There is a story told of a man in New Hampshire on his deathbed in 1838 whose last wish was to see the portrait of George Washington. At the funeral service for our first President, Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee of Virginia eulogized Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
It is not difficult to explain or support the sterling reputation of Washington, whose birthday we will commemorate on Friday. He led a struggling band of Continental Army soldiers and volunteer militiamen from April, 1775 to November, 1783 and voluntarily resigned his commission. He presided over the Federal Convention that devised our Constitution and served eight years as President, stepping down after two terms. He was a living legend whom men admired and women desired.
In recent years, however, Washington's ownership of a vast plantation with hundreds of slaves has been critically examined, a legitimate matter of scholarly interest. But his reputation has also suffered, as some schools and streets named after him have been renamed, and some people have written Washington off as a hypocrite.
Recently, I read Ron Chernow's biography of Washington, a lengthy volume of 822 pages which follows a long line of such works. In his blending of the personal with the political, Chernow frequently takes up Washington's gradual change of opinion about slavery. It is, in fact, part and parcel with the American Revolution's massive liberating effect on the country's remnants of medieval monarchy, aristocracy and clericalism as well.
Historically, the monarchy was the first to go, aristocracy persisted only in the South and upstate New York, and state churches were gone before the Civil War. But it took four years of war to abolish slavery, and another century to end compulsory racial segregation.
Washington was an enthusiastic opponent of monarchy. By this I mean not only that he served as commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary forces against the rule of King George III but amazed the world when he laid down his commission. This moved the British King to call Washington "the greatest man in the world."
As to aristocracy, Washington was in fact a product of it. He lived the life of an aristocrat, by habit and by conviction, not easily appreciating the lackluster appearance and performance of common soldiers. But during the war, Washington's republican principles were strengthened by the knowledge that his troops were the match of even the greatest army in the world.
A firm exponent of the principles of the Enlightenment, Washington respected the diversity of religious faiths that existed in the New World, attending church not only in his Episcopal parish but in other denominations as well.
But Washington was indeed a slaveholder, an institution almost as old as the world, established in America in 1619. His family and the family of his wife, Martha Custis owned slaves, thereby entailing great responsibilities, commitments and costs. He had a reputation for being a benign master, but he was a master nonetheless. Did he become angry with "lazy" or "rebellious" slaves? Did he engage in the slave trade? Did he take slaves with him in the war and when he became President? Yes.
But just as Washington came to appreciate lower-class people serving in the Revolutionary War, he even followed the British practice of promising freedom to black slaves who fought for the Patriots. The proportion of blacks who fought then was actually greater than for emancipated blacks in the Civil War.
But making changes in your own household is harder. How many who condemn vice in the abstract confront it squarely in their families? What is close and familiar is the most difficult to reform. But in the end, Washington faced it. In his will, he granted freedom to some of his slaves immediately upon his death, and the remainder upon Martha's death.
Chernow, on page 800, quotes Washington thus: "I can clearly foresee," he predicted to an English visitor, "that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle." I believe that is an accurate quotation.
However, Chernow cites a secondary source rather than any writing of Washington's or of a contemporary. Nevertheless, his words would be in complete accord with the judgment of another great American president whose birthday we also mark this month, Abraham Lincoln. No less does it explain Washington's lifelong movement against slavery.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.