Why Donald Trump Was Right About George Washington
In so many ways, George Washington was the founding father of the United States. He was a national hero, a war veteran and a victorious general. He sacrificed everything for his country. He was unanimously chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention and was the first to sign the United States Constitution in 1787. He was the only president to lead an army into battle as commander-in-chief. He was the only person to be unanimously elected president, and the electoral college unanimously elected him twice.
He was also a slave owner. And for many people in America today, that fact is the only one that matters. I talked about this on my April 30 radio show, which you can listen to here:
Prager University released a video on April 22 about a study it conducted on the George Washington University campus, asking students whether they thought the name of the university should be changed.
The interviewer asked one young man, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say ‘George Washington’?” He replied, “I think about him owning slaves.”
That’s the first thing that comes to mind? This is George Washington we’re talking about. This student doesn’t immediately think “founding father,” “national hero,” “sacrifice,” “Constitution,” “commander-in-chief” or “first president.” He thinks “slave owner”?
After three hours of talking to students all over campus, Prager University found that a shocking 70 percent of the George Washington University students they polled thought the name of their institution should change. These are students not at the University of Missouri or the University of California–Berkeley but at George Washington University!
David McCullough wrote in his book 1776, “Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed.”
In other words, were it not for Gen. George Washington, there would be no United States of America.
However, this is something many today would rather conveniently ignore, instead of honoring the man who is perhaps more responsible than any other single individual for making their freedoms possible. This willful ignorance of history is appalling.
The website for Mount Vernon, Washington’s beloved home, highlights 10 facts you should know about our first president. One of those facts is that, of the 12 presidents who owned slaves before or during their administrations, Washington is the only slave-owning president who freed all of his slaves. According to his will, the 123 slaves that he was responsible for would be freed upon his wife’s death. He wrote to a friend in 1786, “I never mean, unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it, to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law” (emphasis added throughout).
This is the little-reported truth of the American founding. The founders considered slavery an evil; most of them considered it a necessary evil and, as Abraham Lincoln said, they placed it “in the course of ultimate extinction.” They feared the political, economic and societal problems of outlawing slavery immediately, but took major steps to restrict and ultimately starve out what Lincoln called the “rattlesnake” of slavery. Prior to independence, colonial legislators tried but failed to ban the importation of slaves. After independence, states began restricting and eliminating the slave trade and slavery on their soil, not on economic grounds (many found it financially advantageous to own unpaid workers), but on moral grounds. Virginia, whose economy relied more heavily on slavery than northern states, passed a law in 1782 allowing manumission (voluntary freeing of slaves), which many used to free thousands of slaves. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson led an effort in Congress to outlaw slavery in all western territories. It failed to pass—by one vote.
Congress also passed the landmark Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Article 6 of that ordinance states, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory ….” This law provided for the return of fugitive slaves, but slavery itself was outlawed in the land that eventually became Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota.
And this law was introduced by a motion by Virginia (which gave up its claims to land in the Northwest Territory), a slave state, and it was led by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder!
All this before the United States even adopted the Constitution in September 1787. The country was 11 years old. (The Constitution itself, notably, includes a compromise with slavery. But as Lincoln noted, it conspicuously avoids using the term so that when slavery was ultimately abolished, it would remain as unpolluted as possible by the term.)
Slavery had been a widespread practice around the world, but the men who took the bold step of founding a completely new type of republic took the largely unprecedented step of attempting to gradually abolish slavery. Benjamin Franklin owned slaves, but voluntarily freed them and helped found the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. John Jay owned slaves but tried to abolish slavery in New York the very next year after America won its independence and founded the anti-slavery New York Manumission Society. Alexander Hamilton did not own slaves but some of his work with companies and individuals dealt with slaves: He helped found the New York Manumission Society and the African Free School in New York City. James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason and others owned slaves but worked to end the practice. (Many founders did not own slaves.) All states except one banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade before 1800. Congress outlawed it nationwide in 1807. At that point the country was only 31 years old.
You would think that George Washington University students would understand—or at least be familiar with—this history. But instead they are trained: Hear “Washington,” think “slavery.”
George Washington University was founded in 1821 by an act of Congress. According to gwu’s website, the university’s goal was to “fulfill the vision of our first president and now namesake’s vision that our nation’s capital be an educational center to prepare leaders.” That was clearly written at a time when America took pride in the legacy of its preeminent founder. In 2018, however, the institution’s own students want to erase that history.
That’s why you see campaigns all over the U.S. to pull down statues and stamp out that history. The controversy last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, saw demonstrators for and against removing a Robert E. Lee statue. One man who supported keeping the statue drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring more than a dozen. In addition to him, however, as President Donald Trump said at a press conference at the time, there were violent thugs on both sides at the Charlottesville protests.
At that press conference, President Trump also said: “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
One reporter shouted out, “George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same!” But President Trump responded, “Well now, George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? … Are we going to take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? … Are we going to take down his statue because he was a major slave owner? … You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
He was right. President Trump had the prescience to see where this trend was going. But at the time, the press jumped on those comments, taking the opportunity to ridicule the president for his “ignorance.” The Washington Post published a mocking piece on Aug. 16, 2017, titled “No, Mr. President, Washington and Jefferson Are Not the Same as Confederate Generals,” which said:
To make an equivalency between two of the Founding Fathers and Confederacy leaders is not only “absurd,” but also “unacceptable for the president of the United States,” said Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. …
Douglas Blackmon, an author and senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said Trump either does not understand the history of the Confederacy or he’s sympathetic to white nationalist views.
“It’s the difference between a monument to the founder of our nation, and a monument to a key figure in an effort to break apart the nation,” Blackmon said. “The most kind explanation of that can only be ignorance, and I don’t say that to insult the president.”
To suggest that association with slavery is the only criteria on whether a historical figure should be honored is an equally faulty argument, Blackmon said, because one would be hard-pressed to find any 18th- and 19th-century leader of great consequence to American life who never owned slaves.
Do you think the Washington Post will come out now and talk about how ignorant 70 percent of the students at George Washington University are for equating Washington with slavery? It seems to me that Donald Trump was right to ask, Where does this end?
Just a few days after that press conference with the president, the Washington Times and the Federalist ran articles pointing out cases that backed up the president’s comments. Even in August 2017, some high-profile leftist commentators were talking about getting rid of the Jefferson Memorial and Mount Rushmore. And now we see that students at George Washington University are on board seven against three in a campaign to literally erase George Washington’s name and history.
For as much as the media hates President Trump, he did point out the obvious. He had the foresight to see where it was going. In California recently, it was a statue of President McKinley that was targeted, because his history offends Native Americans. What’s next? How about the name of Washington, D.C.? How about renaming all the major memorials there after someone else or some sort of vague sentiment?
You would think that if any historical figure would be untouchable, even for radical leftists, it would be George Washington. But our nation’s founders, up to and including Washington, are all targets. We are now seeing the results of what professors and teachers have been teaching their students inside the halls of American universities, colleges, high schools and grade schools. It shows just how truly ignorant Americans are regarding America’s imperfect but inarguably noble history.
Look at the personal history of this founding father—this man who was devoted to the “sacred fire of liberty,” who realized that “the destiny of the Republican model of government” was “finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” as he said in his inaugural address. He realized that what he was doing as the pioneering leader would resound for generations. He knew that he was setting precedent for how presidents would act for the rest of the existence of America. And he set that precedent in politics, in morality and in character.
Today, many young Americans want to erase the precedents and legacies of Washington and others. They want to start something new and different. They don’t see him as the “indispensable man,” as one historian called him. All that they see when they look at George Washington is slavery.
There are a small few who still hold onto this history. One of those students questioned by Prager University about whether or not gwu should change its name answered, “Absolutely not. … This is one of our Founding Fathers. … If we forget liberty, if we forget the intrinsic nature behind the founders’ philosophy of liberty, then what exactly do we have?”
That is a probing question worth considering—for that student’s classmates and for young Americans across the country.
To learn more about this subject, watch my father’s Key of David program “The Fatal Danger in Not Teaching History.”