George Washington vs. Multiculturalism

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2002

Once upon a time, every elementary and high school student was taught that George Washington, whose birthday we celebrated on Feb 22, was a man worthy of praise. But his reputation has fallen on bad times. First of all, his birthday, along with that of Abraham Lincoln (Feb 12), has been subsumed under a generic "presidents’ day." This means that in effect, the likes of James Buchanan, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton are placed on a par with Washington and Lincoln, America’s two greatest presidents.

But even more disturbing is the assault on Washington’s reputation in the name of "multiculturalism." The main indictment here of course is that he owned slaves and is thus not fit for Americans to honor.

Thus several years ago, the New Orleans school board decided to eliminate from the city’s schools the names of anyone who owned slaves or "did not believe in equal opportunity for all." The intent, of course, was to remove the names of Confederate generals and statesmen from schools in which about 90 percent of the students are black. But Carl Ganon pushed to change the name of George Washington Elementary School as well, asserting that: "to African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke."

More recently, a committee of the New Jersey Senate killed a proposal to celebrate Washington by hanging his portrait in every one of the state’s 600 public-school districts. Curtis Ballard, a historian at Oklahoma’s Langston University opposed the bill, telling USA Today that "America was not a pretty place for black people when George Washington was present. Our people were still in slavery. This country doesn’t have much to celebrate when it comes to 200 years ago and its treatment of people."

More recently yet, at a congressional hearing on President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives, Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat, launched a vitriolic attack on Washington in response to a proposal by both Democrats and Republicans to include in the record Washington’s "Letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation," a correspondence that welcomed American Jews as equal citizens in the new republic.

Rep. Watt mocked the first president. "For us to be applauding the statements discussing bigotry that were written by a person who owned slaves is a little bit more than I can, without churning stomach, be able to tolerate," said Watt. "I’m sure he did magnificent things and wonderful things. But we should also keep in context the reality that there is substantial pain still among many people in our country about this chapter in our history."

Such outbursts, dripping with moral superiority and disdain for the moral imperfections of even the greatest of men are smug—and ignorant. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, slavery was a worldwide phenomenon. But slavery was only part of a greater political reality. Before the American founding, all regimes were based on the principle of interest—the interest of the stronger. That principle was well articulated by the Greek historian Thucydides: "Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must."

The United States was founded on different principles—justice and equality. No longer would it be the foundation of political government that some men were born "with saddles on their backs" to be ridden by others born "booted and spurred." In other words, no one had the right to rule over another without the latter’s consent.

Slavery of course was a violation of this principle but as the distinguished professor of American history and politics, Harry V. Jaffa, has written: "It is not wonderful that a nation of slave-holders, upon achieving independence, failed to abolish slavery. What is wonderful, indeed miraculous, is that a nation of slave-holders founded a new nation on the proposition that ’all men are created equal,’ making the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity."

It took the founding of United States on the principle of equality to undermine the principle of inequality—that the strong by nature should rule the weak—upon which slavery was based. If the multiculturalist crowd cannot appreciate the role of the American founding in ending the worldwide system of slavery that existed in 1776, perhaps they should listen to Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist. "I would not, even in words," he said, "do violence to the great events, and thrilling association, that gloriously cluster around the birth of our national independence." He continued, "no people ever entered upon pathways of nations, with higher and grander ideas of justice, liberty and humanity than ourselves."

But there would have been no United States without George Washington. He has been called the "indispensable man" for good reason. His integrity and virtue made him the only acceptable choice as commander-in-chief during the Revolution. Without him, the military effort would have failed and the Revolution crushed. His Circular to the States at the end of the Revolution adumbrated many of the features of the Constitution.

He presided over the Federal Convention in Philadelphia that drew up the Constitution. Again, it was Washington alone who made the American presidency possible because everyone understood that he would be the first to hold he office. The precedents that he established continue to shape the office to this day. When he died, the young nation mourned to an extent that has never been matched. He was truly the "father of his country," a title that was bestowed upon him by his own generation.

Meanwhile all through his life, Washington, like the other founders, worked behind the scenes to end slavery, striving to keep the nation together as well as find a way to do justice. He did so both rhetorically and substantively. Despite being a Southerner, he attacked an institution that was closely tied up with the interests of his section. "There is not a man living," he wrote, "who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]."

He recognized that to push for an immediate end of slavery would wreck the Union. Washington argued nonetheless that "by degree [the abolition of slavery] certainly may [be accomplished] and assuredly ought to be effected." But he also took practical steps to mitigate the effects of slavery on real individuals. He freed every one of his slaves upon his death. But before his death, Washington sought to ensure that freedom would not lead to economic disaster for the freedmen. Accordingly, he saw that his male slaves were educated and that they learned useful trades, including cabinet working, barrel making, and farming. Washington believed that economic training and education led to opportunity and full participation in the life of the country for all Americans. He understood that success requires more than mere words or good intentions.

As Roman Martinez observed not too long ago in National Review Online, George Washington and his fellow founders deserve to be honored by all American citizens, regardless of color. They established the world’s first successful republican government, an accomplishment that has extended liberty and equality to subsequent generations. It was from Washington and the other founders that Abraham Lincoln took his bearings in the Civil War, which destroyed slavery. And, a century later, it was to the principles of the American Founding that Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed in his crusade against racism and segregation.

Black slavery remains the greatest affront to America’s history of liberty. George Washington was indispensable to the task of creating a nation founded upon justice and equality. As such he was instrumental in taking the institution of slavery, a corrupt system inherited by America from the past, and making its abolition "a moral and political necessity."

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.