Saturday, April 27, 2019

Even the Truth About George Washington May Be Erased From Our Past

“Life of Washington” 
Fergus M. Bordewich writes in The Wall Street Journal:

A San Francisco mural has become the latest high-profile target of self-appointed censors who want to erase both history and art of which they disapprove. “Life of Washington,” a Works Progress Administration epic depicting scenes of America’s first president across 1,600 square feet, has been on display at a local school since 1936. Yet local activists and bureaucrats have decided its time has gone.

The president of San Francisco’s Board of Education is among the mural’s opponents, who have called the artwork “offensive,” “dehumanizing” and “insulting” to Native Americans and blacks. In February a school-board committee concluded that the art “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” and “traumatizes students.” No evidence was produced to show that the murals had traumatized anyone over the past 83 years. Yet the committee recommended destroying not only the two most controversial panels but the entire series.

Among the densely packed and vividly rendered scenes, including dignified images of Washington in war and peace, the mural depicts slaves working in Washington’s fields and the president pointing westward past the body of a slain Native American. Critics vilify these images, but they are not the stuff of saccharine hagiography. The mural’s painter, Victor Arnautoff, was a protégé of Diego Rivera and a communist. He included those images not to glorify Washington, but rather to provoke a nuanced evaluation of his legacy. The scene with the dead Native American, for instance, calls attention to the price of “manifest destiny.” Arnautoff’s murals also portray the slaves with humanity and the several live Indians as vigorous and manly.

Those who condemn the murals have misunderstood it, seeing only what they sought to find. They’ve also got their history seriously wrong. Washington did own slaves—124 men, women and children—and oversaw many more who belonged to his wife’s family. But by his later years he had evolved into a proto-abolitionist, a remarkable ethical journey for a man of his time, place and class.

Washington came to believe that blacks were neither biologically inferior to whites nor ordained to servitude by the Bible. As early as 1783 he considered founding a community for freed slaves with the ardently abolitionist Marquis de Lafayette. He came close to espousing emancipation publicly, but he demurred because he doubted that the fragile young nation could survive a crisis over slavery. In this, he was probably correct.

In his will, Washington freed every slave he owned—he couldn’t legally free those his wife’s family owned—and provided for them financially, stipulating “that this clause respecting Slaves . . . be religiously fulfilled . . . without evasion, neglect or delay.” Knowing that his will would become public, it was Washington’s way of speaking to the nation.

And far from encouraging genocide against Native Americans, Washington believed they should be fairly compensated for land already seized and that all future cessions of native territory should be negotiated legally. “While the measures of Government ought to be calculated to protect its citizens from all injury and violence, a due regard should be extended to those Indian Tribes whose happiness, in the course of events, so materially depends on the national justice and humanity of the United States,” Washington told Congress in August 1789. He tried to pry Indian affairs away from the control of state legislatures, whose political interests and corrupt speculation disrupted native communities by feeding chronic instability on the frontier. Unfortunately his efforts had little success.

In sum, Washington wouldn’t have met today’s standards of approved thought, but he was far from the racist caricature that the enemies of Arnautoff’s mural imagine.


  1. Another instance of a stampeding herd of cattle destroying everything in their path, and the past, as they rush toward mental oblivion and sterilization. Enforced mental eugenics might be another apt term for what’s operating here.

  2. This parallels the Robert E. Lee nonsense. Lee also was an abolitionist. Upon inheriting his wife's slaves (from the Martha Washington estate of all things), he immediately granted them freedom. He demonstrated throughout his life his respect for the human dignity of Black People. And he was a pretty good general to boot, but I'm with the Stonewall Brigade, as it were.

  3. "The president of San Francisco’s Board of Education is among the mural’s opponents"

    What's laughable is that this person professes to have education. It's clown world each everyday.

    1. Public education owns such a large lions share of responsibility for the currrent climate of divisive stupidity that it baffles me no one holds them accountable for the inestimable damage they have done to the populace at large.

      Where are the voices of those that know the importance and teach the history. They at least should condemn this insanity.