Last week Rep. Melvin Watt unleashed a torrent of invective on one of America's greatest heroes. At a congressional hearing on President George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives, the North Carolina Democrat mercilessly savaged George Washington. In doing so, he voiced the prejudices held by much of the American left.
The verbal battle erupted when some Democrats and Republicans wanted to include in the record a beautiful letter from Washington that welcomed for the first time all American Jews as equal and full-faith citizens in the new republic.
Watt's response was pure vitriol — mocking, as well as ignorant.
"For us to be applauding the statements discussing bigotry that were written by a person who owned slaves is a little bit more than I can, without churning stomach, be able to tolerate," said Watt. "I'm sure he did magnificent things and wonderful things. But we should also keep in context the reality that there is substantial pain still among many people in our country about this chapter in our history."
It is, indeed, a fact that Washington held slaves. America's birth as an independent nation began unfortunately with the ancient legacy of human bondage. But what Watt fails to understand is that Washington was one of the first and most courageous men to take a stand against slavery and dream of a world free of its evils.
What Watt expects of America's Founders is difficult to say. Does moral imperfection disqualify every effort for moral progress?
We do not dismiss the eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr., because of his college plagiarism or his adulterous affairs. We do not dismiss Malcolm X's conversion to Islam because it took place while he was in jail.
Black slavery is the saddest blot on this nation's history of liberty. It is also a reminder of how difficult it is for citizens to throw off injustice when it is wrapped up in their self-interest. Modern America still grapples with the challenges of changing the political status quo when it empowers one group at the cost of another.
America's Founders struggled mightily with the problem of slavery. For many who fought in the Revolution, the rhetoric of liberty sank deep into their souls and indicted their ownership of slaves.
But the question the Founders faced was not merely how to end slavery, but how to educate, integrate, and soften the blow to the economically self-interested as well as the oppressed. But the system was so politically and economically massive to the fledgling republic, that it threatened its very existence. Thomas Jefferson, another slave owner, said the problem was like holding a wolf by the ears: To let him go created a whole host of problems. To keep an iron grip was just as perilous.
Washington condemned slavery in 1774. He feared allowing Britain to tax the colonies because "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway." Washington admits that slavery isn't racial, but the accursed product of conquest. His condemnation of rule by "arbitrary sway" is a revolutionary statement usually reserved for unjust and tyrannical regimes.
The sad fact for America is that not enough people were willing to make the tough decision and have the moral courage to seek freedom and equality under the law for black Americans.
Washington had the courage to confront the issue personally. He freed every one of his slaves upon his death. But he did more than just that — he worked behind the scenes to end slavery, striving to keep the nation together as well as find a way to do justice.
Years before their release, Washington made sure that all his male slaves were educated and learned trades from cabinet work to barrel making to farming. He believed that economic training and education led to opportunity and full participation in the life of the country for all Americans, regardless of color. Washington understood that success requires more than mere words or good intentions.
There is a lesson here for all Americans: moral reform does not come immediately. All meaningful change in politics begins in the heart. Washington saw the moral evils of slavery — even as he dealt justly and kindly with those he inherited under a corrupt system that was as common as blue skies or green trees.
But Washington had the courage that so many lack in the capital that bears his name. He saw an abusive system and by a powerful act, the nation's first and greatest citizen he simply, quietly, and decisively condemned it. We need more such men as we deal with government-sanctioned systems that tax, oppress and pit the envies and sanctimony of one group or generation against another.
The American Revolution was about the defense of freedom, trust in the individual, and faith in personal responsibility and the rule of law. America's history is the continual effort to turn that dream into reality, whatever the imperfections of every generation or however fallible its leaders.