William W. Freehling presents his view of the Founding Fathers and slavery in the article 'The Founding Fathers and Slavery.' He contends that America's Founding Fathers were antislavery but gives viewpoints of other historians to the contrary. The first sentence of the article states, 'Only a few years ago... no man needed to defend the Founding Fathers on slavery.' This implies that there was a change in the interpretation of the Founding Fathers position on slavery and indeed there was. Freehling lists the men who hold this more recent opinion, he says, 'Scholars such as Robert McColley, Staughton Lynd, William Cohen, and Winthrop Jordan have assaulted every aspect of the old interpretation.' The more recent opinion that the Founding Fathers were not antislavery is supported by the notion that the Declaration of Independence was a white man's document and was not intended for the freedom of slaves. The fact that Thomas Jefferson bought and sold slaves and 'ordered lashes well laid on' also supports the newer viewpoint.
The founding fathers are defended by Freehling however. He says, 'The impact of the Founding Fathers on slavery... must be seen in the long run not in terms of what changed in the late eighteenth century but in terms of how the Revolutionary experience changed the whole of American antebellum history. Any such view must place Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries... back into the creeping American antislavery process.'
The Founding Fathers ran into a dillema when it came to slavery. Their ideology of freedom and the right to own property conflicted with the freedom of the slaves. Freehling says, 'On the one hand they were restrained by their overriding interest in creating the Union, by their concern for property rights, and by their visions of race war and miscegenation: on the other hand...
The modern era has not taken a kind view of fathers. Intellectuals sneer at “the patriarchy” and the public thinks of ineffective television figures. This has had its effect on the Father of Our Country, who has been dismissed to a remote exile—partly a children’s myth no longer taught in schools, partly slaveholders’ hypocrisy, partly a formal and uncaring aristocrat, the rest only a remnant of the discredited history of “elites.”
Brookhiser’s revisionist biography attempts to refute all these misleading portrayals by showing readers the real George Washington: a physically impressive man with a strong temper and an ambition to attain a good reputation. Governing all this was a remarkable self-control that came from an upbringing in Virginia’s aristocratic society and a strong personal morality. Courtesy and good manners were as much a part of his governing style as of his personal behavior, but they never implied weakness or lack of resolution.
Washington disapproved of slavery; he did what he could to rid the nation and himself of it, but he was also aware that perfectionism can lead to disaster. One must not sacrifice realizable gains for unattainable ones. Only if the nation survived did its fundamental ideals have the possibility of being more fully realized.
As father of his country, Washington did what every good father does as his children reach maturity: He lets them go. When Washington retired from the army, from the presidency, he knew that the nation would have difficult times ahead, but realized that such struggles were an inevitable part of growing up. Washington had done what he could to set the nation on the right course. The rest was, and is, up to us.
Sources for Further Study
American Heritage. XLVII, May, 1996, p. 110.
Commentary. CI, May, 1996, p. 69.
Forbes. CLVIII, December 2, 1996, p. 26.
Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, December 1, 1995, p. 1678.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 24, 1996, p. 10.
National Review. XLVIII, March 11, 1996, p. 61.
The New York Review of Books. XLIII, February 29, 1996, p. 11.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 18, 1996, p. 8.
The New Yorker. LXXI, February 5, 1996, p. 68.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 8, 1996, p. 55.
The Wall Street Journal. February 8, 1996, p. A12.