"To African-Americans, George Washington has about as much meaning as David Duke." So says Carl Gamon, the man who led the campaign to change the name of George Washington Elementary School in New Orleans. The school, where about 90% of the students are black, is now Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary, named after the black surgeon who developed methods for the preservation of blood plasma. The action follows upon a decision by the school board to remove the names of anyone who owned slaves and "did not believe in equal opportunity for all."
It is certainly true that Washington held slaves. But we should also remember that he was acutely aware of the evil of slavery, and the contradiction it posed to America's dedication to equality. In 1786 he wrote, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it." And we should remember that Washington and the other founders were confronted by strong Southern interests, as well as prejudice, on the question of slavery. To attempt the immediate elimination of slavery would have strained the infant nation to the breaking point, and destroyed the union formed on the basis of equal rights. Total and immediate abolition was therefore impossible, Washington thought, "but by degrees it certainly might [be done], and assuredly ought to be effected."
These complications and difficulties are dismissed today, but they were appreciated by a more perceptive student of America: Frederick Douglass. Douglass was of course the great abolitionist writer, publisher, and speaker who was born a slave. In 1846, with the help of friends, he bought his freedom. More than anyone speaking about slavery today, he had the right to be bitter toward America, and to criticize the Founders in regard to slavery. But he did not.
Douglass noted that the founders could not, in their own lifetimes, abolish slavery and extend equal rights to all Americans. Yet he believed that they were sincere about the principles they declared "that all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" and that they set the foundation for history's greatest experiment in human liberty. In his speeches and writings Douglass, like Abraham Lincoln, appealed to the eternal truths of human freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence as the moral foundation of his cause.
Douglass saw that to abandon the principles of the founders would be to abandon the only moral argument against slavery. "I would not, even in words," he said, "do violence to the great events, and thrilling association, that gloriously cluster around the birth of our national independence." "No people ever entered upon pathways of nations, with higher and grander ideas of justice, liberty and humanity than ourselves." As the distinguished professor of American history and politics, Harry V. Jaffa, has written:
It is not wonderful that a nation of slave-holders, upon achieving independence, failed to abolish slavery. What is wonderful, indeed miraculous, is that a nation of slave-holders founded a new nation on the proposition that 'all men are created equal,' making the abolition of slavery a moral and political necessity.
So if Washington and the other founders could be praised by Frederick Douglass, a former slave, why are they not good enough for the school board in New Orleans? What is the real motive behind this act of rudely stripping Washington's name from an elementary school?
These sort of attacks on the founders are part of a larger attack on the founders' principles of individual liberty, property rights and limited government. The disdain for Washington and the Founding derives from the modern ideology that government exists not to protect our rights but to supply our needs and wants. The emphasis on the founders' failures regarding slavery and the disparagement of their accomplishments serve no other purpose but teach that the Founding was a fraud, and that individual rights have always been a myth. These critics would reject the understanding of equal rights and equal opportunity shared by both Washington and Frederick Douglass.
After the Civil War whites began to say that "something must be done" with the freed blacks. Douglass' answer was: "Do nothing with them, but leave them like you have left other men, to do with and for themselves." And to those who insisted that blacks required special help, Douglass' response was: "please mind your own business, and leave us to mind ours. If we cannot stand up, then let us fall down. We ask nothing but simple justice, and an equal chance to live…. Do nothing with us, or by us, as a particular class. We now simply ask to be allowed to do for ourselves."
At Charles Richard Drew Elementary those words are probably considered heresy. Perhaps the name of Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, will be the next to be stripped from an elementary school.