Friday, August 03, 2012

Keeping It Real

A commenter to this post wrote, that after a recent visit to the home of George Washington, he was “reminded of the remarkable character of the people in positions of public trust and authority at the time which  set the standard of how public officials and their appointees were, and still are, expected to conduct their official duties.”

It has become common practice among certain activists to nostalgically reach back to the days of our founding fathers and compare them with contemporary politicians. They'll often write and  speak in revered tones of the wisdom and character of Washington, war hero and first president, Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and Madison, author of the Constitution.

In doing so, they tend to gloss over the fact that these three white guys were humans, not saints. For example, it is important to remember that all three of these men held other humans in bondage while simultaneously championing the cause of liberty and equality.

I just completed Ron Chernow’s 904 page biography of George Washington, “Washington. A Life.” I am fan of Chernow’s work, having previously read his biographies of J.P. Morgan, John D.Rockefeller, and Alexander Hamilton. The author painstakingly researches his subjects leaving no stone unturned.

This is actually the second biography of George Washington that I’ve read. From “His Excellency” by Joseph Ellis I first learned that Washington was quite the land speculator, buying up thousands of acres of land west of the Allegheny Mountains in the path of the new nations growth. What I further discovered after reading Chernow’s book was that Washington also profited on what today would likely be considered insider information. While president, he took a personal interest in the layout and development of the new capital city and purchased a few choice parcels of land for his own account. That hardly “set the standard” for conduct in office. If a public official tried to pull that off today they’d be run out of office in a New York minute.

Don’t misunderstand me. George Washington served our country selflessly, both as a warrior and a politician. At the same we do a disservice to history by overlooking the things that made him human. While he did free his slaves in his will, waiting until he died meant that he was able to avoid dealing with the social and political consequences of his actions. That makes him human and a bit flawed, just like the rest of us.
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