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Man of Honor or Man of Shame?
When most people think of George Washington they imagine a noble man of almost mythical proportions. Indeed, to many of Washington's contemporaries, as well, the former President of the United States was commonly considered to be " ... A man of unquestioned integrity (Halstead, 1997)." This is perhaps even more the case in modern times, partly due to the efforts of numerous biographers over the years since his death. Not only did they make a veritable science out of capitalizing on tales of his legendary goodness, as well as his symbolic role as the embodiment of "American virtue (Halsted)," but they seem to have also "struck a chord" with a deep need in the collective American psyche to imagine the beginnings of this nation as an event steeped in nothing but noble division to the ideals of liberty. Be that as it may, there remain many who are not so willing to gloss over history -- instead asserting that the historical record of Washington the man is not so rife with shining goodness. Instead, they suggest that for all of Washington's supposed virtue, he was a man who was so tainted by the bane of slave ownership that it a mark on the character of the Nation that he should be continually held up as a paragon of right.
In 1700's America, slave ownership was hardly uncommon. Thus, when George Washington began his adult life on his Mount Vernon plantation, he simply continued holding slaves much the same as the generations had before him. Further, when one considers the "who's who" of his contemporary society, one can clearly see that he was not alone in his ownership of human beings for his own gain (all the while standing for liberty). Consider, for example the infamous example of the great Thomas Jefferson, whom not only owned slaves, but DNA evidence now shows, fathered at least one child into slavery by one of his female slaves (Twohig, 2001). However, the fact that slave ownership was during that time legal does not necessarily mean that the so called "great men" of the time did not realize that it was immoral. After all, by the time Washington began his tenure as the master of Mount Vernon, it is clear that an antislavery movement was in full swing both nationally and internationally, and such important contemporaries as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin held the then revolutionary thought that Blacks could (and perhaps should) be the equals of Whites in all ways (Twohig, 1997). Consider, for example, the letter received by Washington in 1796 from English antislavery advocate, Edward Rushton:
It will generally be admitted, Sir, and perhaps with justice, that the great family of mankind were nevermore benefited by the military abilities of any individual, than by those which you displayed during the American contest. . . . By the flame which you have kindled every oppressed nation will be enabled to perceive its fetters. . . . But it is not to the commander in chief of the American forces, nor to the president of the United States, that I have ought to address. My business is with George Washington of Mount Vernon in Virginia, a man who not withstanding his hatred of oppression and his ardent love of liberty holds at this moment hundreds of his fellow being in a state of abject bondage -- Yes: you who conquered under the banners of freedom -- you who are now the first magistrate of a free people are (strange to relate) a slave holder. . . . Shame! Shame! That man should be deemed the property of man or that the name of Washington should be found among the list of such proprietors. . . . Ages to come will read with Astonishment that the man who was foremost to wrench the rights of America from the tyrannical grasp of Britain was among the last to relinquish his own oppressive hold of poor unoffending negroes. In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot. (Twohig, 1997)
Of course, there are those who will assert that although Washington was, indeed a slave holder, he was among one of the most honorable and "kind" types of slave masters in existence. For example, of the few words he is credited with writing about the institution of slavery, many of them are decidedly "progressive" for his day. Take for instance the following words, written to his Mount Vernon Manager in 1792:
It is foremost in my thoughts ... To desire you will be particularly attentive to my Negros in their sickness; and to order every Overseer positively to be so likewise; for I am sorry to observe that the generality of them, view these poor creatures in scarcely any other light than they do a draughthorse or Ox; neglecting them as much when they are unable to work; instead of comforting & nursing them when they lye on a sickbed. (Twohig).
Indeed, many would argue that for a man who at this time owned more than one hundred human beings (many of whom were children), he was surprisingly progressive, writing, " ... were it not that I am principled against selling Negroes . . . I would not in twelve months from this date be possessed of one as a slave (Washington, Fitzpatrick, 1939)." Perhaps this kind of thinking is attributable to his particular kind of "genius" of which he is so well-known today, a type referred to by author Joseph Epstein in his 1998 work, George Washington: An Amateur's View, " ... his genius was perhaps the rarest kind of all: a genius for discerning right action so strong that he was utterly incapable of knowingly doing anything wrong." Yet was this really true?
Although it is true that Washington did abhor the rending of families that was the common practice with slave trading in the South, writing, of the morality of "selling" slaves, " ... If these poor wretches are to be held in a State of Slavery I do not see that a change of masters will render it more irksome, provided husband & wife, and Parents & children are not separated from each other, which is not my intention to do (Twohig, 1997)," he certainly saw nothing wrong with continuing to hold the "poor wretches" as slaves himself. Furthermore, the very fact that he regarded them as "poor wretches" living "irksome" lives, it seems quite clear that he hardly saw their position as a favorable one.
Perhaps if the case were to end there, one might imagine that Washington was simply "caught in his times" unable to move the wheels of liberty against slavery until the stability of the new nation could tolerate its grinding. However, upon careful reading of his written words, one can see that this is simply not the case. Instead the man held even today to be synonymous with virtue, and "incapable of knowingly doing anything wrong," was just as base a tyrant against the liberty of man as any in history.
Consider, for example, the fact that although Washington did not sell slaves away from their families as a practice, he routinely held them in work details that separated them from one another, and were subjected to one of the cruelest treatments imaginable in the collective imagination concerning slavery, whipping. Indeed, in the name of "discipline" (some might imagine a term imbibed with the antithesis of liberty), he allowed his overseers to whip defiant slaves (Wilkins, 2001). Additionally, he also threatened to sell "disruptive" slaves to the dreaded West Indies as punishment (dreaded for its harsh conditions and high incidence of disease). Consider the following excerpt, taken from a letter written to a slave trader known as Captain Joseph Thomson in the year 1766:
With this Letter comes a Negro (Tom) which I beg the favour of you to sell... For whatever he will fetch... This Fellow is both a Rogue & Runaway... [though] he is exceedingly healthy, strong, and good at the Hoe... And [I] must beg the favour of you (least he should [sic] attempt his escape) to keep him handcuffd till you get to Sea... (Herschfeld, 1997)
Clearly, no matter how progressive some might imagine George Washington to be, one cannot help but recoil at the image of keeping a man handcuffed until safely out to sea -- especially when such a directive was penned by one of the founding fathers of liberty, and by one synonymous with virtue. Indeed, for a man to have written words such as these to have also uttered the words, "Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth (BQ, 2004)," is almost enough to cause one to abandon the man altogether as a false hypocrite of the highest order. Why, then does…[continue]
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