By Emory Cox
Cox, a native of Pell City, Alabama, is studying American history at Washington and Lee University. He is a former White House intern and a member of the Sons of the American Revolution.
The monument debate has reached a new level of absurdity.
Alexandria’s Christ Church — an Episcopal parish George Washington attended for more than 20 years — recently decided to remove a plaque honoring our nation’s first president that has been displayed in the church’s sanctuary since 1870.
Church leaders argued that the memorial to Washington made some “feel unsafe or unwelcome.”
This decision is but one example of the growing effort to eliminate historic monuments some view as offensive. Begun as a hasty and misguided quest to rid the national landscape of symbols of the Confederacy, this movement now shows signs of evolving into an all-out assault on the legacies of the Founding Fathers.
But, why do some want to banish monuments honoring Washington? His contributions to the nation are, arguably, more significant than those of any other single person in American history.
A native Virginian who served in the First Continental Congress, Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army at the onset of the American Revolution. He devised a brilliant military strategy that allowed the Americans to outlast the British on the battlefield and, ultimately, gain their independence.
After returning to his plantation following the war’s end, Washington was elected to represent Virginia at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Quickly appointed president of that body, he presided over the Convention’s deliberations and facilitated key compromises that produced the greatest governing document in the history of the world.
His support for the Constitution played a central role in the document’s ratification, and in a display of gratitude for his service to the nation, Washington’s countrymen elected him president. He went on to serve in that role for eight years and successfully strengthened the tenuous bonds of union.
While none can deny that Washington’s leadership was key to the creation of our constitutional republic, those calling for the removal of monuments honoring the man point to a moral defect they view as inexcusable: Washington’s ownership of slaves.
To their point, Washington, like all men of the fallen world in which we live, was not perfect. He bought and sold fellow human beings. But before passing judgment, we should analyze his relationship with slavery in a broader historical context.
When Washington first became a slaveholder in 1743 at the age of eleven, slavery was legal and common in each of the thirteen American colonies. The institution was entrenched in the economic and social orders and had been pervasive throughout the centuries in societies across the globe.
Thousands of enslaved African Americans resided in Northern states such as New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut during this period, as well as throughout the South. No group of white citizens held serious reservations about the morality of slavery until Quakers began to voice opposition in 1753.
When the Revolutionary era began and Enlightenment ideas of freedom and equality circulated in the colonies, more and more Americans began to question slavery. Some concluded that the United States – a new nation founded on liberty and individual freedom – would violate the values it had fought to defend if it continued to hold a large segment of its population in bondage.
During the 1780s, Northern states began to institute plans for gradual emancipation. Even Southern states, whose economic structures depended heavily on slave labor, embraced reform by making the legal process for emancipation significantly easier.
Like many of the Founders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Washington began to doubt the morality of slave-holding. His private writings reveal that he struggled to reconcile the institution with the liberty-loving ideals of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
In an effort to right his wrongs, Washington included a provision in his will emancipating his bondsmen upon the death of his wife, Martha. This does not change the fact that Washington owned and profited from slaves, but it reveals much about the man. It places him among a small group of Southern planters who were willing to sacrifice their own economic interests by freeing their valuable slave property.
To dismiss Washington as a person unworthy of praise simply because he was a slaveholder is shortsighted. Instead of judging historical figures from our own privileged modern perspective, we must take into account the entire history of the individual and the period in which they lived. When viewed as a whole and in the context of his time, Washington stands as a virtuous patriot, albeit a human one who made mistakes. We should continue to honor his legacy.