Erasing George Washington

May 13, 2022 • 1:15 pm

As I’ve said several times during this era of cancellation, renaming, and statue-toppling, I would only favor this kind of “erasure” (usually not by straight erasure, but by giving “context”) when the person at issue fails to fulfill two criteria:

a. Are they being honored for their positive accomplishments?  and
b. On balance, did their life and accomplishments make the world a better place?

If “yes”, let them stay. If “no”, erasure might be considered, though I favor the retention of history with, perhaps, an explanatory note.

Now, these are my own criteria, and others differ, but I’d say, for instance, that removing a Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt statue because they were imperfect humans violates the two criteria above. Both men are “yes”s in a. and b. (I won’t argue about the way Roosevelt was depicted in the New York Statue, but see Gregg Mayer’s view here).

Denaming an animal named after someone who made racist statements is a judgment call (how many statements and what were they?), but a call I’d make using a. and b. above. I tend to be on the lenient side because, after all, we are judging people of the past by the morality of our own time, and what was once acceptable is no longer so.

Slavery is an exception to what I just said. Even in times of slavery, there were many who opposed it, and so it has to be counted as a severe moral deficit in anyone connected to the slave trade or to have had slaves.  Slavery can’t be taken as “the general moral view of most people.”

Thisbrings up the matter of two of our most famous Presidents, both of whom were enslavers: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This issue is part of what led Caleb Francois, a senior at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, to write the following op-ed in the Washington Post. Among other changes that Francois wants in light of what he sees as pervasive structural racism at George Washington University, Francois wants its name changed. Click to read:

I can’t comment on the racial situation at GWU s I haven’t followed it, but I’ll give you Francois’s take on the current issues and then the remedies he proposes:

Today, with Black enrollment at about 10 percent, Black students on campus continue to struggle for community. Despite alleged efforts by administration to enhance diversity, the admissions office continues to fail to ensure a student body with adequate minority representation

Black professorship also remains low, especially in the university’s International Affairs program. Limited Black professors teaching African and African American courses and the continued neglect of Black academia and Black professorship create a campus culture in which European studies and White perspectives are favored over Black perspectives. No African languages are taught at the university, and calls for reforms are often ignored.

These problems are rooted in systemic racism, institutional inequality and white supremacy. There are at least four ways the university could achieve progress: Decolonized university curriculum, increased Black enrollment, the renaming of the university and the selection of an African American President.

Now I’m not sure exactly what a “decolonized university curriculum is”, and I would suggest that more than white supremacy and ongoing systemic racism are involved, though nobody with a brain would deny that underrepresentation of black students and faculty is the result of racism in the past. What I want to address is the renamings Francois plumps for:

Just blocks from the main campus is the Mount Vernon Campus, named for George Washington’s former slave plantation. Every day, hundreds of Black students walk on a campus named after an enslaver of men and study at a site named after dark parts of history. Such sites, among other locations and buildings, are touted as glorified mementos here at GW. The indignity and injustice of such sites remain overlooked. The racist visions of James MadisonWinston Churchill and others are glorified through building names, programs, statues and libraries that honor their memory.

The controversial Winston Churchill Library must go. The university’s contentious colonial moniker must go. Even the university’s name, mascot and motto — “Hail Thee George Washington”— must be replaced. The hypocrisy of GW in not addressing these issues is an example of how Black voices and Black grievances go ignored and highlights the importance of strong Black leadership.

I won’t reiterate the accomplishments of Madison, Washington, Churchill, or Jefferson, but will say that their position of enslavers does count against them strongly, especially in part b. Nevertheless, I think these men are being honored for their positive accomplishments, and by my lights I judge them as having made the world a better place, even though they made the life of their slaves much worse. In my view, George Washington University should stay (and I suspect it will); Francois suggests changing the name to “Frederick Douglass University”.  To be sure, Douglass was a great man, but I don’t much cotton to displacing George Washington.

That of course brings up another question: what about the name of the city. If George Washington needs to be removed from the name of the University, why not from “Washington, D. C.” itself? Or from the state of Washington? Or from the Washington Monument? I’d be curious to see what Francois would say about that. After all, wouldn’t it be hypocritical to take the name “Washington” off the University but leave it in many other places?

Cases like these are one instance in which I ask myself this question, “What would Hitchens have thought?”

38 thoughts on “Erasing George Washington

      1. Nope. Federally, it is still known as Washington’s Birthday (see federal link above). Our Host’s state of Illinois also recognize it as Washington’s Birthday, but usage has been inconsistent

        This is exactly how the renaming happens. It creeps up on us. Sometimes names are formally changed, but many times people are just convinced that the names have already been changed, or they just shouldn’t be used anymore. Many people are firmly convinced that the US federal government has renamed Washington’s Birthday, but no one can ever identify the specific legislation that made the change.

  1. We need to redress past wrongs. But I cannot condone the cancel culture campaign. Washington’s positive achievements far outweigh his moral lapses. Pressing the delete button is unhelpful.

    1. I would only redress past wrongs to (a) correct history and (b) if it continues to be a wrong (ie, it’s not completely past). It is hard to see how Washington’s mistakes, whatever they are, continue to wreak havoc today. Except for that pesky Constitution, I suppose.

    2. Washington’s positive achievements far outweigh his moral lapses.

      Do they? It’s a massive “what if” scenario, but would the World be an objectively worse place, if the rebels had lost the War of Independence?

  2. Utterly ridiculous. De-colonizing the curriculum isn’t even well defined, and is a dogmatic perspective in any event. This just makes the left look crazy.

    1. Well, it does appear that a shrill minority of genuinely crazy people are being elevated to positions of representing the left. Not just the left, of course.
      In my experience, lots of college kids go through a phase where they latch on to some political ideology that they have been exposed to, and evangelize it with an intense fervor. A normal reaction to them would be to listen politely, and congratulate them on their enthusiasm. Most of us remember what it was like at that age, and know that at next year’s family reunion, they will likely have developed other passions.
      What was generally not done in the past was react by telling them that it is clear to all of us that their newfound views are special and unique, and convey an insight into the issues we have never witnessed before. No, that will not be enough. They should absolutely write it all down, and we will make sure that it is published in the Washington Post.

      What bothers me is that such views are almost certainly being pushed on them by people who should know better. Cynical adults who have a pretty fair idea how much destruction these sorts of views will lead to, if acted upon. They welcome the destruction and suffering, because they cannot build their utopia unless we first tear everything down.
      I don’t blame the kid. Kids tend to be pretty pliable, and can be convinced of almost anything.

  3. Obviously, the next step must be to remove the monument (which is, like, totally phallocentric), and then rename the city. Others have pointed out the irony of this editorial being published in the “Washington Post,” which is indirectly named after the man. I wish they would do polls when they run pieces like this so that on the spot they can see how out of touch they are.

  4. The C from DC should be removed. Columbus was a bloodthirsty, rapist psychotic and profoundly cruel tyrant, even his contemporaries thought so. He was even condemned to jail for his harsh treatment of the indigenous people (I think, but it could be more the treatment of his fellow conquistadors), but was pardoned by Ferdinand, who had his eyes on the promise of gold….
    And then there is Columbia river, Columbia (the country), British Columbia, Columbia university, Columbia pictures, Columbia sportswear, Columbia records, etc. etc.
    The Woke have their work cut out. They should leave Washington alone until they get rid of the much greater evil of Columbus, I’d say.
    Note, I’m not sure how bad Amerigo Vespucci was, maybe we should get rid of ‘America’ and ‘American’ too, just to make sure.

    1. Amerigo Vespucci was an agent for evil colonialists and took natives from the Caribbean as slaves.

  5. I just do not see what point there is, much of the time, in renaming. It seems like there is so little to gain from it and so much to lose. It makes me crazy that this is the sort of thing that seems to distract and engage people on the far left when there are so many other things we could and should be working on. I think every time there’s a story in the newspaper like this a few more votes go to Republicans. And that’s all we need right now is Republicans in charge of everything again.

    1. In principle (with a few exceptions I won’t go into here), I think the only moral thing to do is to rename every public building, monument, place, etc. named after a slaveholder. But, from a practical point of view this is impossible. Thus, we cannot expect very many tributes to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (on a moral scale, Jefferson was much worse than Washington, although both were enmeshed in one of the worst moral degradations one can imagine). People yearn for myths and fairy tales, whether they be from the bible or their country’s origins. So, I agree with you that the best course of action, as distasteful as it may be, is to let sleeping dogs lie. In the current political climate, militants such as the author of the article, can only help the Trumpists, and we must do everything to avoid that. Thus, it is best to ignore the fact that ten of the first twelve presidents were slaveholders (the two exceptions were John Adams and John Quincy Adams), although perhaps we should forgive Martin Van Buren, who owned only one slave that ran way, but he made little effort to retrieve him.

    2. Agreed! Stick & stones can break bones but names alone are not evil. Accomplish something useful!

  6. I don’t know if George Washington liked a drink. But our long-erased first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald certainly did. Perhaps the two of them can share a hogshead or two of rum — there’s no cirrhosis in Heaven — while they muse about the picayune priggishness of cancellers who accomplished in their lives not a thousandth of what Washington did, or a tenth of what Macdonald did, in theirs.

    I think you’re right that as long as a monument honours them for their achievements that we still regards as positive, that should be respected. Where that breaks down is that in the case of Macdonald, some agitators say that in the very act of cobbling our country together he conducted genocide against Indigenous people, and so honouring him as a Father of Confederation cannot be accepted at all. The claim is bogus but if it was true, that the founding of Canada was a net negative for humanity, then we would have to erase him and he pretty much already is. Mobs have resorted to violence against his statues and vandalized public buildings bearing his name while we have cowered and complied. I fear that’s the claim the anti-slavery folks allow Washington to stand accused of. Just by his ownership of slaves, nothing else he did can be honoured.

    Washington also stands accused of Indigenous genocide himself. After achieving independence from Britain he, of course, repudiated the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act. In doing so, he recognized the Native Tribes not as the children of the King needing protection but as sovereign foreign nations against whom he could go to war to secure the Ohio territory. Which he did. With the United States Army. But where would the United States have been if it had stayed hemmed in between the Alleghenies and the sea? (Or Canada if it had left the Natives alone on the prairies to starve in illiteracy with the fur trade and the buffalo hunt in decline?)

    You can say what you like about the unforgiveable wretchedness of slavery or Amerindian conquests — I won’t argue. But my concern on principle is that by giving in to people who want to punish — to no practical modern consequence — long-dead politicians and generals for actions which if not taken we wouldn’t even be here, you surrender power without getting anything in return. This just generates more demands for, indeed, removing his name from your capital city, as well as the State, and hundreds of counties and geographic features scattered all over the country. It also slyly encourages the demand to dumb down the curriculum* and install a Black president of the university, just to make up for Washington even though those demands have nothing to do with the man. That spells power-grab to me.

    Don’t go down the road we are taking.
    *That’s what decolonization means.

  7. Washington, Jefferson, and the other founders are part of the greatest achievement with regard to ending slavery in the world. The Enlightenment said: rationally, all people are people. The Declaration said: all people are people. But the world, for its entire history, had never put that into practice. Slavery was everywhere, forever.

    Yes, some of those who participated in this great achievement owned slaves. Just about everyone of any race with ‘an advantage’ did, world-wide. Yet the Founders instantiated the axiomatic principle that would make them wrong, for the purpose of making the world right.

    To have built a nation on the basis of freedom and equal humanship as an absolute, and then to fight through the 19th century (with England also) to enact it into law … any denial that this was magnificent greatness is an atrocity.

    1. The founding of the United States was not the greatest achievement with respect to ending slavery. History tells us that even the British Empire (you know, the people that Washington and his ilk were fighting against) abolished slavery a full three decades before the “land of the free” got around to it.

      I deny the alleged “magnificent greatness”.

      1. 1) What did England do with their four million emancipated new citizens. [irony for a point]
        2) When they did, did they apologize to the American colonies for inflicting slavery on them, and eradicate it in them?

        You can say “I deny” to my claim, no problem, but you gave no basis for the denial.

        1. First a note on terminology. England stopped being a sovereign state in 1707. It was henceforth part of the state known as “The United Kingdom”. England didn’t lose the War of Independence, nor did England stop the slave trade or abolish slavery in the British Empire. In all of those cases it was the UK.

          I’m not clear why the UK should have apologised to the American colonies for inflicting slavery on them. (Perhaps we should have apologised to the slaves for inflicting the American colonies on them though.) Anyway, the American colonies were quite happy to accept slaves for a long period of time after they gained their independence from the UK and at the time we emancipated the slaves in the British Empire we had no jurisdiction over our former colonies.

          I denied the alleged “magnificent greatness” on the basis that it was clearly not and I said why not in my previous post. Your founding fathers wrote fine words, but when it came to action, they were quite happy to accept the hypocrisy of “all men are born equal” and keeping slaves at the same time. It took the bloodiest war in US history to finally dismantle the institution of slavery in the so called “land of the free”. You talk the talk. The USA has frequently failed to walk the walk.

          1. You did not say anything in your “previous post” about my claim, except to say you deny it. You gave one fact that actually refutes your argument, that is all.

            Thank you for your lengthy lecture on “UK.” I recognize the debate tactic, and say thank you because it shows your disdain for the essentials. Additionally, you don’t acknowledge my inclusion in UK as part of the magnificent greatness of destroying slavery on principle, another attempted trick on your part.

            The essential was explained in my original post, and you have not touched it, except for unsupported denial and another full paragraph of empty and unsupported claims against the United States.

            So, thanks for nothing, and I mean that with no spin. Literally. Nothing.

            1. You did not say anything in your “previous post” about my claim, except to say you deny it.

              I thought it was pretty obvious. Saying that everybody is free is a lot different to making everybody free. The tardiness with which the USA abolished slavery as well as a number of other examples I can think of shows that the USA was big on claiming freedom for everybody but very reluctant to actually do it.

              Thank you for your lengthy lecture on “UK.” I recognize the debate tactic, and say thank you because it shows your disdain for the essentials.

              Nothing to do with that. I assumed it was an honest mistake at first but now it makes me question your grasp of historical fact, which puts your argument on a shaky foundation.

              The essential was explained in my original post, and you have not touched it, except for unsupported denial

              I explained why your claim was false. I have done that twice now and you have ignored what I wrote. It’s time to stop.

              1. Ok, I’ll stop, with the last word and a link for you to investigate historical fact regarding tardiness, and my ‘essentials’ argument untouched:

      2. Abolishing slavery in the British Empire was an easier social proposition because the slaves were physically located in faraway colonies, not at home in the UK. Certainly the economic loss to slave owners would have been ruinous but for the government bond floated to reimburse them and this was undoubtedly less costly than the American Civil War.

        But what did happen to the former slaves now emancipated from the sugar and cotton plantations in the West Indies? They eventually became citizens of independent Caribbean nations but how did they fare between 1833 and the 1960s when the Union flag came down? Did they prosper? How? What did they live on? Some emigrated to the UK and Canada but most stayed where they were.

  8. Hitchens would have had an eloquent and brilliant rebuttal about the absurdity of these insane ideas to cancel everyone who isn’t perfect. Miss him so much!

  9. It’s always telling that the people who campaign for these name changes don’t insist on any number of the non-black abolitionists who fought hard, including giving their lives, for the end of slavery, people like John Brown or Thaddeus Stevens or Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant, or later who fought against Jim Crow. The insistence is that the name change be made to a black person.

    The complaint, then, is less, “This person held slaves, which is wrong”, and more, “This person who doesn’t look like me held slaves that look like me. I want the building to be named for someone who looks like me.” And the demand for moral rectitude of the current order is often strikingly absent from the proposed new namesake.

  10. Seven years ago, my own group, the Student Peoples’ Liberation Front for Diversity, Inclusivity, and Sensitive Language (SPLFDISL), issued its own proclamation to demand  that the University of Washington remove “Washington” from its name, in view of General Washington’s infamous record as a general, a militarist, a slaveowner, and an old dead white man.  Instead, we proposed to rename our University after Tjolzhitsay, a great chief of the Salish nation who was known in English as Chief Big Face.  We also offered to conduct workshops on Critical Intersectional Theory, on how race, class, and gender brought the academic world to its present, lamentable state, and, above all, on the incomparable, paramount importance of our own work at SPLFDISL.   We further suggested, of course, that these workshops be required of all students, faculty, employees, visitors, and anyone found walking past the University of Tjolzhitsay.  

    1. How expensive is it? Do you accept people with the last name “Washington”? That’s my last name, but I’ll change it if I need to. UoT sounds like a perfect fit, esp. when it comes to Sensitive Language. I’m allergic to it. Goddamn, UoT sounds awesome! Thanks for your consideration. BTW, my GPA is a 1.8 but, you know, inclusivity, right?

  11. The suggestion of changing the name to Frederick Douglass caught my eye, since I am currently finishing up a biography about him by David Blight. (Very worth the read, btw.) And Douglass was in fact openly and rabidly racist when it came to Native Americans. Indeed he often argued, among other things, that Blacks should be accepted into civilized White society, unlike the hopelessly barbaric natives. And while antipathy toward the Native Americans at the time was widespread enough, there were also plenty of voices arguing against improper treatment of and racism toward them, so that this can be counted, in your terms, as a “severe moral deficit”.

    1. Did you get to the part where he shut down Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her effort to include women in the language and intent of the emancipating amendments? She was an abolitionist, but also pragmatic: without equality before the law for women, the emancipation of two million new citizens, men, would add to the condition of subjugation and physical danger to women.

      Douglass told her, paraphrasing, “It is not your time.”

  12. Today, with Black enrollment at about 10 percent, Black students on campus continue to struggle for community.

    I have many questions about this. What does it mean to “struggle for community”? A university is a community. Are the black students being deliberately excluded from it (that would obviously be a problem). Are they struggling to make their own community because there is not enough of them?

    What percentage of Americans are black? This survey suggests about 13%. So the enrolment is low, but do they really think changing the name of the university will fix the issues that cause it to be low?

    What about other ethnic minorities? Are they underrepresented at enrolment? Do they struggle for community?

    George Washington has his name on lots of things, not because he was good or bad, but because he founded the United States.

  13. The statue of GW across the street from me (because of his participation in the Battle of Braddock’s Field, 9 July 1755, where he was one of the few surviving officers, remains, despite a kerfluffle last year to remove it that as far as I can tell has evaporated.

    And, the obverse of the US quarter has been redesigned, I think to the 1932 design that almost became the face back then except that it was rejected by Treas Secy Andrew Mellon in favor of the one that we’ve had for 90yrs. Since coinage designs have to remain the same for 25yrs, I think it would require an Act of Congress to replace the new GW design now.

    Also, a recent visit to Williamsburg, where I found the statue of Thomas Jefferson (that sits on the commercial block adjacent to Wm&Mary) festively decorated by students – exactly for what I’ve forgotten – suggests that the student body is not up in arms vs. TJ.

  14. People are ‘good’ in some respects, and ‘bad’ in others. The question is, how much ‘badness’ are we as a society willing to tolerate or forgive in an individual?

    With regard to Richard Wagner (an anti-semite and racist), one might say, “I kneel before your art and p*ss on your grave.”

    1. The anti-racists say that lets the historical figure, and us, off too easy. They want to intimidate us into pissing on his art, too. Just because they say so. The prize is getting us to submit to something that we would resist if we dared.

      You’re trying to find a reasonable way to do the right thing. They want to win. They are playing by different rules because it’s a different game.

  15. Names like “Washington” or “Darwin” are a part of history, like the Taj Mahal. Should the Taj Mahal’s name be changed because Mahal in all probability owned slaves, and so did Shah Jahan, who also was a colonial dictator? Should the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul be renamed because Sultan Ahmed owned slaves? The Turkish conquerors of the 15th century were wiser than that and left the Aya Sofya’s name even though Holy Sofia was a Christian Saint and their major state mosque was thus named after a Cristian. I wouldn’t even begin to discuss the merits of 18th century and 19. century figures in the context of established names or statues. Changing the scientific names of biological species because of the ethics of the namesakes is idiocy. One should not waste one’s time on stuff like that. If one has time and money to change names, then apparently one doesn’t have an real problems to solve.

    GW University doesn’t teach African languages, even though they teach East Asian, Middle Eastern and European languages. So by all means create a department of African languages, any large University has one in Europe (to my knowledge), but leave the name alone. I suspect that there is a reason that GWU’s “Africana” department as yet does not teach African languages, and that is the expectation by “antiracist” educators that US descendants of slavery won’t be capable or willing to learn African languages, which like most all non-European languages are quite demanding for English speakers.

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