PLEASE PARDON THE cliché, but we live in an unusually “teachable moment.”
With protests, counterprotests and violence in the streets this summer following the deaths, at the hands of police, of Black citizens, many Americans — many of them capitalizing on a serendipitous spate of down time — are chewing heavily on their own history.
Specifically, the question of whether, and to what degree, the slaveholding reality of “founding fathers” in our “Land of the Free” should change the way we view the history of our national founding, in present-day terms.
As a full-time journalist and part-time historian, that question has been bouncing around my own brain in recent months, especially amid arguments about society’s struggle to deal with monuments to prominent Americans who enslaved people.
Washington, of course, is not immune to this reckoning. In fact, given our state name, we Washingtonians might well be pushed to the head of the Namesake Reconsideration Line.
(For the record: As a lifelong state resident who frankly never gave much thought to our state name until recently, I’m not calling for a change here. But I do think the discussion about its relationship to us today — or lack of one — is a useful exercise. Context matters.)
Toward that end, we decided to better frame what seems an inevitable discussion by exploring recent scholarship about Washington as a person, and his own thoughts and actions with regard to enslaving others. A range of questions presented themselves: Beyond the mythology we’ve been spoon fed, who was Washington, the human, and how did he really feel about enslaving other humans? How on Earth did a far-flung territory where Washington never trod come to bear his name? And how should we feel about all this?
The reporting for the piece produced hours of eloquent thoughts from thoughtful historians and a review of expansive pieces on the subject by experts. Synthesizing and simplifying those thoughts in the space allowed seemed criminal. Please consult their own works, chronicled in an attached reading list.
Three nuggets from the cutting-room floor:
● Note the irony in the original chosen name for Washington territory: Columbia. If Congress had acceded to that clearly stated wish by the locals, we’d be having a different discussion now — likely about the significant historical baggage of one historical figure (Christopher Columbus) instead of another (Washington).
● The state seemed damned either way, name-wise. One of the arguments against “Washington” by a minority of congressmen was that it would forever be confused with the newly minted capital district, Washington, D.C. Take it from us residents of “Washington state”: Rarely has anyone in Congress been more correct, about anything, ever. And what were the odds that both the proposed name, and its substitute, would prove to cause confusion with the “Other Washington?”
● One of the historians appearing in the piece, Leslie M. Harris, made a point about the critical importance of historical context that didn’t fit into the story, but bears repeating: One reason it’s so difficult for modern Americans to understand the apparent duality of founders, she thinks, is that we live on what might as well be another planet from the society in which they dwelled — in terms of numbers, lifestyle, mobility, social outlooks, almost everything.
She wonders: Just as we ask how the founders could compartmentalize slavery to the degree that they did, will our own descendants, 200 years hence, look back at us and ask: “You knew the Earth was burning, but you still drove a car?” Not to excuse the founders on slavery, as many people were speaking out against it even then, Harris emphasizes. But the long-distance view is always a different perspective.