Founding Fathers and Slaveholders

To what degree do the attitudes of Washington and Jefferson toward slavery diminish their achievements?

George Washington, shown here in an 1853 lithograph, oversees his slaves at Mount Vernon. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
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Washington and Jefferson were both rich Virginia planters, but they were never friends. Washington did not have Jefferson’s IQ. He was not anywhere near as good a writer. He was not as worldly. He had less formal education than any subsequent president, except Abraham Lincoln. He towered over his contemporaries, literally so. He was a six-foot-three general; his soldiers averaged five-foot-eight. He was not a good general, or so his critics say. His army lost more battles than it won.

But Washington held the Continental Army together, "in being" as the military expression puts it, and he had a masterly judgment of when and where and how to strike the British in order to raise morale among his soldiers and throughout his country—perhaps most symbolic was his crossing the Delaware River at Christmastime in 1776, when in a lightning week of campaigning he picked off the British garrisons at Trenton and Princeton, taking many prisoners and valuable supplies. The next winter he spent with his soldiers in a freezing Valley Forge. From there, he directed the strategy of the war, turned the Revolutionary army from a ragtag collection into a solid regular army, forced the politicians in Congress to support him, and emerged as the one who would lead the nation through the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s character was rock solid. At the center of events for 24 years, he never lied, fudged, or cheated. He shared his army’s privations, though never pretended to be "one of the men." Washington came to stand for the new nation and its republican virtues, which was why he became our first president by unanimous choice and, in the eyes of many, including this author, our greatest.

Washington personifies the word "great." In his looks, in his regular habits, in his dress and bearing, in his generalship and his political leadership, in his ability to persuade, in his sure grip on what the new nation needed (above all else, not a king), and in his optimism no matter how bad the American cause looked, he rose above all others. He established the thought, "We can do it," as an integral part of the American spirit. He was indispensable, "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." Abigail Adams, again, so insightful in her descriptions, quoted John Dryden to describe Washington: "Mark his majestic fabric. He’s a temple sacred from his birth and built by hands divine."

Of the nine presidents who owned slaves, only Washington freed his. He resisted efforts to make him a king and established the precedent that no one should serve more than two terms as president. He voluntarily yielded power. His enemy, George III, remarked in 1796, as Washington’s second term was coming to an end, "If George Washington goes back to his farm, he will be the greatest character of his age." As George Will wrote, "the final component of Washington’s indispensability was the imperishable example he gave by proclaiming himself dispensable."

Washington was a slaveholder. In New Orleans, in the late 1990s, George Washington Elementary School was renamed Charles Richard Drew Elementary School, after the developer of blood-banking. I don’t see how we can take down the name of the man whose leadership brought this nation through the Revolutionary War and who turned down a real chance to be the first king of the nation.

"But he was a slaveholder," students sometimes say to me.

"Listen, he was our leader in the Revolution, to which he pledged his life, his fortune, and his honor. Those were not idle pledges. What do you think would have happened to him had he been captured by the British Army?

"I’ll tell you. He would have been brought to London, tried, found guilty of treason, ordered executed, and then drawn and quartered. Do you know what that means? He would have had one arm tied to one horse, the other arm to another horse, one leg to yet another, and the other leg to a fourth. Then the four horses would have been simultaneously whipped and started off at a gallop, one going north, another south, another east and the fourth to the west.

"That is what Washington risked to establish your freedom and mine."


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