George Washington was willing to “cross the Delaware” of slavery and race because he believed that America must eventually destroy slavery or slavery would destroy America. As he told an English visitor, “I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”
George Washington towered above his contemporaries, including the other Framers. He was the only one who set his own slaves free.
Not even the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, believed strongly enough in the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to set his slaves free.
Furthermore, Washington disagreed with the racist preconceptions of people such as Thomas Jefferson that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. Washington blamed the “arbitrary sway” of white people over black people for the inferior status of African-Americans.
Although George Washington owned slaves, he decided before the revolution that it was wrong to break up slave families. His refusal to break up families cost him a great deal of money from selling slaves. Furthermore, when George Washington died, his will provided for the gradual emancipation of his slaves in a way that would give them the training needed to be free in economic fact as well as in legal theory.
Washington’s efforts at gradual emancipation were not very successful because slavery and racism were so strong in America. But at least Washington tried to help his own slaves despite the immense odds against his success in transforming society’s viewpoints on slavery and racism at that time.
Washington was willing to “cross the Delaware” of slavery and race because he believed that America must eventually destroy slavery or slavery would destroy America.
As he told an English visitor, “I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”
After the revolution, George Washington wanted to enjoy a private life at Mount Vernon. But honor required that he serve the nation as President. Only then could he keep faith with the soldiers who suffered to establish a nation where everyone enjoyed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Washington had the good sense to back Alexander Hamilton’s plans for making the United States a major commercial and industrial power, instead of backing Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a purely agricultural nation.
Washington did not foster commerce and industry merely so that the United States could be a wealthy, powerful nation. Foreseeing that slavery was incompatible with commerce and industry, he was eager to set America on an economic course that would undermine, and eventually replace, the plantation system that fostered slavery.
Returning to Mount Vernon after he retired as President, Washington could rest easy in the knowledge that he had kept faith with the soldiers who suffered with him during the Revolutionary War. A strong, central government existed to secure the independence of America as a place where all people enjoy their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The only blemishes on Washington’s record were the compromises that he made regarding race and slavery.
In my opinion, we should forgive his compromises with the hardness of people’s hearts—the ingrained evils of racism and slavery that led him and his culture astray. (Isaiah 53:6; Matthew 19:8).
As a noted biographer of his life concluded: “Had Washington been more audacious [in his efforts to free the slaves], he would undoubtedly have failed to achieve the end of slavery, and he would certainly have made impossible the role he played in the Constitutional Convention and the Presidency.”
Washington kept faith with America. But America did not keep faith with African-Americans.
One tale from around the time when Washington was President captures the frustration and anger of those African-Americans whose patriotism was betrayed. It took place in Boston, a city that prided itself on being the birthplace of freedom.
In Boston, it was common to harass African-Americans at all times, and especially on holidays. One African-American wrote, “How, at such times, are we shamefully abused, and that to such a degree, that we may truly be said to carry our lives in our hands, and the arrows of death are flying about our heads.”
During one such riot, a group of whites attacked a group of African-Americans in front of the home of Colonel Middleton, an African-American veteran of the Revolutionary War. “The old soldier stuck a musket out of his door and threatened to kill any white man who approached.”
Fortunately, a white neighbor convinced the whites to disperse. (Perhaps the musket also helped to convince the whites that it was time to go.) The neighbor begged Colonel Middleton to put away his gun.
“Colonel Middleton stood silent for a moment.”
Perhaps he remembered the suffering he endured to win freedom from tyranny.
Perhaps he wondered why he had bothered to risk his life for racists who were hypocritical enough to claim that they believed that each person has the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“Then he turned and tottered off, dropping his gun and weeping as he went.”
We should all weep with Colonel Middleton.
Because we must record with shame that America broke faith with African-Americans, who had hoped that the Declaration of Independence meant what it said—that all people have the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This blog is based on passages in my book Visions of America, at pages 45-46,48 (first published in 2004, together with Visions of the Church). For the supporting sources, please see the endnotes to those pages of my book.
For my thoughts on related themes, please read my blogs “Raising the Star-Spangled Banner—Americans”, “Racism Is America Gone Astray”, “The 500-Year Marathon To Overcome Racism”, “The ‘United States’ Compared to ‘America’”, “George Washington Refuses To Become a King”, “Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—Unifying Americans”, “Martin Luther King, Jr.—Restoring Hope and Giving a Vision”, “Nationalism Is Patriotism Gone Astray”, “How Do We Build a Civilization That Is Good—That Is Very Good?”, “We Need Inspiring Visions of a Bright Future. Why?”, “Speaking Up”, “Irresistible Hurricanes of the Holy Spirit”, “Parking Cars”, “St. Francis of Assisi Made the Way of Jesus Great Again”, “Hypocrisy: Taking Away What You Gave”, “Pandemic Wisdom: Visions of America”, and “Pandemic Wisdom: Scattering the Church”.