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A monument for the world

A monument for the world
© Getty Images

In mid-June, a statue of George Washington in Portland, Ore., lay face down and spray painted with “Genocidal Colonist,” “BLM” and “1619” (referencing the New York Times’ “1619 Project”). Now, according to a new poll, about one in five American voters support taking down statues of Washington or removing his name.

Protestors have defaced Washington’s image in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Boston, Trenton and Chicago. For some, Washington isn’t the man who surrendered power — twice — and has long been remembered as the “Father of His Country.” He is now nothing more than a slaveholding racist. 

This isn’t the first time George Washington statues have been attacked. 

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Under the dark of night, in neighboring Mexico, a politically charged crowd toppled a more than 20-foot tall bronze statue of Washington, then paraded it through the streets by dragging it behind several cars. This 1914 evening in Mexico City, is the first known time a statue of America's first president was toppled. It came down not because he was a slave owner, but because he symbolized America amid mounting diplomatic tension.

It took 108 years for a domestic performance. But now that tensions are heated and the purpose of monuments is being debated, one angle has not been addressed: Washington’s importance beyond our borders. 

The world has regarded, celebrated and memorialized George Washington as a symbol for ideals such as liberty, freedom and Republicanism. Since the American Revolution, Washington has stood for something beyond himself and his deep flaws — he is a symbol for America and the world. 

Washington’s commemoration has been since the 18th century.

At a 1912 celebration of Mexican independence and unveiling of Mexico City’s Washington statue, Mexican President Francisco Madero heralded Washington and said that his “work should never be restricted to the confines of one nation, but should be extended throughout the world to benefit all nations and peoples.” 

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The first monument of Washington was erected in a country estate just outside of Dublin, Ireland. In 1778, only three years after the start of the American Revolution, Irish politician Edward Newenham constructed a 30-foot brick tower dedicated to the American general he regarded as “the Greatest ornament of this century.”

Washington has been commemorated or had streets, parks and towns named after him on every continent (including Antarctica), with monuments scattered around the globe. Are these testaments to slavery and white supremacy? 

Confederate monuments, most of which were constructed immediately following Reconstruction, have a history of combating African American equality and promoting the Southern myth of the “Lost Cause.” Statues of Washington and the other founders (whether Thomas Jefferson on the University of Missouri-Columbia’s campus, General Philip Schuyler in Albany or Continental Congressman Caesar Rodney in Delaware), don’t share this dark tradition. Instead, they commemorate America’s highest ideals. Yes, the founders as people were too often flawed. But the Revolutionary generation built this nation, which was the spark for global democracy. Washington’s international statues serve as the reminder. 

Three Washington statues stand in Paris alone, illustrating a shared spirit of liberty that crossed the Atlantic and ignited into the French Revolution. The U.S. and Hungary jointly put up monuments to each other’s great revolutionaries of 1776 and 1848, Lajos Kossuth in Cleveland and Washington in Budapest. As Hungarian politician Count Albert Apponyi stated, America through Washington “achieved liberty for all time, a liberty which makes us in Europe feel safer.” In the 19th century, Pinklao, the second King of Siam (Thailand), even named his son Prince George Washington. The memory of the founder was cherished in that country for his “forbearance, his wisdom, his political genius and his tolerance” well into the 20th century. 

In 1932, nations around the world celebrated the bicentennial of Washington’s birth because of the global spirit of liberty and democracy, among them nations built by former slaves through colonization and revolution. In Liberia, Dr. Ottawa Saunders speculated that the nation might not have been born without Washington. Despite diplomatic tensions with the U.S., Haitian President Stenio Vincent proclaimed a holiday for him. Haitian newspaper Le Temps singled out the freedom — relatively speaking — the Virginian offered his slaves, crediting him with paving the way for Lincoln. 

But still the specter of slavery remains in our country. “Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces,” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote last week. Does that include Washington? Blow was clear, “Abso-fricking-lutely!” 

This debate is clearly divisive; however, esteemed historians like Annette Gordon-Reed and David Blight have urged moderation and nuance. In a recent interview Gordon-Reed was quoted, “No one puts a monument up to Washington or Jefferson to promote slavery. The monuments go up because, without Washington, there likely would not have been an American nation.” 

Washington unquestionably owned slaves. But in his will, he granted his roughly 100 slaves their freedom after his wife Martha’s death. Washington’s personal servant William Lee was freed immediately after Washington died, and Martha released the rest a year later. People today may argue that this wasn’t good enough, with Blow reducing to “he no longer had use for them.” But for the time, this was actually a dramatic and profound statement of liberty, unequalled among slave-owning founders.

Statues are simply metal and stone, but they, like the people they depict, represent values beyond the individual. In the eyes of the world, statues of Washington stand not for slavery, white supremacy or the disposition of Native American lands, but for universal freedoms that should be embraced, regardless of race, gender, nationality or creed. Washington, like America, is imperfect. But both have constantly strove to improve. 

While 18 percent of Americans voters want to banish Washington, 71 percent, want him to stay. They clearly have the same view of Washington as the international community has for centuries: a symbol of great ideals. 

The solution is to add to our public commemorations, as suggested by Frederick Douglass, not to remove Washington from public life. For if the flawed yet aspirational Washington isn’t the perfect symbol of America in the world, then who is? 


Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of "American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era." He is currently researching his new book, “'The Greatest Man in the World': A Global History of George Washington. All views are his own." Follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith.