What’s this musing about: Washington and slavery. Warning: White guy giving his opinion on something to do with slavery.
George Washington was in
many ways a great man. He was beloved by the American people before there even
was an “American people.” In multiple instances, he could have easily tried to
become “king” of the United States and in my personal opinion, the American
experiment probably fails if he were not our victorious general and first
However, he owned slaves.
He owned a hell of a lot of slaves to put it bluntly. There are very few ways
to try and explain this away, although people will often try. The most common
to me are: historical relativism and “he was one of the nice ones”. Let’s start
with the more ludicrous one!
But he was a pretty
benevolent slaveowner! I liken this sentiment akin to being “kinda pregnant.”
You either are a slaveholder or not. Just because you (probably) don’t actively
rape, and/or assault your slaves like some other Founding Fathers (hey Tommy
J!) does not take away the fact that you OWN people.
Historical relativism is
a much more nuanced argument. We can’t use our own understanding of our time
and apply our judgment to a different era. Washington was one of many links in
the slavery chain in the 18th century. He was not an anomaly.
Slavery existed for thousands of years so how can we pin guilt on Washington?
They didn’t think the way we do now, right?
Except, they did. Or at
least they started to. Two of Washington’s closest confidants were
anti-slavery: John Laurens and the Marquis Lafayette. Laurens was a virulent
anti-slavery advocate and convinced Lafayette of the same. While Laurens died
young, Lafayette was a surrogate son to Washington for his entire life. There
is even a famous scheme where Lafayette suggested to Washington that they move
his slaves to a Caribbean Island and free them. Lafayette felt if Washington
was part of this plan, others would surely follow. Washington’s response (or
rather non-response) was to compliment Lafayette on his compassion.
Washington himself on
numerous occasions opined that slavery would ultimately be a tragic test the
United States would sooner or later have to pass. Washington’s own words and
final will and testament bear out that he knew right from wrong. And slavery
was wrong. That is why he freed all the slaves he owned when he died and was
the only Founding Father to do so.
My final word on this is
to point out an amazing historical irony. Washington’s grave was moved some
years after his death to a much more fitting crypt down the hill from his home
on Mount Vernon. On frequent trips, I still find myself moved standing so close
to both George and Martha’s final resting place. However, it was recently
discovered that if you turn around while staring at Washington’s crypt, you are
looking at a slave graveyard. There were no markings for the graves and the
caretakers of Mount Vernon has erected an equally moving monument to those
buried there. They do not know how many bodies there are. I suppose there is a
justice in Washington overlooking a slave graveyard for eternity.
If you read enough
history, I think you come to the same conclusion about all characters of
history. Even the greatest of men can have the worst kind of flaws.