Vice President, Media & Communications
Why do we honor George Washington as the Father of our Nation? Why are there countless memorials and statues commemorating him throughout the United States and in many countries around the world? These monuments were raised to celebrate his role in the creation of a nation that idealized liberty and self-rule, a nation that would never have existed without his leadership.
George Washington led the army that secured the independence of the United States, an act of perseverance, courage, and vision that helped create a republic centered around the ideal of representative government.
The doctrine of liberty endorsed by the American Revolution would transform the old world. The concepts of equality and popular sovereignty enshrined in the Declaration of Independence would help usher in the modern ideas that today we perhaps take for granted. This new American creed would be used by the newly created states to expand the idea of democracy, and in the North to liberate thousands of men and women held in bondage. The first laws ending slavery in the northern states would never have happened, when they happened, without the success of Washington's army in securing the political independence of the new nation.
Without George Washington, we would not have our tradition of civilian control of the military. Unlike many countries, the United States has never had a military coup, and our military does not play an oversized role in our politics, thanks to the example of George Washington. In fact, after hearing about Washington's resignation of his command following the Revolutionary War and return to civilian life, his greatest enemy, King George III, noted that if true, Washington would be "the greatest man in the world."
George Washington led the movement to create a "more perfect Union" so that the newly independent states would not collapse into anarchy or dictatorship, as many independent republics have experienced. His subsequent leadership in the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution was an unprecedented example of a peaceful effort to create a new government and has endured as a model for the spread of constitutional democracies around the world.
And while the Constitution contained the political compromises of the age, the framers allowed it to be amended, so that it could evolve with the ever-changing needs of a progressive society. Most importantly, it established the fundamental rights cherished by all Americans today, including the freedom of speech, assembly, and protest, the protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and the separation of church from state. The Constitution provides the tools for Americans to change their world. Without George Washington, there would be no Constitution.
George Washington created the office of the President, rather than a monarchy, making countless decisions to establish a uniform and stable national government. He set the precedents of that office, and by voluntarily leaving the nation's highest office after two terms, he selflessly gave the world an example of an orderly transfer of power, which proved that a head of state could be turned back into an ordinary citizen. After 220 years, this regular and peaceful transition of executive power serves to continually renew our national argument over the destiny of our country.
This is what we inherited from the leadership of George Washington.
We recognize that George Washington was a flawed human being and should not be worshipped as a saint. His most singular moral and human failing was as a lifelong slaveowner, who exercised this vicious power over hundreds of individuals and their families. His world, and its economic foundations, were shaped by a system of racial slavery that had existed in Virginia for more than one hundred years before his birth. He inherited his first slaves after his father's death when he was only 11 years old. Throughout his life, he managed his estates with enslaved workers-- men, women and children,--regularly using corporal punishment, and pursuing people who tried to run away to experience the same freedom he enjoyed. A study of his ownership of people reveals all the tragedy and inhumanity of a slave-based economy. We all still must grapple with the impact of that racist legacy.
But unlike most white men and women of his time, George Washington came to question the institution of slavery. He struggled with the discordance between the world he grew up in and the principles that would come to define his public leadership. His experience in the war for independence would alter his thinking. He led African-American troops as well as many other ethnicities in the American Revolution, and his writings expressed personal views that slavery was inherently wrong. Most profoundly, in Washington's last will and testament, he freed the men, women, and children he owned; providing for education for the young, and pensions for the old, but only after the death of his wife Martha, who could continue to use their labor. Nonetheless, if Washington's example had been followed by every slaveowner in 1799, slavery might have ended peacefully in a generation.
Although some have questioned whether George Washington could have done more, many Americans at the time recognized his final act as a powerful and symbolic achievement. Notably, the free black community of Philadelphia celebrated George Washington's will as the completion of a heroic life spent in support of liberty. Reverend Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, eulogized Washington in 1800 in ringing terms, noting that "The name of Washington will live when the sculptured marble and statue of bronze shall be crumbled into dust." George Washington's last will and testament would be compelling to abolitionists in the 19th century of the United States. The great African American orator, Frederick Douglass, and many others would use Washington's example to shame Americans to live up to his standard. When George Washington's body was moved to his new tomb at Mount Vernon in 1835, it was a group of Washington's formerly enslaved, now free blacks, who voluntarily worked to clean up the site.
Washington's legacy is complex, yet ultimately deserving of our admiration. If we fail to honor George Washington because he was a slaveowner, without a recognition of his incomparable leadership and democratic principles, we will lose the story of the birth of the United States-- for our nation will have no beginning and very little direction. Without the leadership of George Washington in the founding of our country, we would not live in a society with guaranteed freedoms and protections to speak up, demand action, and make our nation reflect the values of today.
Statues and monuments are not permanent, but the guiding principles of our nation must be. While other revolutions have ended in anarchy or dictatorship, ours has been constantly demanding that each generation live up to its aspirational ideals—to form a more perfect Union.
Without George Washington, there would be no great experiment in democracy.
As we consider how to shape our cultural landscape to reflect modern values, we should not be tearing down but building a fresh legacy upon the firm foundations established by George Washington.