Tuesday, June 30, 2020

My Defense of George Washington

I wish to offer two points in defense of statues of George Washington:
  1. He evolved. As a young men he dreamed only of retiring from military glory to the most traditional sort of planter wealth, but over the course of his life he came to doubt the virtue of war and he turned decisively against slavery and the plantation economy, throwing his administration behind capitalism and free labor. 

  2. Founding a stable democracy in a large, diverse country is one of the most difficult achievements of humanity. That the US did this we owe in part to George Washington's commitment to his own principles, and his refusal to seek or cling to power.
I was inspired to write this by a column from Charles Blow, who wrote,
On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.

The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.
The thing about this absolutism is that it condemns, not just a bunch of famous white Americans, but pretty much everyone who lived between the Neolithic and AD 1800. Every farming and herding society we know of recognized slavery. I really do not know of a single exception, and if there is one somewhere that hardly vitiates the basic point: for 5,000 years, slavery was part of human life. A handful of utopian mystics did occasionally call for its abolition, but they were vanishingly rare and nobody paid them any mind. Even Jesus accepted slavery; is Blow demanding that we take down all his statues? St. Paul told slaves to honor their masters: are we going to rip his letters out of the Bible?

What was new in the modern period was not slavery but the first real movement for the abolition of slavery. This got started in the 1600s but made no real impact until the mid 1700s. It was catapulted to prominence by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary agitation that birthed the American and French Revolutions. Yes, there were a lot of hypocrites who believed in freedom for white men but not for women or slaves, but there were enough who took freedom seriously to start a movement that grew  until slavery was banished from Europe and its colonies. It took a century, but sometimes that's how long things take.

I know I have written this before but I keep coming back to it because I think it is supremely important: we only think slavery is bad and democracy good because of the Enlightenment, because of the principles that men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fought to make real. If we live in a world that believes in democracy and equal rights, we owe that to them. What amount of failure and hypocrisy on their part is enough to cancel that out? People like Blow seem to think that freedom and democracy are human universals that were somehow corrupted by colonial slavocrats, but in fact they had to be invented. Our whole system of values would simply baffle a medieval or ancient person.

Like others of his time, George Washington lived this change. Raised in a plantation world where slavery was a natural as the blueness of the sky, he only thought of how he could get more land and slaves for himself. Raised in a military culture, he dreamed of battlefield glory. He was so ambitious for military honors that his rashness sparked the Seven Years War between England and France, and he survived only because of the courtesy of an aristocratic French officer. But he changed with the times. A warrior when young, he was a President of peace, whose maxims about avoiding foreign war have been cited by the party of peace in every American generation. Exposed by his political career to other sorts of people and other ideas about society, he came to see that slavery and the whole plantation world were anachronisms that America had to leave behind. He was too moderate a man to call for the immediate abolition of slavery, but he hoped that the progress of business and the spread of democratic ideals would soon render it irrelevant. True, he didn't free his own slaves until he died, but if his whole generation had done that, as many of them promised, American history would have been very different. 

Besides the principles of democracy, there is the practice. If you think it should be easy to stage a revolution and then create a democracy, look around the world: at Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Egypt. At Venezuela, sliding into chaos. At China, where a heroic attempt to found a Republic collapsed into warlordism and civil war, leading eventually to Mao's bloody tyranny. At France, where the thrill of 1789 led only to Terror and Napoleon. For quite a long time the United States was the only large, diverse democracy in the world, the only example showing that such a thing was even possible. The leaders of Russia and China still think it is impossible for their countries, as do many Brazilians. If you have not paused to consider what an extraordinary achievement this was, perhaps you should.

How many great leaders of men have been offered the chance to seize dictatorial power and then declined it with as much grace as George Washington? I think the stabilization of American democracy owes quite a bit to him personally, and to me that alone is an achievement that justifies all of his honors.

Come to think of it, I have a third thing to say: there are no perfect people. Everyone has sins. Lincoln, as I wrote here recently, supported colonizing freed slaves back to Africa; FDR accepted segregation as the price of the New Deal; US Grant demolished the Confederacy but then allowed the destruction of the Plains Indians. If we're not going to give up on the whole business of putting up statues to heroes, we're going to have to grant people some leeway. It is enough to me that modern figures were on the right side of history, however one might define that. If they took the other side –John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, etc. – then maybe their statues have to come down. But I think it is a huge mistake to condemn people who worked or fought for freedom because they did not get all the way to where we are now.

5 comments:

David said...

One correction: the column you're citing was by Charles Blow, not Jamelle Bouie.

On substance, I'm not sure either democracy or abolition can really be laid at the Enlightenment's door. I don't say this to be anti-Enlightenment. But it looks to me like, in the English-speaking world at least, abolition became a real movement because of the Christian revivalists of the day: John Wesley, the Quakers, etc. Enlightenment types like Franklin joined in, but the abolitionist movement as such in Pennsylvania came from the Quakers. There was Raynal in France, but he was (technically, at least) an abbe, and anyway abolitionism in France was pretty weak compared to the English-speaking lands. The Jacobins' abolition of slavery was, as far as I can tell, largely reactive to facts on the ground in Haiti.

As for democracy, its pedigree is fiendishly complex. Something on the scale imagined by the US Constitution may have been new and sui generis, I grant you. But rule by discussion, consensus of the whole group, and even voting, in local contexts at least, is as old as the species. It wasn't an "idea" come up with by philosophers. Many philosophes, famously, felt more at home with enlightened despots than rule by the masses. And democracy doesn't always come from a good place. Edmund Morgan's argument that the emergence of republicanism, in Virginia at least, was closely tied to race hostility and slavery has much to recommend it.



John said...

Drat, I think that's the second time I've switched Blow and Bouie.

I think abolition is born from a coming together of Quakerism and Enlightenment. The first prominent opponent of slavery in Britain was John Locke, before the religious awakening got going. There had been plenty of religious awakenings in Europe before; when did the one in the 1700s get into abolition? I think it was an Enlightenment idea that Methodists and Quakers found appealing. Maybe, though, it was just that the gigantic awfulness of the Caribbean plantations was the inspiration for both sorts of critics; probably in the 1640s the radicals weren't very aware of how bad things were getting in Barbados. Anyway I agree that the religious awakening was part of the picture.

You may recall from The Ruin of Kasch that some French monarchists blamed the whole Revolution on religious fanaticism, especially as taught in the Jansenist monasteries like Port Royal. So it isn't a new idea to relate the two movements.

In practical terms medieval deliberative bodies were very important in laying the groundwork for democratic government, but they were explicitly not founded on anything like equality. I have read medieval texts mocking the idea of counting votes in the Estates; why should the majority prevail over the best and wisest? Most British thinkers believed very strongly that the democratic elements in their system had to be balanced by royal and aristocratic power. I think something like the US constitution is only possible in the context of Enlightenment thinking.

I do think it is possible that Enlightenment ideas of individualism and equality owe a lot to older, Christian ideas of individualism and equality, and something like radical democracy was practiced by some Protestant sects. But most Christians in 1800 were perfectly comfortable with hereditary rank.

So far as I know, the ideas that people like Blow (and Bouie) have about democracy and equality were new in the 18th century, including the idea that people of different cultures and skin colors could live together in a free society. At that time everyone assumed that a multi-ethnic state like the Austrian or Ottoman Empire would have to be an autocracy. Tom Paine is the first writer I know of to explicitly argue otherwise, although I suspect there were French or Dutch radicals ahead of him.

As I think I said last time we talked about this, the more I contemplate what happened in the American and French Revolutions, the more astonished I am by the radicalism of it. My beef with arguments like Blow's is that they dismiss the revolutionary era as a non-event because slavery was not abolished. Also, if I am reading Blow's argument correctly, he believes that there were no good people in the world until the abolition movement was established, and that seems to me quite a claim.

David said...

I'm interested to hear that John Locke was an abolitionist; can you point me to a reference to that? My memory is that, in reference to slavery, he's most known for participating in the composition of the Carolina constitution, which explicitly included slavery as an element. Morgan also quotes him voicing sentiments, typical for the time, about the worthlessness of the poor, their need for correction by the industrious, etc.

My understanding is that, for Wesley at any rate, anti-slavery came about as a result of his tour in the American south in the 1730s--his reaction was personal, not from reading Enlightenment philosophers.

As for democracy, there's no question that you can find people arguing against it along the lines of aristo scorn from having to listen to their inferiors. But, of course, they were arguing *against something*--and I think aristo vehemence in this regard shows the powerful, default status of the thing they were arguing against. Village, town, and regional assemblies and self-rule were very, very old habits. Crown of Aragon documents repeatedly show the king sending out officials to gather "the people of the place"--a town or whatever--and negotiate with them, with no complaint in principle about having to do this. There's plenty of complaint about obstruction, and the king does complain *sometimes* about having to consult in principle, usually when he thinks they're stepping on his personal prerogative (most notably, when the estates try to interfere in his inheritance plans); but he said the same things (again, *sometimes*) about having to deal with the aristocracy and the church. The monarchy's fantasy ideal wasn't so much absolute power, or just having to deal with the great and well-born, but a sort of smooth, self-propelling harmony were everyone just magically agreed all the time and held assemblies to show it, with smiles and joy all around.

I'm not sure one should say that "everyone assumed that a multi-ethnic state like the Austrian or Ottoman Empire would have to be an autocracy." In Europe, plenty of multi-ethnic states existed as dynastic constructs when practical autocracy was nothing more than a gleam in Jean Bodin's eye. Bohemians, Austrians, and Hungarians were all united under the Habsburgs when all three were typical late medieval/early modern European societies with heavily privileged, multi-estate representative assemblies, and the ruler was hard put to get them to go along with anything. And within their borders, all three were multi-ethnic states with privileged populations of Jews, German settlers, and even the odd Turko-Mongol holdover tribe or two. As for the Ottomans, multi-ethnicity (in the form of dhimmi communities) in Islamic societies goes back to the Qur'an, long before autocracy of the sultanic type emerged in Islamic governance (Muhammad himself was, famously, not much for ethnic tolerance in practice; but the basic idea is in the Qur'an; Umar initiated the policy as a regular part of Islamic expansion, and it stuck).

In terms of voting rights, while French Enlightenment thinkers were all for equality and the elimination of privilege and birth distinctions *at the top*, they were often more restrictive at the bottom. It was the National Assembly that introduced the concept of Active and Passive citizens, the latter deprived of voting rights, based on wealth (at least partly on the argument that wealth indicated virtue, industriousness, and education). The French elections of 1791 were thus, in this sense, less democratic than those of 1789. Full male suffrage did come in, I think, with the Constitution of 1793 (but didn't last for long).

One might argue that the Enlightenment was more devoted to meritocracy than democracy.

My point is that the Enlightenment didn't *originate* democracy. The practice of group self-rule is as old as the species.

David said...

It seems to me the really radical, original thing might be what was going on in states like Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania in the period about 1790-1840. That's the time and place that really sees the coming together of something like the modern liberal sensibility, with the combination of behavioral civility, full male voting rights, female suffrage as a movement, and abolition. It's not the whole north: both New Jersey and Rhode Island were notably slow on removing property qualifications for voting, I think. Anyway, I'd like to see an Edmund Morgan-like study of, say, Massachusetts in those years.

szopeno said...

It's seems sad to me that anyone had to defend the founders of your nation.