Is Washington Next?

As America wrestles with its past of slavery, momentum builds to strip the nation of any vestige of honor afforded the Confederacy.  General Robert E. Lee is losing another battle in spite of his great moral victories in the post-war era when he led by sterling example.  His gentlemanly statesmanship toward the victorious Union and his gracious welcoming of former slaves with him to the Lord’s Table are legendary.  Seemingly, however, none of this matters as America is in the throes of eradicating any lingering part of its past that might mask its original sin of chattel slavery. 

Is Washington next?  Will his towering Monument be toppled and the Federal City renamed?  For after all, George Washington owned slaves. Yes, that is the sad truth. If there is any good news in this sad fact, Washington freed his slaves upon his death.   Of the nine slave-owning presidents, Washington was the only one who freed them all, albeit at his death.

Before we rush to judge the sins of our Founding Father, perhaps an account of the development of his moral judgment concerning slavery might be worthy of consideration.  It is a fascinating story that reveals ethical growth in Washington from an indifferent slave owner to an emancipator of his slaves.  His early life began as a fourth generation Virginia slave owner.   Washington’s life, however, evolved from there to becoming more principled toward his slaves since he determined to purchase no more slaves or break up slave families.  And then finally, he became an emancipator of his slaves in his last will and testament. Early on, for example, in the Fairfax Resolves of 1774, George Washington and George Mason solemnly judged the slave trade: “After the first day of November next we will neither ourselves import nor purchase any slave or slaves imported by any other person, either from Africa, the West Indies, or any other place.” (Bancroft, History of the United States of America, Vol. IV, 34.) The Fairfax resolves were early and strong declarations against slavery. But the British authorities kept these resolves from being implemented. This was years before William Wilberforce and his evangelical comrades led their long, successful crusade to end the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire.

Washington was not unique in owning slaves, whether in the North or the South. Indeed, in the colonial era, slavery was tolerated by all of the colonies from New York down. To understand Washington’s complicity in this evil trading in human lives, we must recognize his historical context, and then see how Washington’s life began to change as he grew to understand the incongruity of his own quest for freedom, all the while that he owned slaves. Clearly slavery was a moral wrong. It was, to put it in Christian terms, a sin against God and a sin against one’s neighbor. However, Washington’s progress from the wrong of slave-holding to the right of emancipating his slaves was a remarkable example of what Christian theology has termed repentance.

George Washington grew up in a Virginia where, tragically, slaves had been part of the culture for generations. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to point out that slaves came to the New World a year before the Pilgrim fathers and mothers did.  A European ship selling slaves came into Jamestown Virginia in 1619, one year before the voyage of the Mayflower.

But the very progress of change toward slavery in Washington’s life reflects his Christian identity. This is because he was willing to face a wrong in his life and in his culture and to begin the long hard struggle to make things right. Note the four-fold progression in the life of the father of our country toward this terrible injustice that was there 150 years before he ever held a high position of leadership:

Stage one:  When Washington grew up, he already owned slaves as a child of a Virginia family with a large plantation. Early in his life he actually sold some slaves to buy things like lemons and various products from the Caribbean.

Stage two:  As he became a young adult and began to be a person who cared about what was true and right, he began to write, “I will never again separate a family by selling my slaves.” In other words, he realized that they had a right to a family home, and he would not break up families.  In April 1786, he wrote to Robert Morris. “There is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted, for the abolition of slavery. But there is only one proper way and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and this by legislative authority.”

Stage three:  Later, he began to say in essence, “Slavery is wrong, and we must do something to end it.” In September 1786, he wrote to John Francis Mercer. “I never mean, unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which Slavery, in this country may be abolished by law.” But the system was so deeply embedded in his Virginian plantation culture that he could not entirely break free from the sad practices of slavery.  Only at his death, through his will, did the liberation of his slaves finally become a reality.   

Stage four:  Toward the end of his life, Washington, determined in his will that he would free all the slaves that belonged to him and actually provided for them financially. He also freed one of his closest friends, Billy Lee, a slave that was his body servant. Remembering him by name, Washington gave him a bequest that enabled him to live the rest of his life very comfortably.

So what we see in Washington is a growth in right, slowly changing until, finally, right actions became normative. It took Washington a lifetime. It took America three or four more generations and a bloody war to get it right, but Washington was one of the first Southern leaders that called for the ending of slavery in America.

If we remember that future generations often can see the flaws of the past far more clearly than those who were living in the midst of the struggles, we can understand that Washington’s conduct, although slow and over a lifetime, was significant progress for a slave-holding Southern plantation owner. He understood the evils of slavery without the need of a war to point it out to him. Slavery was one of Washington’s moral failures, but he dealt with it honestly.   

So when we look carefully at the looming tower of stone that honors Washington, do we now see a monument that should be defaced, denounced or destroyed?  The perhaps surprising answer is that it is already defaced.  If one looks carefully at the lofty tower of white stone, about a third of the way up, he or she will find a clear line where the hue below changes from the tone above.  This is the point where the construction of the monument stopped—due to the Civil War.  When the work was begun again years later, another source for the stone was used, resulting in the different color.  It is this line that should remind us that Washington as well as the nation was guilty of slavery.  There were two phases of Washington—pro-slavery and anti-slavery.  There were two phases for the nation—slave-owning and slave-abolishing.  That scar seen in the colors of Washington’s monument is a scar that is seen in the colors of Washington’s nation.

George Washington, of course, never met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  However, Dr. King knew about the Founding Fathers.  Perhaps a better way forward for Americans at this tormented moment of racial turmoil is to reclaim what he said so well in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:  

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. King’s phrase, “…great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers” shows his belief that ultimately justice would emerge from the democratic system that the founders initiated.  He recognized that the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that, “we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights” certainly had direct application to African-Americans.  But the truth of this deeply dug well of democracy did not become a reality for African Americans for two more centuries.  Dr. King’s challenge to segregation was grounded in his understanding of the democratic foundations of America.  

In fact, even though Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner, his draft of the Declaration included the ending of slavery in America.  But this was edited out by the Continental Congress since this was not the unanimous view of the delegates.  In fact, he was deeply distressed that this portion of his draft was not retained.  His unedited text stated as he enumerated the injustices of the King of England,

…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce:  and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Further, Dr. King’s phrase, the Founders’ “…formulation of the Constitution” is ironically significant.  The irony is that the US Constitution began as a compromise between free and slave states.  Thus the slave was not given the full dignity of personhood by the Constitution.  For the North, the compromise was that a slave was valued at only three fifths of a person keeping the south from having too many people for voting purposes so the southern and northern states were more equally represented in congress.  For the south, the compromise was that slavery continued.  The framers of the Constitution believed that there would have been no Constitution if the compromise over slavery had not been accepted.  Thus it took the horrific bloodshed of the Civil War to resolve the issue.  

Nevertheless, Dr. King was clear that his hope was that the process of desegregation would finally include African-Americans in the opening language of the US Constitution, “WE THE PEOPLE”.  No longer would they be three fifths of a person as slaves, or those denied civil rights, but rather full citizens of the United States under its Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Following Dr. King’s logic, there is no need to renounce the Washington Monument.  Although originally intended to reflect America’s successes under Washington, his soaring obelisk also witnesses to America’s failures, America’s repentance and to a substantial hope for our future.  After all, there would have been no need for a Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation had every slave-owner followed Washington’s example.  

In his majestic “I Have a Dream” speech given on the Capitol Mall not far from the Washington Monument, Dr. King offered a better way.   He spoke of a day when his “four little children” would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.  But his dream could not happen unless the racial divide was healed in the land.  “I have a dream that … one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. King rejected violence.  There was no call for destroying property.  Instead he explained,

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

George Washington took a giant first step forward toward fulfilling Dr. King’s Dream, more than 150 years before the great civil rights leader was born.  In my estimation, it is not possible that he would have wanted the Washington Monument to be next.

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