Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Dark History

There is little that we ever really know about our founding fathers. This ignorance is by choice, since when we take away the blinders we are consumed by evidence of wrong doing that we would just assume not know. A look into our first and most important founding father, George Washington brings the man who is considered our greatest President to life. The great battles of the Revolutionary War, the Farewell Address all pale in comparison to the hypocrisy within the man that we allow ourselves to overlook. If we think about what we thought we knew about him, we find out that the best stories are just myths. The Cherry Tree? A story made up by one of his biographers. Wooden teeth? More like teeth taken from his animals, even slaves. We may never be satisfied or find a balance in what we thought we knew and what we actually do. There are too many stories untold and Washington may have just wanted to keep it that way.

Put any great leader under the microscope of scrutiny and flaws are bound to be revealed. Heroes would never live up to our standards if we did this to everyone of them. If we did, we'd just walk away disappointed. Historians have shown us repeatedly that with every great hero, there is a tragedy in all of them that cannot be ignored. As much as we'd like to see past these character deficiencies and see these great leaders as having an immortality about them, we come to find out that they like us are; all too human. For every great accomplishment that our Presidents have had, there has been a shadow that hangs over their glory. For every Declaration of Independence, Civil Rights legislation of economic boom there was a Sally Hemmings, Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky behind the scenes. This tradition isn't one from modern history. It starts with our first President whose life while noble and deserving of praise will be considered one filled with contradiction.

As I walked the grounds of Mt. Vernon on a beautiful fall afternoon with the Potomac set in the background and foliage lining the dirt paths, I couldn't help but notice the young school children walking past me. The fact that they were school children did not strike me since we can all learn a lot from Mt Vernon. The irony was that they were black school children, possibly descendants of slaves at some point and now were roaming free to honor a site that our Nation's first President called home.

At the time of his death George Washington had over 300 slaves working the five farms of his 8,000 acre plantation at Mt Vernon. The main mansion which was he inherited from his older step brother was Washington's most cherished possession. It should come as no surprise that he employed slaves. He was raised in an era when this was acceptable and many of the neighboring farmers were slave owners too. His happiness came from his property and his property was made possible by slave labor. These slaves, half of whom were women were given a ration of corn meal for their daily supplement and one working outfit and pair of shoes for the entire year. They worked six days a week from sun up to sun down. Meanwhile, at the top of the bowling green sat the Washington family as they wined and dined hundreds of guests annually. This was the man that is scattered throughout every history book about our country and whose name adorns hundreds of school buildings. For a leader and pioneer one would think he would have been above the fray.

Washington is a tragic figure in my opinion. He was revered so much that he was pulled out of retirement and voted unanimously as our first President. As General and hero of the revolutionary war, he was considered a National hero and rightfully so. Despite his influence he did nothing to stop the act of slavery. Historians can continue to debate whether a Civil War may have been prevented if Mr. Washington would have put an end to it. Instead, he quietly freed his slaves in his will but never saw what their freedom looked like. And so the contradiction of a man who fought for the freedom and liberty of Americans also owned human beings.

It's difficult for me to embrace Washington entirely. On the one hand, I see him as THE founder of our country who rallied 13 separate colonies and brought them together. On the other hand, I can't forgive how his conscience could accept slavery in the same way that I cannot forgive how FDR could imprison US citizens during WWII. These actions while justified through those who want to preserve their legacies cannot be softened by describing a bigger cause for which they served. The big issues were slavery and false imprisonment. Those are issues that thousands of Americans gave their lives for. Ask Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy or the 70,000 Americans who died in the Civil War.

Slaves enabled history to tell the story of Washington. They ran his farm, cooked his food, washed his laundry, entertained his guests and made Mt Vernon what it is today. Over 200 years later we see the tables have turned. As I looked at the young school children walking past me, perhaps unaware of the Mt Vernon that I saw, I wondered who told their ancestors stories? Were they buried somewhere on the property, scattered about without acknowledgement of their existence? They weren't in history books. I never recall reading a book from one of his servants.

It's 2009, we have a new President. He is African-American and holds a position that I don't know that Washington would have ever imagined a black man would hold one day. President Obama set out to change history for his own reasons and finally white people are writing his story down too.

There is much that connects Washington to myself. He died December 14th, 1799 a day before my birthday. The steamboat that my grandfather owned on Lake Winnipesauke was named after him. Despite a few coincidental similarities and the admiration I have for the President and General, I do not forgive the "Man" who for all I know freed his slaves in the end to protect his legacy.

Nobody goes to Mt Vernon to see slavery's awful history. They go to see Washington. People ought to reconsider though and look past the man who owned a well managed estate and remember the people who made it possible for it to exist and made it possible for this country to do so as well. I'll concede that we may not have been a country without Washington, there's little to dispute that. He was a great military officer who commanded men who were risking their lives for the cause of liberty. This liberty though was not for all Americans and we ought not fool ourselves into thinking so. Women, blacks, poor? Liberty wasn't for them. It was for people who looked more like George Washington and lived in places more like Mt Vernon than the slave quarters that surrounded him.

Before I left the compound, I walked past landscapers who were installing along the path by one of Washington's farms. As I looked to see what else they were doing, I noticed that half of the workers were Mexican.

Native Americans were at Mt. Vernon first. They hunted in the forests and navigated the Potomac for fish. We know this because archaeologist have uncovered numerous artifacts dating before Mt. Vernon was built. African Americans moved in next with Washington and ran the entire operation. Today I saw a handful of Mexican Americans (who were getting compensated) working the same land. The tradition of labor in our country is one marked by a legacy of diversity. Although Washington may have been the one crossing the Delaware and riding the horse up front, these men were the backbone. This along with who the real George Washington was, we should never forget.

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