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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

February 17, 2021: Non-Favorite American Myths: George Washington

[Given my overall 2021 goal of better remembering all of American history, for this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series I wanted to highlight some of the historical myths of which I’m decidedly not a fan. Share your own non-favorites, historical and every other type, for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances that’s always one of my favorite posts of the year!]

On three of the many inaccuracies at the heart of our Washington mythos (not even counting that whole cherry tree thing):

1)      He was a great general: I don’t know that I’d go quite as far as Gore Vidal does in Burr (1973), where he has his fictionalized Aaron Burr say, noting Washington’s “military short-comings” and his “eerie incompetence,” that he “was never to defeat an English army.” But certainly Vidal’s Burr is closer to the mark than our predominant narratives of General Washington, whose eventual military triumph in the Revolution was due almost entirely to other leaders, both American and European. Yes, he did cross the Delaware—but that’s one successful strategy in the course of an eight-year war!

2)      He was universally beloved: It’s true that Washington’s presidential administration brought together leaders of both major political parties, and that his two elections were uncontested (the only two such in American history). But the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion should put to rest any notion that Washington’s America wasn’t divided, or that his terms were without controversy or division. Indeed, Washington has been far more universally beloved in the centuries since his death than he was during his lifetime—which means we should probably work harder to find the complexities that were evident in his own era.

3)      He freed all his slaves: This one’s seriously complicated, and I’ll mostly leave it to the excellent Mount Vernon website to get into the details. It is true, as the site notes, that Washington freed a portion of his estate’s more than 300 slaves in his will—a number more were subsequently freed by his widow Martha, perhaps (as Abigail Adams argued in a private letter) because she was afraid for her life. But the simplest fact is that Washington owned slaves for 56 of his 67 years, and as far as we know did not free a single one during his lifetime—and indeed, as Erica Dunbar has recently traced so powerfully, he worked hard to keep his enslaved people in that situation and relentlessly pursued those who escaped. We can credit the small moments of racial progress in Washington’s life without eliding, indeed working as with all these myths to better and more accurately remember, this clear and significant fact about our first president.

Next non-favorite tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Non-favorites (historical or otherwise) you’d share?

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