SAN JOSE, CA, February 22, 2017 – Despite the confusion originating from the federal government’s tampering with a perfectly good birthday celebration for George Washington by renaming it President’s Day, many Americans will remember George Washington’s birthday as today. Oddly, remembering George Washington’s birthday twice in the month of February does not necessarily guarantee that the Father of the Country is respectfully being remembered.
Prior to the unlikely outcome of the presidential election in 2016, it was reported in early September, that the president of the Board of Education of the San Francisco Unified School District, Matt Haney, had serious intentions to introduce a resolution to remove the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from all taxpayer funded schools in the district because the forefathers owned slaves. Haney expressed hope that the schools could switch the names of the schools to names of people of color, women, and LGBT figures.
Around the same time, it was reported that a group of 469 professors and students at the University of Virginia (UVA) were “calling for the school’s president to stop quoting school founder Thomas Jefferson, on the grounds that Jefferson was a slave owner.” Additionally, in early February this year, it was reported in Communities Digital News by Allan Brownfeld that “the City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia voted 3-2 to remove a bronze equestrian monument to Robert E. Lee that stands in a downtown park named in his honor.” Brownfeld went on to point out that the “attack on the Robert E. Lee statue is, in reality, an attack on American history itself. It has been suggested that the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial are inappropriate since they celebrate men who owned slaves.”
The idea or hope of erasing a part of history because it is disagreeable to one ‘s own personal preferences within the scope of reality is actually quite self-centered and elitist, regardless of what it may appear to be. Such narrow-minded attitudes express more about the individual who wants to eradicate history than it says about the wrongs committed through time. While it may be a given to most sensible people that it is unproductive or wasteful to continue to repeat the horrible mistakes from past generations, it is not a noble gesture to erase history simply because it reveals to us or reminds us of the errors of our ancestors. However, erasing history, or re-writing history becomes egregious when there is a deliberate agenda to assassinate the character and integrity of historical figures, or to undermine their legacy.
A glaring contemporary example of such intent to undermine the legacy of a great man, is the effort that Leftist, or Progressive-revisionist historians make with regard to George Washington or Abe Lincoln, or other famous American leaders in the current Advanced Placement United States History textbooks. More specifically, it is not printed in those textbooks that Washington took great pains to free all his slaves. It seems quite hypocritical of the wise ones on the Left to profess their disdain for slavery and those who held slaves, and to mention that George washington owned slaves, but to selectively omit the more important reality that the old farmer also freed all of his slaves at Mt. Vernon. This is not accidental – it is deliberate manipulation of historical fact.
Even more hypocritical of the Progressive professors of the Left is that Black History Month offers an obvious teaching opportunity to help young people learn that Washington freed his slaves; yet, it does not warrant any mention from these geniuses. Virtually no attempt is made to make use of the teaching moment because the facts do not fit the Progressive-revisionist historical narrative. Ironically, George Washington’s birthday happens to fall within the month that has been officially designated as Black History Month; yet little, if any, effort is made to help young people learn that one of the key founders did give a damn about freeing the slaves because he did it. Omission of this fact is deliberate manipulation of historical facts, yet such omissions occur frequently in U.S. history books compiled by people who care little for the truth.
To be sure, George Washington’s actions of freeing his slaves were controversial in the time he lived. Despite fierce opposition and severe resistance, he made it happen. The fact that the former president of the United States, with his nearly impeccable reputation, was able to free his slaves demonstrates that he was a man ahead of his time.
Before the war, Washington had been just another Virginia landowner who looked upon slavery as a normal part of life. There is also speculation suggesting Washington had viewed slavery as a necessary evil in the way that other southern landowners were perceiving the institution at that time. Despite Washington’s misgivings about slavery later in his life, his circumstances involved growing up in the South, inheriting slaves as a boy of only eleven when his father died, and marrying a wealthy widow who inherited many slaves due to her husband’s death. Yet, the struggles that Washington and the other founders had to deal with were quite complex and complicated, but Washington may have been one who had experienced more deeply the complexities of slavery.
George Washington owned many slaves, bought and sold many slaves during his lifetime, but when it came close to the end of his lifetime, Washington’s will detailed his wishes that he would be able to free all of the slaves at Mt. Vernon. Washington even had to take steps to change the laws of Virginia that would allow a slave owner to free his slaves as a provision of his last Will and testament. After the Revolution, he retreated to Mount Vernon and attempted to concentrate on his neglected farmlands. During this period in Virginia prior to 1782, state law restricted slave owners in their efforts to free their slaves. A slave owner was only allowed to set a slave free for “meritorious service” and only with the approval of the Governor and his council.
With Governor Thomas Jefferson’s help, George Washington managed to get the old British law regarding manumission of slaves repealed in 1782. The new law permitted the emancipation of slaves through a deed from the sale of lands or a will. Washington did not take immediate action on this law, but had tried in vain to sell his property. A few months before he passed away, he drew up his last Will and testament which stipulated the freeing of all of his slaves upon Martha’s death. He had lamented that he wished he could free all the slaves at Mt. Vernon, but they did not all belong to him. Some belonged to Martha’s heirs and they were not even hers to free under state law.
Even more complicated was the fact that over the years after their marriage, Washington’s slaves had intermarried with Martha’s slaves who would have to be returned or taken in by the heirs of her first husband. If Washington freed his slaves without being able to free Martha’s slaves, it would have divided the various families, and that was something Washington did not want to do. There is a perception among some historians that Washington attempted to persuade Martha to influence her heirs to free the Custis slaves, but there is no evidence that she tried to do so.
Washington did free William (Billy) Lee, his personal valet, before Martha died; but the other slaves were to be emancipated upon Martha’s death. Washington also stipulated in his will that the elderly ex-slaves would be provided for, specifically clothed and fed, by his direct heirs, and the younger, freed children would be taught to read, to write, and some valuable trade in order to provide support for themselves. Martha Washington actually carried out her husband’s wishes to free the slaves within twelve months of his death and ultimately allowed them to stay on at Mt. Vernon if they had family members there.
It is indeed ironic, that the leader of the War for Independence, who had exposed himself to death so often during the war, performed one of the most strident acts of a leader after the old general had passed away. Freeing his slaves is a legitimate legacy from a man who dared for risk his life for the true freedom of his people. Americans should not lose sight of this heritage. Although the memory of George Washington has been somewhat obscured, or skewed, it is still important to remember the Father of the Country, not simply for being the nation’s first president, nor more fundamentally, for the kind of man he was, but Americans need to remember George Washington for the ideals and values for which he fought, and those for which he worked as a key leader in the infancy of the United States of America. If Americans cannot remember him properly on President’s Day, the least that can be done is to remember him on his birthday.