George Washington has been taking it on the chin lately. A few months ago the San Francisco Board of Education voted to remove a mural from one of its high schools called “The Life of Washington” because it depicts slaves and a dead Indian, with George Washington presiding over and presumably condoning it all. The board claims this imagery traumatizes students. City Supervisor Matt Haney would not only like to remove the mural but rename the school because Washington owned slaves. Not to be outdone, activists in nearby Marin County are trying to change the name of the Dixie School District because it is apparently named after a song that praises the South. Another mural painted in the 1930s was removed from a school in Oak Park, Illinois because it only pictured white children.
Where will this all end? The fact that Washington freed his slaves when he died is probably irrelevant to his detractors. Or the fact that this San Francisco mural was painted by a Communist protégé of Diego Rivera whose intent was to shed light on the darker corners of America’s past. No matter. It offends – so off it goes!
At Mile High Ed we’re big fans of George Washington, not least because of his noble stewardship of our young democracy. During his Presidency he could have easily become a dictator or followed his contemporary Napoleon into reigning as an emperor. Instead, he honored the spirit and letter of the newly minted Constitution by leaving office after two terms. At the time there was no rule against Presidents seeking a third term; had he wanted one he could have had it. Yet he thought it best to set a precedent of chief executives leaving office voluntarily, like his hero Cincinnatus. This precedent lasted for 144 years until Franklin Roosevelt – whose Works Progress Administration funded the offending San Francisco mural – won a third term.
We also cherish Washington’s legacy because of his attempt to create a national school where “the youth of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might be sent to complete their education in all the branches of polite literature, in arts and sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.” Washington knew that a democratic republic – more than any other kind of government – required an educated and engaged citizenry. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It demands the constant care and attention of all its citizens, regardless of race, color, or creed. This is the vision we promote here in Denver with our education retreats.
I would like to think that when Washington proposed this idea in his will he too had in mind children of all races and backgrounds, including the children of slaves. The primary criticism of our Founding Fathers is, of course, that half were slave owners. These were not stupid men, however, and there can be no doubt that they recognized the hypocrisy obvious in the endorsement of the idea that “All men are created equal” by those who kept other men in bondage.
The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the 39 who signed the U.S. Constitution – Washington included – knew they were making a Faustian bargain. As one of their contemporaries said later: “There was never a moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Owing to the cotton gin, it was more than half awake. Thereafter, slavery was on everyone’s mind, though not always on his tongue.”
That deal with the Devil – a country with slavery or no country at all – exploded in violence in 1861. The payment due, the “reparations” if you will, was 600,000 dead men. That was two percent of our country’s population at the time – the equivalent today of 6.4 million people. Add to that ledger another 100 years of segregation, plus another 50 years of lingering mistrust and division, which today includes bitter arguments over Civil War monuments and Depression-era murals.
Isn’t that enough?
Apparently not. So let’s imagine what tomorrow’s youth might think of today’s self-righteous and sanctimonious public figures. What will the youth of 2069, looking back on our own antics, judge to be our greatest sin?
Personally, I think they will ask this: “Why, Americans of 2019, did you spend so much time arguing over wall paintings while spending us into penury?” Our national debt this year is $22 trillion. That’s 108% of our Gross Domestic Product. We have spent our children’s money and are now spending our grandchildren’s money because we refuse to change the way we work and live.
What is this but another form of slavery? Our grandchildren will be enslaved to debt that we are charging. They will be limited in how much money they can earn and keep because so much of their income will go to servicing this debt. They will be limited in where (or even if) they can buy homes. They will be limited in when they can afford to start a family. They will be limited in when (or if) they can retire. They will be limited in what they can spend on solving domestic problems. They will be limited in how far they can project American power to keep the peace abroad.
George Washington enslaved 124 people but gave us a Nation. We are enslaving tens of millions of unborn Americans and giving them nothing in return. At least Washington knew he would have to answer to God for his sins. What’s our excuse?