Back when the earth was young and I was in grammar school, we used to celebrate either Washington’s birthday or Lincoln’s birthday. But in 1971, these were blended into Presidents Day, which Americans now observe with scarcely a second thought.
Had we continued to commemorate the names of our greatest presidential heroes, perhaps our collective memory of history would have forestalled the depressing reports of Washington’s name being removed from schools and mobs tearing down statues of Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, George Washington – and Thomas Jefferson as well – were slaveholders. However, the historical record proves that, although both men deplored the institution of slavery, they felt powerless to address it because of the economic and political realities of their times.
In fact, in Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he excoriates England’s King George III for waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred right of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating them and carrying them into slavery to incur miserable death in their transportation. This warfare on humans [is] the warfare the CHRISTIAN king of Britain determined to keep an open market where MEN should be bought and sold.”
So why did this principled rejection of slavery not make it into the Declaration as we know it?
Because the collective resolution to sever ties with England needed to be unanimous, and of the thirteen colonies, two voted against retaining this short paragraph. By the time of Washington’s presidency, slavery was too deeply entrenched in the economy of the south to confront it without risking the disintegration of the country.
Similarly, Lincoln despised the institution of slavery. But he also recognized that any hope for eliminating it rested with the preservation of the Union. Lincoln’s extraordinary genius for balancing visionary idealism against brutal pragmatism earned him furious condemnation from both the right and the left; but without his uncompromising flexibility the union never would have survived, and slavery would have lived on in the Confederacy, perhaps for decades or even generations to come.
It was the moral heroism of these great figures, despite their human imperfections, that paved the way for desegregation, the civil rights movement, and the freedoms we all enjoy today.
It is supreme arrogance to indict the leaders of the past for not having attained our level of moral sensitivity since, if not for them, we never would have attained it ourselves.