ANYBODY DIS BLACE NEM JORJ WASHEENTON? (12/17/07)
Posted Dec 17, 2007
Last Updated Apr 7, 2008
I awoke from a dream, recently, with George Washington on my mind.
As a child and adolescent, what I learned about George Washington was pretty much what everyone else in my generation learned. Beginning with kindergarten. I know it was in kindergarten because I became aware of Washington when at Glenn Park School in Gary, Indiana, where I went to kindergarten. Learned about the cherry tree probably, and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River. (With an arm like that, he'd have made a heck of an outfielder.) Later in school I learned a little about his service as a young officer in the French and Indian War. And during the Revolution, of surviving with his army at Valley Forge, and later in the war, leading it across the Delaware River to surprise and defeat the Hessian mercenaries. And of course his victory at Yorktown. He lost most of his battles but won the war. Somewhere along the line, in high school or college, I read about his chairing the Constitutional Convention, which basically accomplished two things: it saved the country from destroying itself, and provided a charter whereby we could govern ourselves...with a little luck.
The Father of his, and our country.
Seems as if there were a lot of other fellas there, too, named Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison...and Franklin! But people I'll refer to as PWRAs (People Who Research old Archives) seem generally to agree that Washington was the one man in the country sufficiently respected to keep the convention from blowing up like a bomb full of ball bearings in a Baghdad market.
No one had run a democracy, or a quasi democracy, since Athens more than two thousand years earlier, and that hadn't lasted long. It crumbled in chaos, creating a truism that persisted more than two thousand years...the truism that democracy was impractical; that it could not work. A few British political philosophers, notably John Locke and Thomas Paine, had espoused democracy in the form of a democratic republic, but their peers considered it totally impractical.
During the years of political chaos in America, following the Revolution, there was popular sentiment to make Washington America's king. He didn't go for it. He was firmly opposed to Royalty for America.
Wait a minute, John! What are you trying to pull? You didn't mention that Washington was a g-d--- slave owner.
True. A lot of bigwigs were. Jefferson not only owned a lot of slaves; he fathered children by one of them. But owning slaves was lamentably common then. Which didn't make it right, but clearly it didn't disqualify them in the world of that time. People voted for the choices they had, from the viewpoints they had.
Note also that four of our first six presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams, weren't Christians in any evangelical sense, but deists (again I rely on PWRAs). Deists believe in a creative intelligence (a God, if you prefer) who created the universe, then pretty much let it fend for itself. What kind of Christians were they?! Their opponents, of course, didn't let that go unnoticed, but each of the four got elected anyway! Not because they were deists, but because they were esteemed for their accomplishments and their perceived characters overall.
And because in that era, slavery had not yet become a really major issue.
As for their views on slavery: George Washington owned about 300 slaves. Detailed PWRA studies of miscellaneous sources, including plantation records, bills of sale, Washington family correspondence, newspapers of the time (including ads...and later oral and written commentaries by ex-family slaves, provide a lot of insights. Seemingly the working demands and living conditions for slaves on the Washington farms were not unusual — certainly not especially harsh — but the slaves were slaves, without rights, and subject to arbitrary punishments and sale.
Washington's will stipulated that his slaves be freed on his death. Those who were part of Martha's dowery remained hers.
As for his non-Christianity, Washington's behavior was at least as moral as most, in his time. But as for his religiosity? — politically active Christian leaders of today claim him as a Christian because he belonged to the Anglican Church (then a dominant force in Virginia), neglecting to note that he seldom attended, though Martha did regularly.) He was one of the elected vestrymen (administrative committee) of his church, but that was customary for public men of influence and good reputation. And clearly he appreciated the favorable aspects of religions, as well as their sometime arrogance, divisiveness, and dictatorial tendencies. (Someone convinced that their particular religious scriptures should rule all of humankind, is apt to be politically arrogant, too, even despotic, if the machinery of government allows. Whether those scriptures were written by ancient tribal scribes, or apostles and popes, or Karl Marx, or Chairman Mao.)
At any rate, the evidence seems to support the deism of those four Founding Fathers. And some others. Google it. It's interesting. My own take on Washington (borrowed from PWRAs) is that he preferred not to make enemies, and to work within the system, which included the colonial churches. So, a realist then. Though clearly, as the leader of the Revolution, he'd put his life on the line for his principles.
As for James Madison —another Virginian Founding Father and two-term president, whose family owned slaves —another PWRA, Kenneth Clark, tells us that the first direct reference to slavery in Madison's writings is in a letter written to Joseph Jones. Jones asked Madison's opinion of a proposal to offer a slave as a bonus to any Virginian who enlisted to fight in the war for independence. Madison responded by offering another solution to the manpower problem.
"I am glad," Madison wrote, "to find the legislature persist in their resolution to recruit their line of the army for the war, though without deciding on the expediency of the mode under their consideration, would it not be as well to liberate and make soldiers at once of the blacks themselves as to make them instruments for enlisting white Soldiers? It wd. certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be loss sight of in a contest for liberty." [Kenneth M. Clark, James Madison and Slavery, www.ipl.org/div/potus/madison.html] [emphasis mine.]
And finally, why did I head this essay "Anybody dis blace nem Jorj Washeenton?"
Just now we're experiencing a presidential campaign, and I'm looking at this small herd of candidates, hoping to find someone who resembles George Washington or Abe Lincoln. (I could as well have named this: "Anybody dis blace nem Ape Leenkon?") The country could really use a Washington or Lincoln! Though lacking either of them, I might settle for a Harry Truman or a Teddy Roosevelt. I'm still hopeful. The problem is to know in advance.
Okay, but why head it in dialect, John? That's disrespectful!
Ah. I was hoping you'd ask. It was a back-handed way of addressing political correctness. (I did avoid being ethnically explicit.) There is, of course, hateful ethnic and religious humor, which I could get along without. (I've conquered my tendency to repeat George W. Bush jokes.) But there is also good-natured, even gentle! ethnic or religious humor.
Who tells the best Yiddisher jokes? The best Finn jokes? The Yiddish and the Finns, of course. Because the best ethnic jokes are from folks who know that ethnicity best. Who tell jokes, often very funny but often also fondly perceptive, rooted in the sometimes subtle traits and foibles of their own immigrant cultures. Cultures which have inevitably faded with the passing of the agrarian immigrant generation, and intermarriage, and the immigrant languages, and which survive largely in those stories.
The political correctness activists might better save their salvos for hateful jokes. Most Polish jokes, for example, were simply mean-spirited.
(Incidentally, did you hear the one about the old Swede homesteader in Koochiching Country? His sons went away to college on the G.I. Bill, and....)
One of these days I'll do a blog with some good ethnic jokes. Be warned.)