When I read about protesters vandalizing statues of George Washington, I became angry and offered the following post on twitter: “If you think you’re better than George Washington, you don’t know yourself very well.” Almost immediately, the perfect flip response came back: “Well, I don’t own slaves, so I’m counting that as a W.”
Ah, yes. George Washington, one of the bravest and most accomplished men to walk planet Earth, simply can’t stand before even the most callow youth willing to castigate him for owning slaves. His record is a complete nullity thanks to our enlightenment. I suggest we think about this.
What if we could resituate you, the young woke person, in history so that you became a man of means in Virginia in the 18th century? What are the odds that you would have owned slaves? We don’t need a calculator. It is almost inevitable that you would have owned slaves. That was the way the agricultural economy worked. Men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson participated in that economy and both clearly had misgivings about the system of which they were a part. With regard to owning slaves, George Washington was a man of his time. It might be said of him, though, that he was better than most men in his treatment of his slaves and through the steps he took to ameliorate their conditions.
I say none of this to suggest that owning slaves can in any way be excused, but few of us really rise above the times in which we live in terms of our attitudes. How many of the great Greek and Roman thinkers argued in favor of slavery? Would you discount them entirely on that score? Is there nothing of value in their civilization for that reason? And what are we doing glorifying those brave Spartans at Thermopylae? Their civil rights regime would really upset you. Michigan State needs to get on that immediately. I think “Ponies” is available as an alternative mascot.
So, in some ways Washington was a man of his time. But are you doing justice to the ways in which he was more than a man of his time? It is likely that you would have owned slaves if you had been similarly situated as the great man Washington. But how likely is it that you would have accomplished all the good that he did? How likely is it that you would have the bravery to defy the world’s most powerful empire? How likely that you would be charmed by the sound of bullets whistling past your ear rather than having your insides melt like water? How likely is it that through the force of your character and example you would be able to hold together a beleaguered, freezing, starving force of men such as those at Valley Forge? How likely is it that grown men hardened by war would be undone to see you grasping for your spectacles and remarking that you had grown blind in the service of your country? How likely is it that you would become the first president of a new republic virtually through acclamation? How likely that your example would be so strong that the precedent of your two terms functioned as a limit on the office of president for almost a century and a half? How likely is it that of you would have been written the words, “the first, the last, the best, the Cincinnatus of the west?” How likely is it that you, first among men in your country and in your time (first among Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and the rest!) would have voluntarily relinquished power and returned to your home in the country? Suffice it to say, none of these things are very likely.
Yet you, saintly you, claim your “W” (your superiority!) because Washington owned slaves and you do not. That is quite an accomplishment since you live in a country where slavery has been illegal for over 150 years. Oh, and you are an anti-racist! That is also very impressive given that your position accords with that of every company and institution with whom practically any of us has done business. Check your email box if you have doubts.
On the other hand, let us give George Washington the benefit of living in our time. I don’t know if you realize this, but Washington in our time would certainly not own slaves and would certainly have virtually all the same beliefs about race and civil rights that we do. But here is the difference. Washington would still be Washington (by the way do you want to rename the capitol, perhaps for yourself?). He would still have his bravery, his fortitude, his endurance, and his ability to provide inspiring leadership to human beings. He would be a better president than 95% of the people who have held the office and would certainly excel either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.
But I write all of this really just to encourage you to do one thing. Check your historical privilege.