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Washington's Slaves Simply A Fact

Washington's Slaves Simply A Fact
by Rodolpho Carrasco
Saturday, October 10, 1998 in San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group
(Rodolpho Carrasco is associate director of Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, Calif. and a columnist for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group. Check out more articles by Rodolpho Carrasco here.)

Education specialists for "The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic," an historical exhibit which opened this week at the Huntington Library, have created an important lesson resource for teachers of eighth through 11th graders. In eight digestible lessons, this resource justly reflects the humanity of a man whose myth midwifed our country.

I was intrigued recently to hear that some teachers and schools are hesitating to teach lesson 8 of the teacher resource. That lesson explores the role of slavery in Washington's life. In haste I got my hands on the teacher resource and scoured lesson 8, searching for the objectionable.

What I found was material that is daunting - and necessary.

The first student activity in the lesson uses an illustration of a historic slave ship, on which hundreds of string-like smudges represent enslaved Africans. The suggested question is, "What ordeal would you have encountered if transported across the Atlantic on this slave ship?"

That question is there, along with all of lesson 8, because our founding father George Washington benefited from the institution of slavery his entire life.

Washington did not just inherit ten slaves from his father. At regular intervals during his life he increased his stock by purchasing slaves, many fresh off a slave ship.

Do you remember the ocean transport scenes in the movie "Amistad?" Can you recall the re-enactment of Africans, tied with ropes to large rocks, being dragged screaming off the ship's deck by the force of those rocks plummeting to the ocean floor? Washington purchased slaves from similar ships.

Now, one might say, "Why make a big deal out of this?" Another might say, "We can't judge him by today's standards. Owning slaves was not seen then as it is now." Others will grumble, "The newspaper's gotta run a politically correct article about everything, don't they?"

But attention to the role of slavery in the life of our pre-eminent founding father is brought by none other than historian and Washington exhibit curator John Rhodehamel. In his book accompanying the exhibit, Rhodehamel writes, "Coerced labor would allow men of the revolutionary generation to live well and devote their energies to the pursuit of honor through public service."

In other words, were it not for slavery, Washington might not have been able to leave Mount Vernon to command the Continental Army.

Without slaves to manage his livelihood, the man would not have won the revolution, then preserved the hope for democracy by abdicating the throne in his grasp.

Without coerced labor to care for his farm, the myth would not have presided over the constitutional convention, nor held the early republic together as President.

In short, there would be no George Washington, and no United States of America, were it not for slavery.

This realization is jarring. It is certainly a different view of early American history, not the one that is commonly taught in any school at any level. But something else disturbs me more. Were my wife and I alive in Washington's day, she would be a slave. I can't imagine - don't want to imagine - what they would have done with this Mexican-American.

I take some comfort in knowing that, with age, Washington himself grew to abhor slavery.

While president, Washington sought to "liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings." Upon his death he emancipated all of his slaves, a move unheard of at the time. He even prescribed that these emancipated slaves be taught to read and write (Virginia's "black laws" prevented his wishes from being carried out, however).

So which is the true image of our foremost founding father? Is it the man whose greatness, according to Brown University historian Gordon Wood, lay in his virtuous moral character? Or is it the man whose wealth was gleaned, or stolen, from the labor of slaves?

The answer is both. The Great Experiment succeeded because of the public virtue of a man who in private maintained great wealth through slavery.

Eighth through eleventh grade students - indeed, all Americans - need to know this, because it is a true report of our heritage. These facts about Washington the slave-holder do not diminish his statesmanship and courage, nor his extraordinary and repeated acts of abiding power, things which are on impressive and detailed display at the Huntington through next Spring.

Even more, we the "unborn millions" to whom Washington believed himself obligated will better understand our inherited fate of affirmative action debates, the Civil Rights movement, and a civil war so bloody that Abraham Lincoln considered it just recompense for the shed blood of countless Black American slaves.

All of these events were foreshadowed by a founding father who felt a duty to "lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation (of Blacks) for a destiny different from that in which they were born...." The fact that George Washington was a life-long slave-holder who recognized his untenable moral position and tried to do something about it should be recognized, not hidden.


The copyright for these materials are owned by Rudy Carrasco.  These materials were use with permission by TechMission