90 Miles From Tyranny : The War on History Comes for George Washington

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The War on History Comes for George Washington


They finally came for George Washington.

The perpetual war on history now has the father of our country in its sights as the San Francisco Board of Education considers removing a mural of Washington from a local school.

If the board succeeds in politicizing Washington, whose legacy was once so secured and uniting that his home at Mount Vernon was considered neutral ground during the Civil War, then we have clearly crossed the Rubicon of social division.

Critics of the mural point out that, in addition to Washington, it also depicts slaves and Native Americans—and one of the Native Americans appears to be dead.

They have called the artwork offensive, and the school board says it “traumatizes students” and “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

But the original intent of the mural was actually the exact opposite.

It was painted in 1936 by artist Victor Arnautoff, a man of the left in his own time who, according to historian Fergus M. Bordewich, wanted to depict Washington in a less glamorized way by including images of disturbing realities. Bordewich explained:
[Arnautoff] included those images not to glorify Washington, but rather to provoke a nuanced evaluation of his legacy. The scene with the dead Native American, for instance, calls attention to the price of ‘manifest destiny.’ Arnautoff’s murals also portray the slaves with humanity and the several live Indians as vigorous and manly.

Those who condemn the murals have misunderstood it, seeing only what they sought to find. They’ve also got their history seriously wrong. Washington did own slaves—124 men, women and children—and oversaw many more who belonged to his wife’s family. But by his later years he had evolved into a proto-abolitionist, a remarkable ethical journey for a man of his time, place, and class.
No matter to the modern iconoclasts. It’s too much to expect one to think about what one is rushing to destroy. Obliterate now and ask questions, well, never.

This is just the latest example of attempts to purge American history of its historical figures. Not only is this trend wildly misguided—how destroying statues and paintings bring an end to racism and prejudice is never fully explained—but it also cheapens the debate over America’s past by ignoring nuance.

From the beginning, it was clear that this movement had far less to do with genuinely criticizing past historical figures, but instead reflected the need of modern radicals to feel good about themselves and think they are “doing something” to...

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