Thursday, February 11, 2016

Celebrate Washington's birthday -- or not? -- Column of Feb. 11, 2016


Poor George.

Most Americans will stay home from work Monday to observe a federal holiday that’s still officially called Washington’s Birthday, though you’d hardly know it.

On Presidents Day, Washington is largely ignored – except when he’s being knocked.

Yes, some states, including Virginia, and some cities and counties still call the third Monday in February Washington Birthday, and there are a few parades, speeches and cake. 

But the holiday is popularly referred to as Presidents Day, even though Congress and the president never changed the name.

Beloved in life, Washington was lionized following his death in 1799. Eulogized as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” he became a hero clothed in myth.

An early biographer invented the cherry tree story – “I cannot tell a lie” – to demonstrate young George’s high moral character. “McGuffey’s Readers” picked the story up – as did P.T. Barnum, says the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, which is maintained by Mount Vernon.

Librarians at Mount Vernon have tracked down other false tales. They’ve also posted on several Spurious Quotations wrongly attributed to Washington.

It’s good to set the record straight, but one aspect of Washington’s life challenges a favorable view of him. What are we in the 21st century to make of the Father of our Country having been an active slave owner for 56 years?

It’s hard for us to imagine virtuous George becoming a slave-owner at the tender age of 11 after his father died and willed him a 250-acre farm and 10 slaves. Hard to picture George as a young man adding to his slave holdings or vastly increasing his slave population when he married.

Yet there were 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon at the time of his death.

Slavery is the indelible stain on early America. Slaves quarried and cut the stones for the U.S. Capitol and helped build the White House. Eight presidents owned slaves while serving in office, and four others owned slaves at some point in their lives.

Washington was troubled by slavery but failed to act while he was alive. Only in his will did he leave a provision to free his slaves following the death of Martha Washington. The remaining slaves were hers through her first husband, who had died.

But Washington did more than Thomas Jefferson, who never freed his slaves.
We still struggle with how to portray the era, as the controversy last month over a picture book for children demonstrated.

Scholastic Press published and then stopped selling “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” after critics charged it presented too gentle a view of slave life under Washington.

Scholastic denied it was bowing to pressure but said, “We believe that without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of enslaved people and therefore should be withdrawn.”

Pulling a book may put out a public relations fire – although free speech advocates rightly criticized the publisher for self-censorship. But hiding our past won’t help us learn from it.
Author Stephen E. Ambrose, writing shortly before his death in 2002, considered how much Washington’s and Jefferson’s ownership of slaves diminished their greatness.

The founders failed to rise above their time and place but they established a system of government that eventually led -- through turmoil, the Civil War and the civil rights movement -- to “legal freedom for all Americans and a movement toward equality,” Ambrose wrote in Smithsonian magazine.

“Washington personifies the word `great.’ In his looks, in his regular habits, in his dress and bearing, in his generalship and his political leadership, in his ability to persuade, in his sure grip on what the new nation needed (above all else, not a king), and in his optimism no matter how bad the American cause looked, he rose above all others,” he wrote.

We in the 21st century owe a debt to Washington, flawed and human as he was, for his vision of a country where all men are created equal. That genius of an idea started us on the path we are on toward equality for all.

Yes, we should celebrate Washington’s birthday.

© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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