My mom is a history buff. When we were kids, she took my brothers and I to Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Harper’s Ferry, Ford’s Theater, and more.
Sometimes in spite of ourselves, we learned all kinds of weird historical tidbits. And from an early age, we learned a deep reverence for the people who gave their lives for our country.
I was nine years old when we visited Mount Vernon.
My mom always told me that George Washington was a Great Man. “All around the globe,” she said, “you can find street names and plazas named for George Washington, because he changed the whole world!”
I knew the story well. Washington could have been a king (or something like it), but he wasn’t seduced by power, glory or accolades. He chose to step down and set a precedent of the peaceful transfer of power.
As we walked up the pathway for a tour of Washington’s old home, I knew I was treading on hallowed ground.
And then the tour guide mentioned the slaves’ quarters.
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I hadn’t known! It was like everyone — my mom, my teachers, the whole country — had lied to me. At one point, my mom asked me what was wrong.
“Mom, George Washington owned slaves.”
“Yes, he did.”
For the rest of the tour, I walked around with my arms crossed, a pit in my stomach. We heard briefly about Washington’s slaves who tried to run away to freedom and the families separated after his death.
I couldn’t idolize a man who hurt people like that.
It was around that age that I began reading the Bible on my own.
I read that Abraham had a son with his wife’s servant, Hagar. I wasn’t too scandalized by the adultery, but I was horrified that Abraham exiled his son and Hagar into the desert to die.
I read about King David’s affair with Bathsheba. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David quietly ensured that her husband would die in battle so that he wouldn’t be found out. Even as a man after God’s own heart, David didn’t repent until he received a strong rebuke from the prophet Nathan. Later David ended up fighting a civil war against his own son, Absalom. There’s no question that David loved the Lord, but he doesn’t sound like the best husband or father.
The Bible doesn’t try to defend its heroes’ errors or explain them away. There is no particular emphasis on Israel’s victories over their most horrible mistakes. We get the whole story, and we learn from both the good and the bad.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve had time to make my own mistakes. I understand sin better because I’ve seen more of the world and I’ve seen more of my own heart. I admire King David for his faith and I can see his love for the Lord in the Psalms he wrote, but when I read about his life I’m also grieved for the people he hurt.
The Bible shows us God’s goodness, and it tells the truth about everybody else. I think we should do the same thing when it comes to our nation’s history and the Founding Fathers. We can admire George Washington’s moments of brilliance, wisdom, and foresight while simultaneously acknowledging his egregious lack of wisdom and foresight when it came to slavery. Sadly, George Washington’s role as a slaveholder was relevant to his legacy and the politics of the era.
When we talk of Washington like he was a demigod, somehow elevated above the rest of us, we lose what was so special about him. The truth is more powerful: there are no demigods, Founding Fathers or otherwise. George Washington was a human being and he still changed the world. He was a part of building something better than himself.
I saw an online petition recently demanding that Congress “defend the Founding Fathers.” The petition wasn’t specific about what that entails, but ended with the plea that “this can still be George Washington’s America.” That sentiment goes against everything that George Washington worked for. He only ran for two terms of office because he didn’t want America to be defined by just one person.
But it’s an interesting idea, “George Washington’s America.” Does it mean that mean we scrub his image clean to exult the mighty general and wise leader? Or does it mean that we acknowledge Washington’s successes and failures, as well as our own, and work towards something greater and better?