By Philip R. Devlin.
Part One of this two-part series can be found HERE. It was published last week and focused on Thomas Jefferson; this part focuses on George Washington.
“His Excellency George Washington”
By Phillis Wheatley
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
This stanza by the Black poet Phillis Wheatley amounts to an elegy to George Washington. Wheatley, born in North Africa around 1753, was sold into slavery when she was only 6 or 7 years old and transported to Boston on a slave ship called the Phillis—the source of her first name. Her last name reflected the surname of the family that bought her in Boston. Unlike most slaves, Phillis enjoyed a thorough education in multiple languages and had a gift for writing. Recognizing her talents, the Wheatleys freed her when she was 20. Soon she began to have books of poetry published. In her mind the elegy to Washington was well deserved.
General Washington wrote to her and asked her to meet him. She went to visit Washington in Cambridge, MA, where he thanked her for writing the poem about him and took an interest in her writing ability. Here is what he said in a letter to Wheatley: “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents.”
Let’s pause here and ask ourselves the question: How many white men in power in the mid 1770’s would take the time not only to write to a Black woman but also to invite her to a meeting with him so that he could praise her writing? Here is another excerpt from a Wheatley poem entitled “On being brought from Africa to America”:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
It is very clear that General George Washington did not view her “sable race with scornful eye.” Washington’s relationship with Phillis Wheatley is one of many uplifting interactions that the General had with people of color in his lifetime. Washington’s relationship with another Boston-area slave, Primus Hall, reinforces the point.
Primus Hall was born a slave in Boston in 1756. In 1770, his owner, William Hall, set him free. Shortly after securing his freedom, Hall joined the 5th Massachusetts Regiment and fought in at least 6 battles, including the Battle of Saratoga. By 1781 Hall became a steward for Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, Quartermaster General during the war and later our third Secretary of State.
Pickering, a close confidante of George Washington, often met with the general during the war. In 1849, the Reverend Henry F. Harrington wrote about an encounter which Hall had with Washington in a magazine called Godey’s Lady Book in June 1849. Hall had prepared straw beds in a tent for both Pickering and Washington to sleep in. Washington awakened in the middle of the night and noticed that Hall had no bed and was attempting to sleep on a stool. According to Rev. Harrington’s account of the incident, the following exchange then occurred:
“Washington rose up in his bed. “Primus,” said he, “what did you mean by saying that you had blankets and straw enough?”
“It’s nothing, General. Don’t trouble yourself about me.”
“If either is to sit up, I will…The blanket is wide enough for two. Come and lie down here with me.”
Harrington goes on to say that though shocked and hesitant about the offer, Primus Hall did, in fact, share the bed with Washington. It should be noted that this story has never been contradicted.
Unlike Jefferson, Washington spent much of his public life on the battlefield, first as a colonel during the French and Indian War and then as the commanding general during the American Revolution; nevertheless, when he did serve in the political arena early on, he often voiced his strong opposition to slavery:
“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.” (Letter to Robert Morris, 1786)
On July 18, 1774, a committee which Washington chaired in Fairfax County, Virginia, passed the following act:
“Resolved, that it is… that during our present difficulties and distress, no slaves ought to be imported into any of the British colonies on this continent; and we take this opportunity of declaring our most earnest wishes to see an entire stop for ever put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade.”
Though not as prolific a letter writer as Jefferson, Washington’s correspondence, like Jefferson’s, often reveals his anti-slavery sentiments. In a letter to one of his nephews in August of 1797, Washington writes, “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this state could see the policy of a gradual abolition of slavery.”
When I visited Mount Vernon about two years ago, our tour guide made the point that Washington refused to sell any of his slaves because he could not bear to break up families and that he thought the process of selling them to be abominable; furthermore, the guide told us, that Washington had many more slaves than he needed and that economically it would have been far better for him to sell some in order to turn a bigger profit on the farm. He refused. In a letter to a Robert Lewis in August of 1799, he said this:
“To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.”
Visitors at Mount Vernon who view Washington’s grave also learn that for decades after the General had died, groups of ex-slaves that he had manumitted in his will would come back voluntarily to maintain the gravesite properly.
It should be noted, too, that one of the first acts that Washington took as President occurred on August 7, 1789, when he signed into law “An Ordinance of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio,” truly, the first civil rights law ever passed on the federal level; consequently, the states that constituted the Northwest Territory— Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana all entered the Union slave free. (Jefferson had proposed such a law 5 years before but the legislation failed to pass by 1 vote.)
Few people realize that one of the most famous cities formed in the new slave-free Northwest Territory—Cincinnati, Ohio—was done so to honor George Washington. During times of war in the ancient Roman Republic, the Roman senate consolidated power by decree to one man—called a “dictator”—in order to defend the country. The most famous “dictator” was Cincinnatus, a gentleman farmer and very effective field general.
Following war, Cincinnatus always would return his temporary power back to the senate and head back to his farm; thus, Cincinnatus, who could have easily abused his power after the war and become a permanent dictator, did not and has been revered ever since. The parallels with gentleman farmer George Washington returning to Mt. Vernon after the war instead of abusing his power (like his contemporary Napoleon) are obvious. The English poet Byron wrote of Washington that he was “The first-the last-the best–/The Cincinnatus of the West.”
So highly revered was George Washington by his military peers that a fraternal order that exists to this day—“The Society of the Cincinnati”—formed in 1783 at the end of the war. To honor Washington, many of them migrated west to Ohio and began a city named for him—Cincinnati—the genitive or possessive form of the word Cincinnatus, thus translated as “the city of Cincinnatus.”
Context matters. Both Jefferson and Washington grew up in a world where slavery was the norm on most of the planet. Both inherited slaves due to family deaths at an early age—Jefferson at 14 and Washington at 11. What should be strikingly evident is how truly remarkable it was for both of them to articulate ideals of equality in such a context.
Pursuit of ideals, however, can be frustrating and elusive. Both of these men, nevertheless, remained doggedly persistent in trying to achieve racial equity throughout their lives. Both chose to be pragmatic idealists who decided to achieve politically what was possible at the time and to work for more gains in the future as time and circumstances permitted. The circumstances under which further gains could be made were often compromised severely by restrictive state laws, so much so that it would take a bloody Civil War a couple of generations later to bring the issue to a head.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were tall men, each about 6 foot 2. Thus, they literally towered over their contemporaries by 6 to 8 inches. Figuratively, they also towered over most of their contemporaries by articulating and practicing ideals of racial equality that were far from fully realized in their lives but that were truly remarkable in their time.
Finally, to those who wish to categorize people like Jefferson and Washington solely as slaveholders and refuse to examine the context of their time and their lifelong efforts in pursuing racial equity, let’s remember that future leaders in the Abolitionist movement such as John Quincy Adams (the “Hellhound of Abolition”), Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, all regularly and enthusiastically quoted Thomas Jefferson in their speeches and writings. The fiery Abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, was a proud member of the “Society of the Cincinnati.” Care to tear down their statues? How about those of Martin Luther King, Jr.? In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech King quotes Thomas Jefferson’s vision of racial equality.
Dr. Martin Luther King also gave a sermon on July 4th of 1965 about the American Dream and what it means. That morning Dr. King and Andrew Young had passed in front of the Jefferson Memorial, in Washington DC, and that incident gave the great orator the topic of the sermon he went on to deliver that same day. It includes these thoughts on Jefferson and the American Dream:
“It wouldn’t take us long to discover the substance of that dream. It is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This is a dream. It’s a great dream. The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say ‘some men,’ it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men,’ it says ‘all men,’ which includes black men… It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. In order to discover where they came from, it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.”
Still want to tear down those statues?