First in Our Hearts

It may seem unbelievable, but the recent calls for removing statues of Confederate heroes now extends to monuments honoring America’s founders. Just days after Charlottesville, CNN’s Angela Rye demanded statues of George Washington be torn down. She condemned him for not “protecting my freedom,” arguing “my ancestors weren’t deemed human beings to him.” And in Chicago, a pastor insisted Mayor Rahm Emmanuel remove a statue of the first president from the city’s South Side and rename the park where it stood. “For us of African-American descent,” he declared, “it represents a person who owned 317 slaves.” Although it is undeniable Washington owned slaves, he nonetheless ardently subscribed to the Declaration of Independence’s premise that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He was actually an opponent of the institution, and throughout his career, he took actions that he hoped would put it on the road to destruction. As he approached the end of his life, he even took the audacious step of freeing his slaves. This is the story of his struggle to balance the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality for all with the need to preserve American unity.

Called the “Father of His Country,” George Washington devoted his life to America. He was born on February 22, 1732 at the family estate of Wakefield but spent his childhood at Ferry Farm, near Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a young man, he trekked across much of Virginia’s vast wilderness while working as a surveyor. In 1753 he was commissioned major in the militia, and the following year, he marched into the Ohio Valley to defend the frontier against French troops. Through tragic circumstances, he engaged a French force near modern Pittsburgh and killed the commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who the French claimed was on a diplomatic mission — it was the first battle of the French and Indian War. The French counterattacked Washington at nearby Fort Necessity and forced his surrender before returning home. Eager for vindication, he joined General Edward Braddock’s 1755 Ohio Valley campaign. At the July 9th Battle of the Monongahela the future commander-in-chief first exemplified battlefield heroism. As Braddock and his senior officers fell, Washington quickly took command and reorganized the demoralized troops. As he did so, four bullets pierced his hat and coat and two horses were killed under him, but not one bullet hit his body. With order restored, he led the remnants back to British territory. Over the ensuing three years, he fought across the frontier, finally capturing Pittsburgh in 1758. Shortly after, he retired and settled at his Mount Vernon plantation with his new wife Martha and her two children.

Over the next decade, Washington enjoyed life as a prosperous Virginia planter and spent much of his time overseeing the estate, paying particular attention to the health and wellbeing of his slaves.   He was also active in politics after joining the House of Burgesses. Throughout the 1760s, he passionately denounced Britain’s direct taxation of the thirteen colonies. Writing to a friend in Britain, he proclaimed the “Parliament of Great Britain hath no more right to put their hands into my pockets, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money.” In 1774 he organized a boycott of all British goods and contributed fifty (British) pounds to help relieve Boston after the port was closed following the 1773 Tea Party. That fall he served in the First Continental Congress, and in May 1775, one month after fighting erupted in Massachusetts, he joined the Second Continental Congress wearing his militia uniform. On June 15th that august body appointed him commander-in-chief. Despite “not think[ing] my self equal to the command I am honoured with,” he promised to “exert every power I possess in [Congress’s] service for the support of the glorious cause.”

George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3rd, and for the next nine months, he besieged the British Army in Boston. He finally forced a retreat in March 1776 after placing artillery on Dorchester Heights, which overlooked the city and harbor. Afterwards, the general rushed to protect New York City from British invasion, just as Congress issued the Declaration of Independence. However, independence soon appeared doubtful as the Redcoats defeated the Continental Army at Brooklyn and pushed Washington out of New York and New Jersey. Refusing to give up, the commander-in-chief launched a surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey on December 26th, followed by a second strike at Princeton on January 3, 1777. Both victories rejuvenated the “glorious cause,” but Washington’s trials were not over. The British captured Philadelphia, America’s capital, in late 1777 and the Continental Army endured the brutal winter at Valley Forge. Even after fighting the British to a draw at the June 1778 Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey, Washington faced Continental defeats in the South and personal, as well as national, betrayal by Benedict Arnold in 1780. Through it all, the commander-in-chief never wavered in devotion, and his perseverance finally paid off in 1781 when he achieved a crushing victory over Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. In 1783 Britain recognized American independence, allowing Washington to retire and go home. After only four years at Mount Vernon, however, Washington returned to national service when he chaired the 1787 Constitutional Convention and subsequently headed the new government as America’s first president. In both capacities, Washington saw the precarious fragility of the new union with regard to the slavery question, since, at the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788, slavery remained legal in eight of the thirteen states. Although he personally wished to do away with slavery, he was forced to weigh such a desire against the possible dissolution of the nation he fought to create over that very issue.

Like other founders, particularly Southerners, the “Father of His Country” recognized the paradox of proclaiming “all men are created equal” while simultaneously owning slaves, leading him to favor eradicating the institution. He avowed “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].” Yet, he also knew every one of the southern states, at least five and maybe as high as eight of them, would resist efforts to dismantle their way of life, going as far as to separate from the union, thereby killing America in the cradle. The former commander-in-chief had faced the same predicament (a potential split in the union) during the Revolution. As British troops threatened Charleston, South Carolina, John Laurens, a top aide and proud son of the South, proposed arming slaves in exchange for freedom. African-Americans from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut were already serving the cause, but Washington feared the political ramifications of Laurens’s plan. His greatest concern was loosing Southern support for the war if it was forced to embrace a social revolution. Rather than alienate this critical base, and endanger the Revolution’s outcome, the general stayed quiet, and the plan ultimately came to naught. Once independence was secured, Washington believed it was even more important to protect the tenuous bonds holding the nation together. Instead of leading a crusade against slavery, the “Father of His Country” focused on political solutions — specifically legislative action —that would erode slavery’s influence and eventually eradicate it altogether.

He put his ideas into motion even before becoming America’s first president. Under his guidance, the 1787 Constitutional Convention sanctioned Congress’s suspension of the “wicked, cruel and unnatural” slave trade in 1808, fulfilling an antislavery objective Washington had first proposed in the 1774 Fairfax Resolves protesting British policy. (Congress did end importation of slaves in 1808.) In 1789, upon his inauguration, President Washington signed the Northwest Ordinance into law, reaffirming a 1787 ban on slavery in the territory that later became modern-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He also privately expressed a desire for Virginia to adopt gradual abolition. As in the Revolution, however, his principal duty, in fact his official charge now explicitly required by the oath of office, was to “preserve, protect and defend” this new union of states as expressed through the Constitution of the United States. All else came second. When Pennsylvania Quakers petitioned Congress to end slavery in 1790, therefore, the President let it die in debate than risk America’s survival. Nevertheless, he rightly predicted that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.” A cabinet member even reported Washington saying if America split over slavery he “had made up his mind to remove and be of the Northern.” Such commitment certainly evidences ultimate fidelity to the United States and to the antislavery cause. But the greatest proof of Washington’s staunch opposition to slavery came two years after leaving office in 1797.

In 1799, realizing it was not enough to voice antislavery views, George Washington took the audacious step of emancipating his slaves. He was encouraged to do so by Virginia Quaker Robert Pleasants who told the former commander-in-chief freeing his African-Americans would be one of the “crowning actions of [his] life.” By the time his two terms as president were over, Washington’s place in history was secure, but he recognized that leading a struggle on behalf of human freedom while keeping others in bondage would eventually be a blight on his reputation. That was something the “Father of His Country” could not bear. Consequently, he rewrote his will in July, specifying after his or Martha’s death, whichever was last, the 123 slaves he owned outright would be freed. (Martha actually liberated them before dying in 1802.) Sadly, he was legally unable to release the 153 slaves he inherited by marrying Martha. These “dower slaves” ultimately reverted to Custis hands, including George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s step-grandson. While today’s critics look back two hundred years ago and issue condemnation, Washington’s accomplishment unequivocally demonstrated a desire for freedom to extend to all Americans, regardless of race. Upon breathing his last on December 14, 1799, the “Father of His Country” left behind a legacy to be cherished by his countrymen — irrespective of color.

George Washington truly was dedicated to the guiding principles America was founded on. He spent his life fighting to create a country where freedom and equality were available for all. While he did own slaves, Americans should also remember that the “Father of His Country” was a staunch opponent of the institution, and he did what he could to put the institution on the road to ruin. While some argue more could have been done, Washington’s efforts at preserving national unity ensured the country’s survival so others could complete his work. No American before or since has ever done more to assure freedom’s wide reach to so many. His devotion to the United States and to the Declaration of Independence’s pledge of equality guarantees George Washington will remain, as “Light-Horse Harry” Lee said in his eulogy, “first in the hearts of his countrymen”… forever.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “First in Our Hearts

  1. Brian S.

    Thank you, Jake, for giving a complete account of George Washington and why he is considered the “Father of Our Country.” Too many people do not take the time to discover the details, partly out of laziness and partly because it does not fit their personal narrative. Clearly, George Washington was a great leader of men in his time, and it was his leadership qualities that people recognized as truly legendary; hence, his status in American history. Hopefully, people such as yourself will continue to tell the true stories of American heroes that we may never forget, and never allow ignorance to cloud the memories of those that have paved the way for our country’s future.

  2. Professor, I am ever thankful for your efforts to educate your “students.” Nice work on this piece — I only hope that through your efforts, as well of those of a like mind, will prevent the dismantling of more of our nation’s iconic statues. Great job and PLEASE keep them coming!

  3. Santa Yankee Boy

    Jake!! Catching up this morning and notice I missed this great piece you put together- Wow! Thank you!

    Coming to the ‘defense’ of such a great man against those who mentally, morally, and philosophically cannot find their rear ends with both hands seems like a waste of your considerable talent. Have to conclude most of these folks don’t seem to be able to read anyway… BUT, we are blessed by this to discover that even among the fine details, GW was a great ‘Father’ we can be even more proud of… Thanks Jake!

    (And tell your Dad not to get me anything to extravagant for Christmas… ) Love ya man!

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