Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Why Obama resembles George Washington more than you’d think…

February 15, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Politics, Weekly Columns

(Akiit.com) Most African-Americans enjoying a day off for President’s Day would assert that Barack Obama and George Washington share but one thing: forty-two white men separating them as president.

If Washington suddenly came back to life and was summoned to the Oval Office for a Henry Louis Gates-like beer session, and our other February birthday celebrant, Abraham Lincoln, got an invitation along with Thomas Jefferson’s resurrected corpse, which one would show? Most would think Lincoln. They assume he and Obama, both sons of Illinois, would discuss and debate great issues of then and now. But Washington? He’d probably be admiring his image on the dollar bill, or looking for a good dentist.

Yet, ironically, he would likely be the only one who would show up.

There were two George Washingtons, just as we might say, judging from current observations and political glosses like John Heilmann and Mark Halperin’s ‘Game Change,’ there are two Obamas: the one who campaigned for the presidency, and the one as president.

Biographer Henry Wiencek in his book ‘An Imperfect God: George Washington: His Slaves and the Creation of America,’ and Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach in ‘The Grand Idea: George Washington and the Race to the West’ describe a young Washington preoccupied with self-promotion. From his dream of owning a canal to the Ohio River and finagling every piece of land he could to that end, his reckless soldiering during the French & Indian War, to his management of the blacks of Mt. Vernon–for Washington it was all about the dollars that would eventually display his older, wiser face.

As historians have reported, Washington threatened to sell slaves to harsher plantations, no matter how skilled, as if fungible field hands, if they ran away and were caught. He readily split up families and punished both men and women who slipped away to visit spouses or children. “These Creatures are as men and women,” he said in 1767, “but they are also like hogs, or hogsheads of tobacco and the ground from it grows, or bushels of hemp [the same product as marijuana], or barrels of beer, or boxes of roe [from sturgeons caught in the Potomac River for caviar].”

Nevertheless, as University of Virginia scholars uncovered, even the young Washington bore a weird, grudging admiration of free black artisans, from blacksmiths to bakers to seamstresses and even ministers. They’d be the very people of color who’d one day calcify as the backbone of the African-American working class in the city America would name after him.

Ten years later, when the Continental Congress asked Washington to take command of all forces around Boston at the start of the revolution, the General was surprised to see blacks integrated into militia and Continental army units. His fellow Southerners panicked and urged him to prohibit “any Negroes or Mulattoes, or Young Boys” from serving, whether slave or free. Washington gave the order, but not only refused to enforce it when it came to freed slaves and free blacks, but actively recruited black regiments such as the famed Rhode Island Volunteers.

His refusal to obey his own order didn’t occur until a petite freed slave turned poet, Phillis Wheatley, delivered series of letters and verse to Washington from 1775 to 1776. The General was apparently so moved by the sentiments that he invited “Miss Phillis,” as he called her, to meet with him and his officers. It’s not clear whether this was an epiphany; Washington’s opinion of slaves and slavery were part of his being, and of course he feared the British would likewise recruit slaves and incite an uprising. Still, the tone of his assessments of free blacks and even mulattoes appeared to shift after that point. And when he became our first president, the shift was manifest.

Some scholars assert that Lincoln saw free black people as an annoyance or political football, and slaves as a political abstraction. He held those views from youth as a Whig party member to his White House tenure as Republican. Jefferson, whose views we are all now familiar with, built his power base in the party that would, ironically, become the Democrats, on a foundation of Southern plantation power and the notion that slavery must be maintained to preserve the Republic, as it was codified in the Constitution.

By the 1857, the Supreme Court would punctuate that notion in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Jefferson also exalted white working people–farmers mostly, the beginnings of “Joe the Plumber”–as the footsoldiers of his philosophy. They were the buffer between the wise rulers and slaves and nettlesome free blacks for whom, like Lincoln, Jefferson championed some sort of removal and colonization policy. According to historian Henry Wiencek, Washington saw colonization back in Africa, or local banishment of free blacks from slave states, as a sham.

Jefferson also wanted to keep government puny and servile to states’ rights. That is, unless the states were doing something like including blacks as citizens or protecting runaway slaves. Or the states needed federal subsidies and loans to pay for damage caused by the British during the war–including carting away many slaves. Though he was part of the Washington administration due to the first president’s insistence on bipartisanship, he was, ironically, its chief enemy.

Washington and his Federalist Party, by contrast, were fans of towns and cities, of ports and progress. He favored federal spending and tariffs to fund the internal infrastructure, foster manufacturing, and the single financial power patterned on Europe’s new national banks. In that, he followed the philosophy of his protégé, Alexander Hamilton, who might have had a little color in his blood himself. He took arms against the “Tea Partiers” and Joe the Plumbers of his time, such as Daniel Shay or the anti-tax Whiskey Rebels. He saw his fellow Southerners become increasingly militant on the issue of slavery, even when he presided on the Constitutional Convention in 1787. His friends included abolitionists in the North and South, including fellow Virginians George Mason and George Wythe; Wythe, Jefferson’s old professor from William & Mary, not only abhorred slavery but insisted that African-Americans could be productive citizens, even leaders. Wythe trained two former slaves as lawyers to prove his point. Washington wrote to congratulate him on his grand experiment; Jefferson willfully ignored the news from his old mentor.

Washington saw his role as a unifier, not a partisan, as evidenced by his insistence on extending a hand to the Jeffersonians until partisan battles overwhelmed his second Administration.

On this President’s Day, 2010, much of this should sound familiar to African-Americans reflecting on Barack Obama’s first year in the office Washington molded. Neither by accident or coincident, this is true because major themes and conflicts in our history are still with us. So is hypocrisy. It’s evident in Lincoln’s personal and political views on black people, as with Thomas Jefferson.

George Washington didn’t free his slaves. Emancipation, along with pensions for all freed slaves, was in his will. But as he took sick in 1799, he watched his successor John Adams battle Thomas Jefferson in a cultural, economic and political war still with us and said to his nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington: “I fear for the unity of our republic…yet I am angry for not standing higher on the mound I myself piled, to lead the nation away from such low, mobbish and tangled philosophies as are espoused by Democrats [Jefferson and Madison].” One might say first Obama’s State of the Union Address channels this sentiment. And of black people he mused to Bushrod, who was a proponent of colonization, “The day may come when our inheritors will observe what these people [blacks] truly can achieve through own intellect & labour, and it might be cause for astonishment. Such a day is far off, of course.”

Wouldn’t it be marvelous to see Washington discuss “such a day” with the current president? Accordingly, it’s no accident that so many African-Americans took the name “Washington” after the Civil War, not “Lincoln.” For the same reason Phillis Wheatley wrote about the man–to people of color his name meant liberty, thoughtfulness, determination. Haitian hero Toussaint L’Ouverture invoked his name, as did Jose San Martin and Simon Bolivar–the men who fought for South America’s freedom from Spain. South Carolina slave insurgent, Denmark Vesey wanted to be the “General Washington” of his own insurrection, and before he was tortured and hung, the Virginia slave rebel Gabriel Prosser told his captors he would face death as if George Washington were captured put on trial as a traitor by the British.

So give the man on the dollar bill a break on his birthday. He’s the victim of irony and over two hundred years of hype. At least give him equal status with Abe.

Written By Christopher Chambers

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