Viewpoints

Tweeting a two-bit notion to banish George Washington

The National Park Service will have to take a jackhammer to Mount Rushmore if we decide the fact that George Washington owned slaves makes him worth banishing.
The National Park Service will have to take a jackhammer to Mount Rushmore if we decide the fact that George Washington owned slaves makes him worth banishing. rparsell@sacbee.com

It’s not just the clever minds under the state Capitol dome that can make America wonder if California has taken leave of its senses.

The Golden State is also blessed by the likes of Matt Haney, president of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education, who recently posted this on his Twitter account (since set to private):

“We should rename Washington High School after San Francisco native, poet and author Maya Angelou. No schools named after slave owners.”

By George, Haney didn’t get the memo about “first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Or maybe Haney has it in for quarters, one-dollar bills and Purple Heart medals.

But it’s not strictly anti-Washington. In San Francisco, Jefferson Elementary and Francis Scott Key Elementary (“The Star Spangled Banner” author also owned slaves) could be subject to renaming.

It might be the reality of a republic whose nascent days are long past: The early shapers are subject to sanitation, if not eradication – well, unless they’re playing on Broadway (without a bagful of Tony awards, would Alexander Hamilton still be on the $10 bill?).

I’ll cop to a bias both southern and premodern: I’m a graduate of Washington & Lee University, a double offender in the world of P.C. crusading. And I grew up in Virginia, which has struggled with its heritage for decades.

With G.W. under siege in S.F., I have two concerns.

Washington, like Jefferson, were complex figures. They sought a better society and wrestled with their consciences over what defined liberty. The struggle continues to this day.

First, if we unleash the P.C. dragon on the presidency, where do we stop? The National Park Service will have to take a jackhammer to Mount Rushmore. Thomas Jefferson? Slave owner. Abraham Lincoln? Waged war, revoked civil liberties. Theodore Roosevelt? An imperialist who slaughtered wildlife.

Good luck finding clean icons in the last century. Woodrow Wilson is on the hot seat at his alma mater, Princeton, for his segregationist ways. Franklin Roosevelt turned away Jewish refugees before World War II and didn’t bomb Nazi death camps during it. John F. Kennedy consumed women like an Olive Garden never-ending pasta bowl. Ronald Reagan? Slow to react to the AIDS health crisis.

My second concern: As we apply BleachBit to the era of slavery, how do we ensure that younger generations still get an education in the root causes of the American experiment?

Years ago, when I worked in the Governor’s Office, I’d give my summer interns a history quiz. Sadly, some very bright kids attending elite western universities knew little about their nation predating 1850 and California statehood.

If California’s school districts want to swap out slave-holding figures for names more present-day palatable, the trade-off should be an increased classroom focus on at least three aspects of the earliest chapters of American history: religious freedom in the New World; the economic causes behind the uprising; the drafting of the nation’s Constitution.

But should San Francisco and other California cities give Washington and his contemporaries a reprieve, I have another request: Please show the kids what makes these figures historically significant.

Washington High, for example, has a mural depicting the future president in the company of slaves. Where does that slice of colonial life rank place in Washington’s biography? Well behind his assuming the presidency and then voluntarily stepping down, multiple Revolutionary War campaigns (Yorktown, Valley Forge, crossing the Delaware River), or surveying the frontier.

As for slavery, why not a mural noting that Washington was the rare slave-holding Founding Father who freed his slaves in his will?

Such wrinkles are what make Washington, like Jefferson and other giants of their time, such complex figures. They sought a better society; they wrestled with their consciences over what defined liberty – a struggle that continues to this day.

Erase Washington? Like the quarter bearing his image, it’s a two-bit suggestion.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and was a speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. He can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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