5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2009
This very gentle critique of our first President (disguised somewhat as what it in fact is not -- a rough treatment of him) certainly has many important and nuanced qualities and moments. However, on the critical moral issues of the day, arguably the only weighty issues of the book, the nuance in my view actually backfires: It does not work.
Washington, moral nuances aside, gets -- as was also true of biographies of Jefferson and Lincoln -- a "much-needed" moral free pass. Thus most of the nuance is burnt up in a heroic effort to salvage through the backdoor as much of the myth of greatness of our first President as was ethically possible. That is to say, in the face of the book's deluge of facts on the not so well hidden immorality of Washington's personal life, it still refused to call a "spade-a-spade."
It seems that in each case of America's larger than life mythical heroes, (perhaps with the exception of Christopher Hitchens' critique of Jefferson that is), the moral line just happens to always get drawn just inside the borders of "moral rectitude," saving (just in the nick of time) these great men's reputations and the better part of the American myths that goes along with them.
Roger Wilkinson in his "Jefferson's Pillow" is the perfect case in point. Wilkinson walks right up to the waters edge and then pulls back from taking the plunge that the morality of the "Virginia Quartet" would suggest. Using all of his artistic and literary skills (and a most strange moral calculus to boot), in the last paragraph of the book he manages to salvage their reputations. Even Lerone Bennett's biopic critique of Lincoln, which he suggestively calls "Forced into Glory," covers Lincoln's morality in a blanket of unnecessary complexity, which when viewed in retrospect seemed an easier way out than simply biting the bullet and saying that Lincoln was more a "crooked politician" than he was a "morally elevated man." And then are Black historians.
Don't get me wrong; I am not at all for savaging the reputations of American heroes for the sake of savagery alone, especially if it is not deserved, far from it in fact. However, when there is a foot race between the truth based on their own actions (as is the case here) and preserving American myths, I am as likely as the next man to have a strong desire to come down on the side of the truth. Myths too must at some level also be based in truth.
Here is where I do not understand the author's attempt to parse the morality of the major deeds of Washington's life as they are revealed in this book. In Washington's case, as was the case with Jefferson, the truth is not just clear, but starkly so in its clarity. And just as the old adage goes that one cannot be a little pregnant: one's moral compass also cannot be set just a bit off-course; it is not allowed to become just a little bit cloudy or mal-adjusted and then have its user still acquire the status of greatness. While the world of American mythmaking may work fine that way, the real world does not. In the real world, greatness is in large measure defined by moral greatness.
When a man aspiring to greatness has screwed his female slaves, produced children by them that are then placed into slavery for perpetuity, who auctioned some of them off as a raffle to pay off his debts, pronounced high ideals of democracy, equality and fairness, and then just weeks before his impending death "gets anti-racist religion" and literally "wills" his slaves into freedom, there is something wrong with this man's moral compass.
In the modern world we have a name for such people: They are called racist hypocrites.
What, may I ask are the moral fine points remaining in President Washington's private life for ethical scholars to debate? Is this really a question of an evolving morality as the author so strongly suggests? I do not see such an evolving picture of morality and do not think it would be considered mean-spirited, or moving the moral goal post across time, to call a "spade-a-spade" in this instance. Would it be untoward to call this just what it is: "good old fashion racist moral hypocrisy?"
Closer to the truth of our first President's life is perhaps a comment made by the author earlier on in the book: to the effect that Washington simply had been "conditioned" to ignore and not see the humanity of black people. That was his sin then; that is still the sin of many Americans today. It is one that still resonates strongly in American culture and within the American social order more than two hundred years later. Who can deny that that is indeed a large part of the great man's legacy?
There is another way to see why this is not an entirely trivial point. When one considers Hitler's second in command Albert Speer's explanation as to how he, an urbane, educated German intellectual learned to hate Jews. Speer said that it happened in the following way: One day he walked the streets of Berlin and did not see the Jews he passed. They and their humanity had become invisible to him. In his mind's eye, they no longer existed. Once they had become invisible to him, he said he had already crossed the Rubicon into racial genocide. Everything else ideologically was possible; the racist poison had silently entered his blood stream.
As a last ditch fallback position to rescue morally fallen American heroes, the excuse is invariably used that "they were just men of their times." Or, alternatively: "you cannot use today's standards of morality to judge events of the past?" Exactly what times are we talking about here? Surely it cannot be the case as the author has portrayed it here, that Washington was just another ordinary man of his "moral times." For that would suggest that everyone of his stature were screwing their female slaves; placing their children and grandchildren into slavery and then auctioning them off in lotteries, all while promoting the Bill of Rights? If this was the rule rather than the exception, then we have a much larger moral problem here: What kind of moral universe were our forefathers living in? Is it not true that some aspects of morality are timeless, or else there is none?
But we know for a fact that this picture is entirely false. It was not the case that everyone was doing what Washington and Jefferson were doing, otherwise why would they endeavor to hide it? There certainly were men of Washington's (and Jefferson's) time who had their moral compasses aligned correctly: Benjamin Franklin, both of the Adams, and Thomas Paine just to name four of roughly the same stature as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
It is curious indeed that when the morality of America's great men are being debated, it (and they), are never compared to those of their own era who happen to be on the good side of the moral fence: That is, those of higher moral character and standing than the heroes themselves are. Invariably our heroes are compared to the "lesser moral beings" of their times, or, are allowed to hide their moral indiscretions in the cloudiness of the moral background of the times. Only in rare exceptions (such as when Hitchens compares Jefferson with Thomas Paine) are they compared with those who just happen to have chosen the correct moral path; that is with those who at the time opposed racism, slavery and other avowedly anti-democratic practices of their day.
Americans have become spoiled by, used to, and good at writing revisionist history while leaving a moral trapdoor open through which their favorite heroes can always find a timely escape. With a great deal more skill and finesse than usual, the same has been done here. The brilliant review by Theo Logos has agreed to let moral sleeping dogs lie, but since I am Black, and it is my people who are still feeling the brunt of the moral hypocrisy of our founding fathers, it is not something that I take lightly, or think deserves a pass. Plus Washington's morality is not a "borderline case." All of the evidence here suggests that it is an egregious one. Five Stars