George Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732. Washington was a great man who owned more than 300 slaves. Washington expressed regret for slavery. His will stipulated that his slaves should be freed after his death.
Despite his regret, his slaves were emancipated only after he died. Washington’s fortune was built on slavery, and his enlightenment dawned a bit late. Is Washington a saint for freeing his slaves posthumously? Or is he a hypocrite for keeping slaves his entire life?
It may be anachronistic to apply contemporary standards regarding slavery to Washington. But we should also note our tendency to burnish the reputations of our heroes. No one — not even Washington — is perfect. Entire cultures can be mistaken. Favorite stories are often biased, incomplete or untrue.
Consider the story of Washington’s confession regarding the cherry tree. Young George chopped down his father’s favorite tree. When confronted by his father, he confessed saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”
The story is most likely not true, despite its edifying lesson about the importance of true confession. The purpose of this story — with obvious parallels to a story about a father and tree in the Garden of Eden — is to inspire and teach children about virtue. And so it goes with hagiography. Convenient stories, told for a variety of purposes, turn human beings into saints.
True stories are more complicated — and more interesting. Here’s a true story about Washington. As a young man, he copied down a code of conduct as part of a writing exercise. The code, known as Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” concludes: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Perhaps that call to conscience influenced Washington during the rest of his life. Washington’s posthumous emancipation of his slaves is a sign that the celestial fire did enlighten him in the long run. But does this late act adequately atone for the injustice of a life built upon slavery?
One lesson of the story of Washington and his slaves is that we are each subject to circumstances that we do not choose and cannot master. Even the best of us can be tainted by the corruption of the cultures into which we are thrown.
The 110 rules that young George transcribed represent decent behavior as imagined in a culture based on rank and deference. The rules tell us when to stand up, when to bow, when to take off our hats and how to blow our noses. These are the rules of a hierarchical society. The rules were given to George and he copied them down — as we do with all of the rules of the cultures we inherit.
Central to this code is the idea that some people are better bred and have greater “quality.” Those of lesser quality are instructed to avoid looking their betters in the eye. Lesser persons are told to walk behind their betters, to defer to men of quality and step aside, allowing their superiors to pass.
Washington inherited his first slaves at age 11, at about the same time that he was copying down these rules. It is interesting to imagine young George thinking about these rules, practicing his penmanship and learning to manage his slaves at the same time. The rules and the slaves were part of a cultural legacy Washington inherited and did create.
This story tells us much more than the story of the cherry tree. The story of George and the slaves is a tale of moral and cultural blindness. The founding fathers were unable to see the wickedness of excluding slaves from the exalted goods of rights and equality.
Washington is not alone in suffering from moral blindness. Hypocrisy is a common human affliction. It is difficult to see injustices in our own lives and in our culture. The light of conscience flickers dimly and we simply accept the world we inherit.
Washington’s enlightenment came too late to benefit the men and women he owned. But his story is a reminder of the need to keep the flame of conscience burning. In the long run, we may be able to get things right by regretting and confessing our mistakes and by breaking the old rules when we need to.