suggestion of his close aide (and outspoken opponent of slavery) Marquis de Lafayette. By 1786, Washington wrote his friend Robert Morris, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].”
In the end, Washington was the only one of nine slaveholding presidents (and the only slaveholding founder) who freed his slaves upon his death. Washington freed as many of his 317 slaves as possible. Some 123 slaves were his to emancipate while neither he nor Martha could free the so-called “Custis Dower slaves” (who remained property of the heirs to the estate of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband). He further ordered that all of the elderly or sick slaves would be supported by his estate for the rest of their lives.
So where does this leave us? With a complex and flawed figure who practiced a great evil while belatedly coming to reject it. He finished his life allied with his more enlightened colleagues but this is no reason to forgive his prior history. However, that is the point of history. It is never some neat narrative divided cleanly between demons and angels. Washington was a great leader who held a nation together through sheer leadership and stands as one of the few leaders in history to refuse to become a monarch himself.
Curiously, Dukes does offer a concession. Washington Park and Jackson Park could be formally named after former Mayor Harold Washington and civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson or singer Michael Jackson. It is unlikely to convince those who view these statutes as not simply reminders of past leaders but past struggles in an evolving society. The same cannot be said for Michael Jackson. “Thriller” may be the best selling album in history, but the Battle of New Orleans still has more of a hold on history.
The fact is that we often learn as much from the failures as we do the triumphs of historical figures. Washington ultimately proved to be an early transitional figure in our ugly history of slavery. Washington himself described his desire at Mount Vernon “to lay a foundation” for a “rising generation” with a “new destiny” other than slavery.
For my part, I am proud to teach at the George Washington University, whose charter was paid for by Washington himself as part of that same final testament. Of course, that does not mean we could not make other improvements. Another school in Washington is named after a British king, George II, who kept our nation under colonial oppression. After all, the moonwalk and robot dance steps did have a transformative impact on my generation… and “Jacksontown University” has a nice ring to it.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.