George Washington: From Hero to Zero
When I was young, I was taught to venerate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I was taught that they were the models by which all Americans are measured. Like Superman, or Batman, like St. Peter, or my Dad, these two men could do no wrong. I’m afraid even as an adult I still suffer a bit from Hero Worship (though not to the visionary extent of Napoleon Hill, who would have actual visions of Lincoln and Napoleon discussing Hill’s dreams for his life). When I was a teenager there was a mini series that I never saw, claiming to show a more human side of our Founding Father (you sure use a lot of Capital Letters Curtis….are you sure you wanna emphasize things so drastically?). I have grown up enough to realize that my heroes were women and men with human frailties. My relative Ben Franklin discovered Congress with “low women” and Thomas Jefferson fathered a child on one of his slaves. Mother Theresa gave cigarettes to the poor, and pretty much every leader ever has made some embarrassing mistake that, if focused on, would lead one to despair of humanity.
Controversy in Washington’s Lifetime
Praise for Washington was almost universal amongst the victorious revolutionaries. But once he was elected President, some newspapers started to criticize him. Part of the dynamic was that the number of newspapers in the young republic exploded from under fifty in 1776, to over 250 in 1800. More voices statistically meant more chance of criticism. Also, political parties were developing around him, which is likely why he was so adamant in his farewell address that political parties were an evil. On one side you had Alexander Hamilton jockeying for a stronger government and a stronger economy, on the other Thomas Jefferson striving for an agrarian, rural based economy with the least government possible. Jefferson wrote to James Madison, his right hand man: “the President, tho’ an honest man himself, may be circumvented by snares and artifices, and is in fact surrounded by men who wish to clothe the Executive with more than constitutional power.” Perhaps his worst contemporary critic was Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense and The American Crisis. He was furious that the American government allowed him to rot in prison during the times of the French Revolution Terror, and he turned his vitriol on Washington unsparingly. Some suggest this may have been a large part of why Washington chose to retire after his second term in office. To quote Paine: “Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement. The lands obtained by the revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interests of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator; injustice was acted under the pretence of faith; and the chief of the army became the patron of the fraud.”
Modern Disdain for the Indispensable Man
Obviously, Washington’s reputation was more than restored in time. After his rather untimely death, many who had spoken ill of him changed their tone, and lauded in death the man they deplored in life. History books written often chose to focus on the strengths Washington elicited, sometimes totally ignoring his failings, and evolving apocryphal stories about him, like the cherry tree story that has entertained so many children. More and more in modern days, he has been criticized as a despotic slave owner, someone who lied and cheated his way to the top, and is deserving of admiration only in a Machiavellian sense. A lot has been written about this by the New York Times and other papers who wish to shed light on the horrors of slavery, and who for good or ill have rewritten the narrative of our Founding Fathers in the belief that the entire Revolution centered on the fulcrum of continuing the execrable practice of slavery. I will leave some links for those who wish to read more and make up their own minds, as well as my own previous post about Lincoln and the 1619 Project:
Last of all, I find this book review, giving perhaps the most scathing criticism of all:
In the end, I’m not here to tell you what to think about George Washington. All of us stand before the same Judge in the end, and I can only hope that Judge will be merciful to me. My opinion is that Washington was a great man, though like all of us, badly flawed. I don’t mean to stir the pot of anger that boils over on both sides. But I wonder…..if Washington had never been born….would slavery have ever come to an end in the world? Or would someone as heroic, or even more so, have stood up and taken up the mantel of Liberty?
One of my favorites that you’ve written so far — intellectual and well-balanced.
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