Dishonoring Our Fathers

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“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen” was the tribute of “Light-Horse Harry” Lee on the death of his old chief, the greatest American of his age, George Washington.

Two centuries later, the father of his country has become an embarrassment to some of his countrymen and his name an epithet. In New Orleans, the name George Washington has been stripped from an elementary school under a school board policy that prohibits the honoring of “former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all.” Twenty-two schools have undergone name changes to erase the memory of slaveholding governors, segregationists and Confederate icons like Robert E. Lee.

Inclusion of Washington as a villain in history has shocked even liberals who never thought the demonization of American heroes would go that far. After all, on taking command of the Revolutionary army, Washington ordered the Rhode Island militia desegregated, 175 years before Harry Truman integrated the U.S. Army, and he ordered his slaves freed on his and Martha’s death.

And if we must blackball all historic figures who failed to “respect equality of opportunity,” the list of dishonorees is going to be a long one. Consider others whose names must be removed from towns, streets, schools and dollar bills, and whose busts and statues should go the way of those of Lenin and Stalin: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson, whose victory saved New Orleans from the British.

Even Abraham Lincoln fails the test. In an 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay, he called for repatriating slaves to Africa. Pressed by Stephen Douglas in a debate in 1858 as to whether he would accept social and political equality with black folks, Lincoln blurted, “We cannot … make them equals.” To appease the seceded Southern states, in his inaugural, he offered a constitutional amendment to make slavery permanent where it existed and a new fugitive-slave law to require the U.S. government to run down escaped slaves. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves in rebel territory. In Lincoln’s Union, slavery was secure.

Thus, can we rename the Washington Monument, remove the statues from the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, and sandblast three of the four presidents off Mount Rushmore.

As for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who has the latest memorial in Washington, his failure to desegregate the U.S. armed forces, his incarceration of Japanese Americans and his views on intermarriage would seem to disqualify him. “Californians,” FDR wrote in 1924, “have properly objected (to Japanese immigration) on the sound basic ground … that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of 10, the most unfortunate results.”

“Why should African Americans want their kids to pay respect or pay homage to someone who enslaved their ancestors?” asks Carl Galmon, who led the campaign to change the school names: “This was the most degrading thing that ever happened in North America, and Washington was part of it.”

Galmon has a point. Chattel slavery — the buying and selling of human beings, their transport in squalid slave ships, the breakup of families, the exploitation of black women, the denial of the right to learn to slaves — was a wicked and evil business.

But Washington, Jefferson and Madison did not invent slavery; it existed when they were born and where they were born. It was invented centuries before, far away. Men of all races engaged in it: African, Arab, European, Asian. And of all the slaves captured in Africa and sold for shipment to the New World, only a fraction came to British America. Most went to Spanish America.

Not only did Washington agonize over slavery, the Congress that commissioned him to lead the army signed a Declaration of Independence that could not be reconciled with slavery, the thrust of which would lead to the demise of that odious institution. As the republic began to live up to the meaning of its creed, slavery was on its way to abolition in America and all over the world.

Washington led the revolution that created a nation where today the descendants of 3 million slaves are 40 million strong, more prosperous and free than any people of African descent anywhere on Earth. Out of the evil of slavery came good. Washington did not create the evil. More than any man, he created the good. People from all over the world today, including sub-Sahara Africa, are desperate to come to the nation he, more than any man, created.

And that is but one of the many reasons we should honor him.

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