Even the warts on American history are a beautiful thing

BringBackMyGirls

We all know George Washington’s story, or at least we think we do. We celebrate him as a man of great character and moral compass, the “indispensable man” without whom the American Revolution likely would have failed. But most of us don’t know the story of Ona Judge, a freckled, light-skinned mulatto slave at Mount Vernon, the daughter of a white indentured servant and a female slave.

oney-adIn May of 1796, President Washington and his wife were living in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital, serving out the rest of his second and final term. Ona Judge was a 20-year-old seamstress and Martha’s personal servant. But one night, after Judge was informed that she would soon be given away as a wedding gift, she decided to take her future into her own hands. She slipped out of the presidential mansion and secretly fled by ship from Philadelphia to refuge farther north, in New Hampshire.

Washington and his wife were irate at Judge’s escape and felt betrayed, suggesting that she must have been “seduced” away by some Frenchman.  In one letter seeking her return, Washington stressed that “the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant …. ought not to escape with impunity if it can be avoided.” They offered rewards for her capture and return, and when she was eventually spotted in Portsmouth, N.H., Washington sent orders to have her re-captured and sent back to Mount Vernon.

However, local officials balked at carrying out those orders, fearful of setting off anti-slavery riots.

Judge, aware that the most powerful man in the country now knew of her location and wanted her back, offered to return to slavery voluntarily, but only on the condition that she be promised freedom upon the deaths of George and Martha. Otherwise, “… she should rather suffer death than return to Slavery.” Washington rejected the offer and was clearly angered that a mere slave woman would attempt to negotiate.

“To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissable, … it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”

A frustrated Washington then dispatched a nephew to kidnap Judge. The nephew traveled to New Hampshire and spent the night with U.S. Sen. John Langdon, a friend of Washington and himself a Founding Father. But when Langdon discovered the nephew’s mission, he secretly arranged to tip off Judge and sent her into hiding. The runaway slave lived out the rest of her life in peace, later telling the story to the local press.

As one reporter in 1845 wrote:

“When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since than before, her reply is, “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

The story that Judge tells of Washington complicates our image of the man. He comes off as petty and vindictive, reducing another human being’s natural desire for freedom to an act of personal betrayal and unfaithfulness. Decades later, Judge also reported “that the stories told of Washington’s piety and prayers, so far as she ever saw or heard while she was his slave, have no foundation (emphasis original). Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties, and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day.”

The once-overlooked story of Ona Judge is now being taught in many American history classes, including Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. It’s the story of a woman living in a time when women were once all but invisible to history; it’s the story of a black person who was condemned to slavery by individuals whom we celebrate for their ideal that “all men are created equal,” and it’s the story of a person who bucked the system and defied the fate that others tried to impose on her.

What could be more American than that?

Judge’s story may not be Washington at Valley Forge, or Washington crossing the Delaware, but it’s the story of heroic victory nonetheless. Her story complicates our story; she makes it richer and more confusing, with contradictory narrative lines that deepen its meaning rather than undermine it.

But the truth is, telling our story that way makes some people nervous.

For example, there’s a movement afoot in Georgia and elsewhere to protest a new AP U.S. history framework for high school students as “too negative” and insufficiently patriotic. According to a resolution introduced in the state Senate, the revised AP history framework pushes “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” including the role played by religion.

The Senate resolution demands that the College Board alter its AP history framework with an approach that emphasizes “America’s founding principles and the uniqueness of America’s role in the world,” among other things. If the College Board does not acquiesce to Georgia’s demand, the Senate resolution instructs the state Board of Education to stop teaching the AP history course in Georgia, thus making it very difficult for Georgia students to claim college credit.

As someone with a degree in history who has actually read much of the AP history framework, I have no idea what the authors of SR 80 are complaining about; I suspect they don’t either.  For example, here’s part of the framework for the period 1754-1800, the founding period:

APUSH

Every element that the Senate resolution claims is missing from the AP history framework can be found in that brief excerpt above, as well as in many others. What I suspect makes critics nervous are instead other parts of the framework, including those that stress “the (students’) ability to identify, compare, and evaluate multiple perspectives on a given historical experience.”

Washington and his runaway slave, for example, would have very different perspectives on the meaning of freedom, with the father of our country defining the term extremely narrowly, to apply only to white men of property. He was wrong in that, and wrong on a very large scale. Judge, in her own very small way, got it right. Through her story, we can come to understand that the American Revolution, officially dated 1775-1783, did not conclude in 1783 but in fact continues to this day, with expanding notions of freedom. We can also recognize that history is much more than a recounting of great men doing great deeds; it is also made by small people refusing to accept what stronger forces attempt to force upon them.

The story told that way isn’t simple or straightforward —  it’s actually kind of sloppy — and some people can be unsettled by its suggestion that even now the Revolution might be unfinished. But it has the virtue of accuracy, and it is even more beautiful, heroic and reassuring than the sanitized version preferred by some.

Reader Comments 1

943 comments
MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Understanding George Washington with nuance:


From the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Washington: A Life,” by Ron Chernow (page 800):


“He (Washington) saw with some clairvoyance, that slavery threatened the American union to which he had so nobly consecrated his life. ‘I can clearly foresee,’ he predicted to an English visitor, ‘that nothing but the rotting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.’  Beyond moral objections to slavery, he had wearied of its immense practical difficulties. . .Because of natural increase since 1786, the Mount Vernon slave population had soared from 216 to 317, of whom Washington owned outright 124. . . .Writing to Robert Lewis on August 17, 1799, Washington reflected on the baffling conundrum posed by excess slaves: ‘To sell the overplus (of slaves) I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species.  To hire them out is almost as bad because. . .to disperse the families I have an aversion.  What then is to be done?  Something must or I shall be ruined (financially).’


He possessed ‘a thorough conviction that half the workers I keep on this estate would render me a greater net profit than I now derive from the whole.’ That he owned fewer than half the slaves himself perhaps set the stage for the most courageous action of his career.  If he emancipated his own slaves in his will, he would satisfy his conscience, set a sterling example for futurity, and still leave a viable plantation behind.  In 1799 a convenient convergence of economic and moral factors enabled Washington to settle the issue that had so long gnawed at his mind.”

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Let us not forget the facts. At George Washington's death, the total number of slaves on the Washington plantation was 318, 135 of whom belonged to him. The rest were "dower slaves" owned by Martha Washington.

Washington emancipated no one while living. His will provided for freeing his slaves upon the death of his widow. In January 1801 Martha freed her husband's slaves, just over a year after his death. However, while she lived, Martha did not emancipate any of her own slaves and when she died, on May 22, 1802, at the age of 70, all of her human property went to her inheritors.

http:wikipedia.org/wiki/ 

Let us also remember that slaves were not "servants," who had some "moral duty of slaves' service to the master." They were bought human beings with no innate "moral duty" besides survival. The field slaves worked from dawn to dusk or later in back-breaking labor, quite often with insufficient food or clothing. Pregnant field slaves had to work up until the day before delivery, and usually within 5 days after.  House slaves worked all day until far into the night. For the female slaves, this included sexual service to the master. Both types of slaves faced the constant threat of whippings and the sale to the Caribbean sugar plantations, where the life expectancy was 7 years.

 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@OriginalProf


Today is the day to shine light on the considerable contributions that the Father of Our Nation contributed to the creation of this nation.  All that you write is true, and all that columnist Jay Bookman wrote earlier about George Washington was true. We know that slaves were not "servants, who had some moral duty of slaves' service to master"; however, we must be conscious of that fact that we live today, not three centuries earlier.  As I had written earlier, what is in quotes above was probably George Washington's perception in that he considered himself to be the servant leader of the people of our nation so that his focus was on self-sacrificing service.  One does not need to "blame"; one needs to see.  The fact stands that George Washington did free his slaves when no other Founding Father did so, no doubt, because as America's first president and role model for this nation's future, he wanted to set the example to all later generations that slavery was not consistent with the ideals of why America was founded and must be eliminated because slavery was not what this nation should accept.  One can see that he had the qualities of a great leader, as Jefferson had stated of Washington. If we are self-aware, we acknowledge that all of us have paradoxes within our own natures.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@OriginalProf


P.S.  According to Washington's biographer, Ron Chernow, the fact was that George Washington legally could not free the slaves of his wife, Martha, nor could she.  Her slaves were the property of her estate and were distributed to her relatives upon her death by trustees of that estate.  One does not know the reason that George Washington did not free his slaves until his wife's death, but one reason might have been so as to not disrupt the status of her life until his wife's life was over. He loved her, according to Chernow. 


Martha Washington, as I think you know, went through legal procedures to have Washington's slaves freed before her death because she feared that some might have killed her before her time had she not freed them early.  Washington, as I recall, made his Will iron-clad legally so that NO One would be able to interfere with his wishes regarding the freedom of all of his slaves upon his and Martha's deaths.  As I said earlier, he knew his actions would be a role model for our nation's future.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Today, nearly 3 centuries ago, the first president of the United States, George Washington, was born on February 22, 1732.


In honor of his formidable contributions in the birthing of our nation, I quote the following words from Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Washington: A Life,”  pages 802 & 803:


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“By freeing his slaves, Washington accomplished something more glorious than any battlefield victory as a general or legislative act as a president. He did what no other founding father dared to do, although all proclaimed a theoretical revulsion at slavery.  He brought the American experience that much closer to the ideals of the American Revolution and brought his own behavior in line with his troubled conscience. . . .

In another visionary section of the will, Washington left money to advance the founding of a university in the District of Columbia, possibly under government auspices, where students could observe government firsthand and shed their ‘local attachments and state prejudices.’ This phrase was more than a mere restatement of Washington’s nationalism: it spoke to the way his own life had transcended his parochial background. . . .Now he pledged his fifty shares of the Potomac River Company to the new university in the capital and his hundred shares of the James River Company to Liberty Hall Academy in western Virginia, which later became Washington and Lee University.  He also left twenty shares in the Bank of Alexandria for a school, associated with the Alexandria Academy, to educate orphaned and indigent children.”

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OriginalProf
OriginalProf

As I just posted on the education blog, Get Schooled:


The horrific details of chattel slavery may not be widely known today, but they should never be forgotten or air-brushed out of history. "Context" cannot excuse anything. In the same way, the Holocaust with its concentration camps should never be forgotten. Evil is not relative.

Finn-McCool
Finn-McCool

I too recently learned of a new Washington fact: He wore swimmer wings while crossing the Delaware due to his fear of drowning. Thanks to Family Guy for providing that tidbit of history.....


MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Finn-McCool


This is the degree of inanity we get when we focus only on isolated facts!  And, if we are not very aware and very careful that kind of compulsion toward discovering facts in isolation will turn us into inane people, very unlike Washington.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Judging Washington to be petty and vindictive based on his letters involving the runaway slave, Ona Judge, when Washington lived nearly 3 centuries ago is sanctimonious.  To do that is to judge him by 21st century standards, without depth. Washington was a morally upright man by his standards.  He believe in sacrificing himself as the servant of the people, as their leader. He was nearly killed in battle several times but was extremely lucky or blessed.  He served the nation even when he was old (for his inherited genetics) and died only 3 years after leaving office.  He, no doubt, believed that Ona Judge was unfaithful and disloyal to her master or mistress but that comes from how he lived out his own life in service to the people, before serving himself.


Jefferson stated that Washington had all of the assets of a courageous leader, and that he was a truly good man.

I can easily see how Washington might have written those letters regarding Ona Judge, from the moral standpoint of his time, regarding the moral duty of slaves' service to the master.  That fact, however, should not negate in anyone’s mind that Washington, also, wanted slavery abolished in America over time, as I had previously documented through Washington’s statements in Ron Chernow’s Pultizer Prize winning biography of George Washington. 


A thinking person, must ask, “Could the slave Judge have been Martha Washington’s slave and could Martha Washington’s desires have affected George Washington’s reaction to the runaway female slave?”  Moreover, could the courageous actions of female slave, Ona Judge, in first running away from the Washington plantation and later in bargaining for her freedom, with Washington through an intermediary, after his and Martha Washington's deaths have, ultimately, been the final moral factor which caused Washington to free all of his slaves after his death in his will? 

Peachs
Peachs

Washington's adopted son was Robert E. Lee's father in law. Lee inherited many of these slaves and their descendents. There is the story of Lee taking the whip from the hand of an overseer and whipping the woman slave the overseer refuse to beat.

Walt Disney did not create the world we see, and God created the devil for some purpose, maybe that we not be naïve to the point of stupidity. When you pretend the devil is not there he has free rein to do what he wishes, the south has done it since conception, and has suffered deeply for its sins.

kayaker71
kayaker71

The single biggest reason that Bozo has showed such a limp d*ck attitude about Radical Islam rests with his closes advisor, Valerie Jarret.  Jarrett is a devout Muslim, born and raised in Iran with close ties to Frank Marshall Davis.  Bozo doesn't take a dump without checking with her first.  She is the real de facto president of this country, with her buddy Moochelle.  Sad state of affairs. 

Normd
Normd

I just saw where Leslie Gore has died.  She was 68.  Damn!  I turned 68 yesterday!  I guess it's not her party anymore...

Normd
Normd

Bro',Good article about Judge Moore!  Loved it.  Well written and well thought out!

Brosephus
Brosephus

@Normd 

Thanks.  I has been sitting on it for a while.  I still respect him, but I think he's wrong in this case.  As someone who has never shied away from his religious beliefs, I was surprised that he made the claim that his views had nothing to do with his actions.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@Brosephus @Normd The guy is a modern day William Jennings Bryan.


A blowhard who thought he could roll Christianity into the Governorship.


Even in Alabama that didn't happen. 

Brosephus
Brosephus

@HeadleyLamar 

That's not going to happen, but Moore is very sharp in the application of law.  Don't let the religious smoke fool you.

Normd
Normd

Kayaker asked me below..."Is it about winning (an election) or doing the right thing (deporting the dream kids)?"


I reply...With the GOP it is ALWAYS about winning and NEVER doing the right thing...unless, of course, if that thing has a right wing slant to it.  Just more proof of Duped Republicans...he says shaking his head...

Menace
Menace

@Normd Doing the right thing would be to show some compassion to young people who were brought here at a young age by their parents and allow to stay in the only country they know.

fiftythreepercenter
fiftythreepercenter

"Yeah, it's pretty nice to get a few bonus hours off since you cant' build a house if you have no electricity. We're putting up the beadboard on the cathedral ceiling right now. If you worked with me for a day, you'd be crying by the end of it."


I'd bet my tool set would rival yours down to the planer and the biscuit cutter, dude.  Made $80K on my last flip doing the work on weekends and at night after my day job, so I wouldn't bet on me crying at the end of your work day.  


But kudos for you having a job anyway.  You'll notice none of your liberal friends chimed in as that post hit the nail on the head (pun intended).  Too bad you can't spend this wasted day at the permit counter since that's pretty much a wasted day too.

Brosephus
Brosephus

@fiftythreepercenter 

Some do and some don't.  The average age here is near retirement anyway, so that may have a lot to do with why people are not working.  Seems like that's a good reason for not working though.

Brosephus
Brosephus

@RaindroidWillBoy 

LOL!!!  I've been listening to Samuel L. Jackson this morning too, so that was right on time.

Numbers_R_Us
Numbers_R_Us

@fiftythreepercenter Actually, some of us prefer our unearned income retirements as opposed to continuing with the wage labor until we drop.  To each his own though.

Brosephus
Brosephus

@fiftythreepercenter 

"You'll notice none of your liberal friends chimed in as that post hit the nail on the head (pun intended)."

Why waste bandwidth responding to such an asinine statement?  Talk about wasted time...  When I go to work, I'm usually at work before many of you even wake up.  But, yeah, keep thinking that liberals don't work.

Normd
Normd

@fiftythreepercenter @Brosephus 


Hell, why work?  I did my time...23 in the Navy, social security, and a good bank account...I worked so I don't have to any more...

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@fiftythreepercenter @Brosephus 

Some who blog here often  are retired, working at a job out of their home, or being a stay-at-home parent. Some here have noted in various posts that they're disabled veterans. Get a little humility.

Philo_Farnsworth
Philo_Farnsworth

Great moments in liberal thinking:

"Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said America can’t win against the Islamic State “by killing them” and ought instead to focus on addressing what she claimed was the root problem — their poor economy — and help them get jobs. "

Normd
Normd

@Philo_Farnsworth 


You seem to forget that terrorism is a mindset, not a country.  You don't defeat a mindset with guns, you just make that mindset more radical.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

Black historians will make sure every politically incorrect fact possible about our White founding fathers is dug up and made public.

Yay, "black historians!"

td1234
td1234

@Visual_Cortex I agree that was a little ridiculous. It should have read "American hating progressive historians".

Brosephus
Brosephus

@Numbers_R_Us 

That particular pejorative was on sale all last month at Pejoratives R Us.  That's why.

td1234
td1234

@HeadleyLamar Not when progressives want to use those warts to say the traditional way this nation has run for 300 years has to be radically changed.  That is not love but rather like the abusive partner in a relationship attempting to tear down everything about their partner to be able to control the partner. 

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@td1234 @HeadleyLamar Not when progressives want to use those warts to say the traditional way this nation has run for 300 years has to be radically changed.


For most of that 300 years blacks did not have the same rights as everyone else.


Many times the traditional ways need to be changed. And us progressives will always be there to do it. 

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@td1234 @Visual_Cortex The love it or leave it crowd.


Some love America like a 4 year old loves mommy ( Mostly your conservative types ). Saying anything wrong about Mommy ( America ) makes you a bad person. America is number 1 at everything, always has been and always will be. 


Us progressives love America in the adult way. Much as Jay described we understand America has her warts. But that the good outweighs the bad and there is always hope for a better tomorrow.



YouLibs
YouLibs

@Brosephus @Visual_Cortex


Wait...Santa Claus is passing?


Wow. If this knowledge is widely disseminated Christmas may become a no-go in states with "stand your ground" laws

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@HeadleyLamar 


Some love America like a 4 year old loves mommy. . . ."

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Don't you think your assessment might be a simplification?  Please read my latest remarks and read the link to my blog's entry regarding Washington's so-called "pettiness," below and above.


It is so easy, and I might add sanctimonious, to stand in moral judgment of Washington (or Lincoln or Jefferson) when they accomplished truly great things to make our nation one in which all people are seen as equals.  They lived almost 2 and 3 centuries ago.  That fact must never fail to cross our judgmental minds of today, whether we are black, white, or any other race or ethnic group; otherwise, it is we who become petty and show that we have a personal ax to grind. One should "dig up" all documented facts about our ancestors and Founders, and that I would not curtail.  However, one must have the historical depth and wisdom to put those facts in total context, both of the overriding character of the man or woman and of the mores and morals the period from which they come.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In response to Jay Bookman’s article on George Washington on President’s Day, February 16, 2015, I wrote the following words:  (The link to Bookman’s article on Washington can be found at this link:  http://jaybookman.blog.ajc.com/2015/02/16/even-the-warts-on-american-history-are-a-beautiful-thing/ […]