ON AMERICA’S INCREDIBLY LOW BAR FOR HONORING DEAD WHITE GUYS
Many of this nation’s towering figures are propped up by selective, revisionist, and fictional histories: young George Washington who “could not tell a lie”; Thomas Jefferson, a man for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; Theodore Roosevelt, the naturalist Nobel Prize winner, Abraham Lincoln’s “nation conceived in Liberty, [where] all men are created equal.”
Their likeness cut into a granite mountainside in South Dakota and elevated for 80 years, these American Presidents have been made larger than life, but an examination of the character of these men at the ground level is a civics lesson long overdue.
In The History of Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Mason Locke Weems’, a one-time minister and a contemporary of the man, gave us stories of a six-year-old Washington in the cherry tree, the hatchet, his “inexpressible charm of all conquering truth,” and the silver dollar hurled more than a mile across the Potomac River.
But Washington, who had never been a great athlete, even in his youth, was about 62 years old at first issuance of the silver dollar in 1794, and near the end of a lifetime of illnesses. Clearly, Washington never accomplished such a feat.
Weems’ work is “of trifling historical value, yet with sufficient literary skill to gain wide popularity,” wrote Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts. Through these allegories, Weems’ painted a glowing image of Washington, wildly contradicting our modern understanding of the man who lived a life in stark opposition to his own Anglican faith.
In the late eighteenth century, the Washingtons split time between their residence in the free state of Pennsylvania, where the president’s house was located in those days, and Mount Vernon, their plantation on 7,600 acres, just 14 minutes’ drive from today’s Capitol city. By regular rotation of enslaved people between their two residences, the Washingtons circumvented Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act, which, if enforced, would liberate enslaved people residing in the state for six consecutive months.
For more than 300 years before Dred Scott, American chattel slavery had been a thriving industry, the engine of this nation’s commerce, and the Washingtons held considerable interest in the slave labor marketplace. At least 300 Black people were held in bondage and enslaved at Washington’s Mount Vernon, now fee-based and open year-round for shopping, dining, and excavation of slave burial sites.
Growing up, we heard that Washington had wooden teeth, but this is far from the ugly truth. “Some of his famous false teeth…were yanked from the heads of slaves and fitted into his dentures,” writes the historian and journalist Henry Wiencek. “Moreover, Washington apparently had slaves’ teeth transplanted into his own jaw in 1784, in a procedure that did not succeed.” In spite of this, he was toothless by the age of 63.
Washington was a man “disguised and hidden away by the mistaken eulogy and erroneous theories of devout admirers,” wrote Cabot Lodge. A fictitious version of the man “developed from the wide sale of [Weems’] book, [and] there was a revolt against it, for the hero thus engendered had qualities which the national sense of humor could not endure in silence,” wrote Cabot Lodge.
Hair from the heads of George and Martha Washington, valued at $75,000, has gone to auction in Boston this month. That these slaveholders’ strands of hair could command such a price brazenly celebrates an American heart of darkness that still beats strong and steady today.
The “Father of the nation” died at Mount Vernon shortly after his second presidential term, with complications of a sore throat. He was 67 years old.
Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence, raped a young girl who was enslaved in his captivity. Sally Hemings, half-sister to Jefferson’s deceased wife, is said to have been between the ages of 13 and 14 years old at the time of Jefferson’s first violation. He was 44.
Jefferson fathered at least six children born to Hemings. The four children who survived lived as slaves at Monticello, their father’s 5,000-acre plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Monticello Foundation acknowledges strong evidence of paternity in each case. In further proof of Jefferson’s kinship, his enslaved children were allowed to “run away” from Monticello at the age of 21, in some cases with money he’d given them.
As always, this Black trauma has been monetized in film and literature for a white and white adjacent audience. Jefferson in Paris dramatizes this history, and the novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings makes fantasy fiction of it, “[imagining] the most intimate aspects of slavery in the way only fiction can,” one reviewer wrote.
Children’s stories and school texts about Jefferson tell lies about a “romantic relationship” with one of his slaves, and are silent about the truth of Jefferson’s inhumanity, not unlike the fables of Washington’s goodness still retold today.
The “Father of American progressivism” kept more than 600 Black people bound and enslaved at the Monticello plantations. The University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson, sits just a few miles away. UV is the site of white nationalists’ torchlight march and the death of Heather Heyer. Today, Jefferson’s Monticello is another popular stop along the heritage tourism circuit, replete with scavenger hunts and wine tastings.
Jefferson is one of the nation’s most cunning leaders so far. On one hand, he pushed the Slave Trade Act, ending American participation in the international slave trade. On the other hand, consumed and motivated by his own deeply vested interest in the slave economy, he sealed the Louisiana Purchase, reinforcing its proliferation within our national borders.
Large slaveholders like President Jefferson supported this law since it increased the demand and value of their captives. They started deliberately ‘breeding’ enslaved Africans to supply the demand of planters rushing into the Louisiana territory, which President Jefferson purchased from Napoleon in 1803. “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man on the farm,” Jefferson explained to a friend on June 30, 1820. — Ibram Kendi, professor at Boston University and historian on race and discriminatory policy in America
Jefferson suffered many illnesses including migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, and intestinal infections. He died at Monticello at the age of 83.
Akin in aims and desires to white nationalists of today, the 26th American President, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was an outspoken eugenicist. He denounced the concept and practices associated with family planning, and likened abortion among white women as criminal and shirking of one’s duties to increase representation of the white race. John D. Rockefeller, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Adolf Hitler all expressed similar ideas. Incidentally, his cousin, the 32nd President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat whose platform leaned towards the common man, signed the Social Security Act into Law.
Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, was first among presidents to invite and host a Black person to dine at the White House — a crowning distinction for him. He was also first among presidents to praise the capture of a Congolese man, caged with animals at the Bronx Zoo, and put on exhibition for the white gaze. William Temple Hornaday, the founding director and curator of zoo, a friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s and a fellow eugenicist, “defended the exhibition of the ‘African Pygmy’ on the grounds of science.” In the same year, Roosevelt became the first political leader to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, despite notable outrage from the international community, “and for the first time the award was controversial.” The book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk, professor of journalism at NYU, details this history.
Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep. He was 60.
“Today, the average American knows next to nothing about Lincoln, apart from the few slogans we’re taught in elementary school [and] even the slogans are fake,” says Thomas DiLorenzo, economics professor at Loyola University. As with Washington and Jefferson, DiLorenzo says “for at least the past century and a half, Americans have been indoctrinated with a fake wizard of oz version of the man.” This has led to a deification of the office of the president and the federal government itself, says DiLorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I leave you hoping that the lamp of liberty will burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal.” (Speech at Chicago, Illinois, 1858)
Also Lincoln: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office and intermarry with whites,” and crowd responded with applause. (The Great Debates of 1858)
Eric Foner, revered historian and Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, writes, “Lincoln’s support of colonization, a policy that might be called the ethnic cleansing of America and a profoundly racist movement was no transitory fancy. It offered ‘an all white country in the future.’”
Today, the 16th American President, a Republican, is honored for his Gettysburg pronouncement that all men are created equal, but in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and in too many public addresses he made statements plainly irreconcilable with the very nature of equality, which is unchanging. Lincoln was a great salesman. He spoke to the audience before him at any given time. He spoke from both sides of his mouth, but neither side was for equality, because equality would have brought equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal access; and critically, equality would have meant that every person was in fact a person, and not property.
Lincoln was shot to death at a theater days before the end of the Civil War.
Carla Bell is an editor and journalist based in Seattle. Her work appears in Forbes, Essence, Ebony, The Seattle Times, and other publications.