Progressives, Race And History : The Attack On George Washington

George Washington’s extraordinary accomplishments set the stage for American liberty — so of course Progressives must reduce him to a racist slave owner.

George WashingtonNo figure was more central to the birth of our nation, first in war, then as a Constitutional Republic, than George Washington. In 1776, with the Revolution by all accounts lost and our army in tatters, it was Washington who led a ragged band of men in history’s most audacious, decisive and pivotal raids at Trenton and Princeton. It was Washington who, through 1782, kept the military together under unimaginable adversity and who, at the end of the war, stopped a military coup by his unpaid officers. It was Washington in 1783 who, unlike almost all other military leaders throughout history, laid down his sword at the end of the war and bowed to civilian control of the government.

It was Washington, called from retirement in 1787, who presided over the drafting and passage of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. It was Washington who, in 1789, was unanimously elected to serve as our President. And it was Washington who, eight years later, stepped down as President, establishing a precedent of a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. He was, as Lord Byron later wrote, the Cinncinatus of the West.

Few people in history have succeeded under the adversity Washington faced. Even fewer accomplished so much in both war and peace. None but he accomplished those in the furtherance of freedom from government. He is one of the few historical figures that was truly indispensable. And yet . . .

Enter Drake Univ. Prof. Jennifer Harvey – she a progressive with an exquisitely fine tuned sense of social justice and white guilt. Writing an op-ed at the NYT, she asks “Are We Raising Racists?” It seems that her seven year old daughter came home from school “singing the praises of George Washington.” Ms. Harvey found herself “dismayed” at this “one dimensional” teaching of history. Well, history does indeed have countless dimensions, all of which contribute to the context and understanding of any particular event of note. But Ms. Harvey had only a very selective second dimension in mind:

[O]ne morning, [her daughter] overheard the news on our kitchen radio about a politician charged with ethics violations. “What’s that about?” she asked.

I told her someone in the government had done something wrong, and she asked how an adult who was a leader could possibly do something bad.

Unfortunately,” I responded, “a lot of our country’s leaders have done bad things.”

When her eyes grew big and she said, “Like who and what did they do?” I knew I had my opportunity.

Well,” I said, “you know how you’ve been running around here celebrating George Washington? We always talk about George Washington fighting for freedom. But George Washington also owned black people as slaves.”

Her intrigue turned to horror.

If you know anything about Ms. Harvey, you know that is the reaction she wanted to get from her child.  Talk about intellectual dishonesty. What she has done is teach her daughter a second, but in this case false, dimension to our history.

True, Washington owned slaves. But Ms. Harvey fails utterly to tell her child that in 1776 this was not an ethical issue in America, let alone anywhere else in the slave owning and slave selling world – i.e., the entire world at the time. That world included black slave owners and the blacks who sold the slaves, Native American slave owners, Muslim slave owners and slave sellers, and Muslim pirates who enslaved twice as many white Europeans in raids as the North American colonies ever imported of African slaves into North America. Nor did Ms. Harvey tell her child:

  1. That Washington considered selling his slaves for economic reasons but opted against it because some had married and he did not want to break up the families.
  2. On several occasions in his later years, Washington expressed his opposition to slavery, including in a 1786 letter wherein he wrote “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the abolition” of slavery.
  3. When Washington died, he freed his slaves in his will, while also providing that those who were old or infirm or who otherwise chose to could stay on the plantation, and he created a trust to pay for their lifetime care.
  4. That for much of the Revolutionary War and after, Washington’s closest friend was Billy Lee, his black valet.

Thus it is all the more ludicrous when Ms. Harvey later proclaims “it’s more critical than ever that we talk about difficult and morally complex issues with our children.” No, she is feeding her daughter a narrative, not discussing complex issues. What makes this complex for Ms. Harvey is that she is trying to sell the narrative to her child in the absence of evidence of the racism that Ms. Harvey claims is pervasive.

White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value. When they see racial inequality — when the only doctors or teachers they see are white, or fewer kids in accelerated classes are black, for example — they won’t blame racism. Instead, they’ll blame people of color for somehow falling short.

Does teaching her daughter to jump immediately, unquestioningly and irrevocably to a “racism” conclusion sound like complex, critical thinking?

To progs such as Ms. Harvey, racism is original sin and unchanging in society. From that standpoint, everything, including our nation’s history, must be strained through the narrative. Of course, doing that to our history is particularly toxic, as it then delegitimizes all that our nation stands for. Our Constitution and all of our national precedents can all be tossed out in a New York second if the progs get the opportunity. We really are in a zero sum game.

Ms. Harvey is a very open and obvious example of all that is wrong with progressive left academia. But she is just one among countless many in the ivory towers spewing this Marxist toxin instead of teaching facts and critical thought. I don’t see how we address this problem short of a complete overhaul of higher education. And maybe intercession by CPS on behalf of Ms. Harvey’s daughter.