IN THE MIDST of the ongoing naming wars, surely ours has not escaped the world’s notice.
“Washington.” It’s writ large — and everywhere.
The Backstory: Who WAS this Washington guy, and why are we named after him?
In America’s upper-left-hand corner, its name — his name — is as close as you can get to a tattoo on a society. The name; initials; and even the face of George Washington, the fabled “father of our country,” are so ubiquitous, in fact, they’ve almost become invisible.
Look around: Money. Seals on documents. Return address labels. Junk mail. Google Maps. Drop-down menus. Highway markers. That antiquated state flag. The end zones at Husky Stadium, for God’s sake. More than a few tattoos. On and on.
Yet for most of us, the symbolism likely has lost most conscious connection to the man, and even the myth; “Washington” today, in our minds, screams out place more loudly than person.
Think: The last time you scribbled “WA” on an address label, did you pause to consider the namesake — a Virginia plantation owner and rough-edged general who led a ragtag Colonial army to victory against the mighty British Empire? The guy who later was chosen by acclamation as the first President of the United States, securing his place in history as “the foundingest of our founding fathers”?
Certainly not the man who, along with his wife, Martha, enslaved hundreds of people throughout their lifetimes.
The truth is that all too many of us in modern times have been too busy feeding the kids and getting our Wi-Fi to work to ponder such apparent trivia.
SPURRED BY WIDESPREAD rage over what seems an endless spate of police slayings of Black citizens, unprecedented numbers of Americans are engaging, in their own ways, in what many consider a long-overdue public reckoning of national self-identity, particularly in terms of racial justice. That path leads to a daunting question: How does a nation trumpeting a foundation of equality for all people reconcile the degree to which enslavement of human beings was embraced — and practiced — by its creators?
And then: Should long-venerated founders who enslaved people continue to be celebrated, at least, for creating a framework that provided a path to freedom even for those to whom they refused to grant it? Or do their actions cry out so much louder than their lofty words that they are either rendered moot, or at least destined for a major historical asterisk?
The emotional sparks shooting out from that debate already have settled onto the low-lying historical kindling: public monuments and honorifics for prominent Americans whose economic, social and political existence was intrinsically tied to enslaving other humans.
It resulted this summer in the removal of a number of statues honoring southern-state Civil War “heroes” — most erected by Confederate sympathizers decades after the Civil War, in a blatant attempt to recast the historical legacy of Southern secessionists. But names of past leaders with a history of racism also have been scrubbed, notably former President Woodrow Wilson’s, from the public policy school at Princeton.
The predictable equal/opposite reaction — amply bellowed by the current president, but not easily dismissed by many Americans — was swift, and impassioned: “How far does this all go? All the way to George Washington?”
Well, yeah. It’s already “gone there,” actually. Which puts Washington, the state, in the crosshairs, to some degree.
While no one at press time for this piece had mustered an organized attempt to change the name of a state named after the slaveholding Father of our Country, a petition was launched this summer to remove the imposing 1909 statue of Washington from the Seattle main campus of the university that also bears his name.
The UW, no doubt feeling the full weight of that big W, hasn’t responded one way or the other, and last time we checked, George still stands. But so does the question: Does Washington have a George problem?
A GOOD STARTING POINT in weighing the question is revisiting who the man was, and how in the world his name came to be stamped upon license plates in a place he never came within 1,000 miles of.
Let’s begin with the obvious: A lot of fanciful hoo-haw passing as history surrounds old George. For someone so heavily mythologized, the first step to getting at who he was is to sweep aside who he wasn’t.
In a recent popular biography, “You Never Forget Your First,” historian Alexis Coe, a rare female evaluator of the foundingest father, cuts to the chase, relegating long-accepted Washington mythology to a chart, titled: “Lies We Believe About The Man Who Could Not Tell Them.” To wit:
Lie: He was an unparalleled military leader. Truth: He lost more battles than he won.
Lie: He could not tell one, hence owning up to that cherry tree thing. Truth: Never happened. He could lie, and did — to useful effect: misleading the British, for example.
Lie: George grew pot. Truth: Hemp. It was HEMP!
Lie: He threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. Truth: Duh — no. It’s a mile wide there.
This author spends little time retracing the well-trod ground of Washington’s military exploits. But it should be remembered that Washington’s cult of celebrity in early America was earned through toil on the battlefield. Serving as the brawn to match the brains of other founders, Washington spent eight of his prime years leading a ragtag Colonial Army to victory against the powerful British Empire, in a war of attrition that ultimately claimed between 25,000 and 70,000 American patriots, many dying not from battle but disease or starvation.
Adding to this presidency — a job literally designed for Washington, Coe notes — many historians consider him the one person “indispensable” to the American Revolution.
Offering nuance to that fabled image, Coe enlightens readers with life-story details both trivial (did you know he was the nation’s most prominent breeder of mules?) and meaningful: She highlights Washington’s willingness to resign his command following the war, calling it an act likely without precedent in Western history. He would again “shock the world,” setting an example of the peaceful transition of power, by resigning from the presidency at age 64.
But like other modern historians spurning traditional, often-fawning, “great men” approaches to our past, Coe devotes significant attention to Washington’s role as an enslaver.
Note: This has never been a secret; even the most-adoring Washington biographers (a group Coe labels the “Thigh Men,” due to their odd fixation with his ample, horseback-honed trunks) at least acknowledged the troublesome shadows. Washington’s long history of enslaving others has even become a prominent narrative in interpretive materials at Mount Vernon, his tourist-destination Virginia estate.
BUT GEORGE AND MARTHA’S enslavement of people who attended their every need has never been a central focus of historical Washington assessments until more recently.
Today, trailblazing scholars such as historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of “Never Caught,” the story of Washington’s relentless pursuit of the fugitive escaped slave Ona Judge, remind us that many of our national founders were engaging in what now would flatly be considered human trafficking.
Most historians agree that Washington’s sentiments about slavery evolved over his lifetime. Upon death, his will provided for the eventual freeing of more than 100 enslaved people (the majority of the 300-plus slaves at Mount Vernon were owned by Martha Washington, who brought them from a previous marriage). But he also took no action to free his own slaves while president, when doing so would have been monumental.
Washington, in fact, enacted a 1793 law providing a legal means for slave owners to reclaim their lost “property.” And for five years during his presidency, he engaged in a charade, moving a number of enslaved people he couldn’t bear to live without between Virginia and Philadelphia every six months to skirt local anti-slavery provisions.
Coe’s summation rings true: “What’s clear is that, however Washington felt about owning human beings, he wasn’t willing to part with everything he had to free them.”
DECADES AFTER HIS death, the popular veneration of Washington, really America’s first national celebrity, remained ascendant as settlers relentlessly pushed West. Although plenty of happenstance was involved, the national Cult of Washington would contribute to the naming of what we now know as Washington state in the mid-19th century.
The name wasn’t an issue when Washington became the 42nd state, in 1889 — it already had been decided almost four decades earlier, with the creation of Washington Territory. These events are richly chronicled in a 1988 journal article by the late historian John M. McClelland Jr.
A synopsis: Beginning in the mid-1840s, a relatively small portion of the settlers pushing into space long occupied by Northwest native peoples turned north instead of south upon entering the sprawling Oregon Territory, comprising most of the Northwest. They claimed, often by coercion or force, traditional tribal lands north of the Columbia River that already had attracted settlers by sea, via Puget Sound.
Literally upon arrival, the mostly white settlers launched a secessionist movement, arguing for their own territory with nearer government services and representation than they were likely to receive from the Oregon territorial seat, 300 miles to the south.
They had a distinct preference for the name of their new place: Columbia.
The push to gain federal recognition for Columbia began in the 1840s and was put to paper, officially, in 1851. It was given broader voice by editors of a fledgling newspaper, called … wait for it … The Columbian, which presciently predicted in an editorial: “a legal divorce from the south is inevitable.”
Word of building momentum ultimately reached the territory’s single Congressional representative, Joseph Lane, who begrudgingly introduced legislation in 1853.
Here in this tale arrives the man most deserving credit — or blame — for the big W we wear on our sleeves today: Rep. Richard H. Stanton of Kentucky, a native Virginian, who, as a condition for his vote, insisted on replacing the name “Columbia” with “Washington” to honor the late president. (Bonus reason: He thought people would confuse Columbia with the District of Columbia — ironic, given the constant confusion between his chosen state name, Washington, and Washington, D.C., to this day.)
Another congressman, Rep. Alexander Evans of Maryland, chimed in to back “Columbia.” Surely, he argued, no one objected to honoring George Washington, but countless U.S. towns and counties already bore that name. Affixing it to an area with no logical connection to Washington, the man, would just cause confusion, he contended. Instead, he suggested giving the territory “one of the beautiful Indian names which prevail in that part of the country.”
But Evans’ logic was promptly harrumphed into submission. Lane, just wanting the bill to pass, acquiesced, and the measure sailed through Congress.
Washington, it was. And is.
AND EVER SHALL BE?
We are a questioning people; questions will be asked. To wit: Is the name simply settled history, a historical bridge too far to even discuss? Is it a tad troublesome, but not enough to skip lunch over? Or is it a betrayal, wholly unjustified, a historical wrong deserving of righting?
Pragmatism looms large: It’s not likely people of The Evergreen State will summon, anytime soon, the political will to make the state Constitutional amendment required to change its name. But smaller-scale adjustments, or even statements of revised purpose, are by no means off the table.
Nor should they be, many historians say. Passionate discussions about the future of a freedom-espousing nation still struggling with its “original sin” are just getting ramped up across mainstream America. The conversation, nudged along by historians’ growing tendency to engage in critical analysis, rather than simple acknowledgment, of America’s slave-owning founders is long overdue, says Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University.
Dunbar spent nine years researching Washington’s vengeful attempt to reclaim the lost “property” of fugitive slave Ona Judge, who spent years literally dressing Martha Washington before escaping from the presidential residence, then in Philadelphia, in 1796. Dunbar was braced for a backlash, even within her field, but says she has been pleasantly surprised by a broad acceptance.
“I think there is a basic understanding now that we can’t erase or rewrite history,” Dunbar says in a recent interview. “We have to confront (George) Washington’s past, and that includes his role as a slaveholder.”
The Washingtons, she notes in her book, “were completely dependent upon slave labor. In order to uphold their standard of living, they relied basically upon human trafficking. At the time of his death, there are over 300 enslaved people living at Mount Vernon, no matter how you cut it.”
The Washingtons were not, of course, an exception among the American upper-crust — even among early holders of the nation’s highest office.
“Twelve of our presidents owned slaves,” Dunbar says. Most of them have been given a pass, of sorts, by most historians, because of the notion that, “They were simply men of their times.”
Dunbar scoffs: Wasn’t Ben Franklin a man of those same times? He owned slaves early in his life, and evolved to the point that he served as president of the Quaker-inspired Pennsylvania Abolition Society, she notes.
She calls the argument a “threadbare excuse,” adding: “It’s a convenient way to dodge the tricky question. It’s kept everyone quiet for a long time.”
Washington also has been cut ample historical slack because of his will’s directive to eventually free slaves considered the property of his estate — an action he told associates he had avoided earlier because it would have split up families at Mount Vernon whose “ownership” was divided between him and his wife.
“It did create an opportunity for Washington to follow what he knew, in his soul, to be correct, which was that human bondage was wrong,” Dunbar says.
“But I take a different stance on that. Imagine the impact that decision could have had on American life and culture if Washington had done that while he was alive. Imagine what it would mean for the very first president of the United States to walk away from slavery, publicly.”
WE WILL, OF COURSE, never know. Which is all the more relevant now, as America’s season of passionate protest and debate finally has served to introduce some fundamental questions, long asked, to a far larger audience, says Leslie M. Harris, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in slavery and African American history.
“How do we have a conversation?” she asks. “And following the conversation, how do we decide what to do?”
It can’t begin without some consensus that we, the people, can possess a “complex view” of the founding fathers — acknowledging that they espoused “universal” rights they were unwilling to grant to all, Harris suggests. From there, one can accept that most progress toward the original, praiseworthy idea of America has been the result of struggle, mostly by women and nonwhite citizens.
“We really have to be honest about the fact that if we were really to go back to the founding, and the original ideas at the founding, the majority of us today would not be voting,” Harris says. “We just need to accept that the founding fathers were not perfect; they had limits. There were people ahead of them on some issues. They were ahead on others. But they were not the only forward-thinking people of their time.”
She frames the big question thusly: “Can we recognize what they set in motion, and honor them for that? And can we do that without avoiding parts of the past that conflict with our understanding of what is right and moral and fair? Can we move forward from our limits into our new reality of fairness? We’re really struggling with that right now.”
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, and it is local. In Seattle, classes are back in session at the University of … Washington, where historian, author and opinion writer Margaret O’Mara, perhaps while on her way to teach her class on the U.S. presidency, has strode beneath the imposing statue of old George more times than she can count.
It is different for her to pass beneath it, she knows, than for others, for whom it is a trauma-inducing reminder of an era during which they could have literally been that statuesque figure’s personal property. She believes objections to Washington’s looming presence raise questions far more complex than the spats over removal of Confederate statues. And that the fundamental one remains.
“A democratic institution that allowed slavery to continue … is hard to deal with,” O’Mara says. “And we haven’t dealt with it.”
She takes heart in noting that people who might feel pain walking past that statue today feel free to say so. Because their parents likely wouldn’t have.
“We’re now having a conversation about history, how it’s made and how it’s interpreted,” O’Mara says. “That is healthy, and necessary. It doesn’t do us any good to put our fingers in our ears.”
What does she tell her students about living in a land where slaveholders created what they called the Land of the Free?
“I tell them it’s OK. We can still celebrate and be proud of America, and Americans, and still be very ambivalent, if not angry, about the veneration of people who enslaved others.”
She reminds them that the same men created institutions that lived far beyond them. That new life has been breathed into those institutions, over and over, by people who might have been bought and sold in Washington’s time. She pushes the next generation to channel energy and anger into change: “Look at the ideals George Washington and the others were professing to advance, the ideals this country was founded on,” she says. “And hold leaders of today to those standards.”
O’Mara gets that some of her students, thanks in no small part to the present political mayhem, are cynical to the point that they’re not buying it. But, she says, it’s the only way forward. To those young citizens of what O’Mara hopes will be a different, more-accepting “America, 2.0,” she offers encouragement that might, for some older Americans, also double as an apology:
“We’re working on it.”