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George Washington, shown here in an 1853 lithograph, oversees his slaves at Mount Vernon. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

Founding Fathers and Slaveholders

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

Our nation’s capital abounds with commemorations of our president heroes, including the Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR memorials. The one that stands out is the WashingtonMonument, the tallest, most superbly designated, and most immediately recognized. It is our tribute to the man who won the Revolutionary War and who, as our first president, did more than anyone to create the republic. Jefferson extended it from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Lincoln preserved it. Franklin Roosevelt led it to triumph in the greatest war ever fought. But it was George Washington who set the republican standard. So long as this republic lasts, he will stand first.

The Mall that stretches out from Washington’s monument has been the scene of controversy, protest, and persuasion, as it should be in a democracy. There, our national discord has been on display, and our national step-by-step progress demonstrated for. There, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the words that characterized and led the way to civil rights for African-Americans and all other Americans: "I have a dream." There, citizens, including my wife and I, gathered in huge numbers to protest the Vietnam War.

The WashingtonMonument and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials remind us that greatness comes in different forms and at a price. Jefferson, by his words, gave us aspirations. Washington, through his actions, showed us what was possible. Lincoln’s courage turned both into reality.

Slavery and discrimination cloud our minds in the most extraordinary ways, including a blanket judgment today against American slave owners in the 18th and 19th centuries. That the masters should be judged as lacking in the scope of their minds and hearts is fair, indeed must be insisted upon, but that doesn’t mean we should judge the whole of them only by this part.

In his last message to America, on June 24, 1826, ten days before he died on July 4 (the same day that John Adams died), Jefferson declined an invitation to be in Washington for the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote, "All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them."

He died with hope that the future would bring to fruition the promise of equality. For Jefferson, that was the logic of his words, the essence of the American spirit. He may not have been a great man in his actions, or in his leadership. But in his political thought, he justified that hope.

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