Being Realistic about George Washington’s Slave Views

illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Published by Scholastic Press

You may have missed this little tidbit from the Huffington Post on a new children’s book that some say makes our first president’s slaves look happy and content.

“Scholastic is pulling a new picture book about George Washington and his slaves amid objections it sentimentalizes a brutal part of American history.

“A Birthday Cake for George Washington” was released Jan. 5 and had been strongly criticized for its upbeat images and story of Washington’s cook, the slave Hercules and his daughter, Delia. Its withdrawal was announced Sunday.

“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” the children’s publisher said in a statement released to the AP.

The book, which depicts Hercules and Delia preparing a cake for Washington, has received more than 100 one-star reviews on Amazon.com. As of Sunday evening, only 12 reviews were positive. The book also set off discussions on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere on social media.

While notes in “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” from author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton had pointed out the historical context of the 18th century story and that Hercules eventually escaped, some critics faulted Ganeshram and Brantley-Newton for leaving out those details from the main narrative.

“Oh, how George Washington loves his cake!” reads the publisher’s description of the story. “And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem — they are out of sugar.”

As someone currently working on a historical card game for kids and as someone who has read several biographies on Washington, it is true the “father of our country” owned slaves. First, as the owner of a (comparatively) small plantation in Virginia he inherited from his brother Lawrence (this is Mount Vernon), who inherited it from their father Augustine. He then married Martha Custis in 1759 and acquired her massive plantation she inherited from her deceased first husband Daniel Custis. As a member of Virginia’s gentry in the 18th century, Washington was surrounded by slaveowners and those who justified it. Mount Vernon had 318 slaves at the time of his death in 1799 and he himself purchased slaves over the course of his lifetime.

Richard Parkinson, an Englishman who lived near Mount Vernon, once reported that “it was the sense of all his [Washington’s] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man.”( Parkinson, Richard. A Tour in America, in 1798, 1799, and 1800 (London: Printed for J. Harding and J. Murray, 1805), 420. Having that said, he did own slaves.

However, Washington became increasingly distant from slavery as a practice beginning in the 1770s and continuing until his death. While not a true abolitionist (he never freed his slaves during his lifetime), he expressly turned away from slavery as Revolution became inevitable. It boiled down to one question: How can we as people say we want a nation full of liberty for all if we keep certain folks in chains?

In 1778, not long after breaking camp at Valley Forge, Washington, who was then forty-six years old and had been a slave owner for thirty-five years, confided to a cousin that he longed “every day…more and more to get clear” of the ownership of slaves. (George Washington to Lund Washington, 15 August 1778, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 12, 327.) He vowed never to separate slaves by purchasing one individual and not the others (a common practice at the time). He was further influenced by the views of the Marquis de Lafayette, an ardent opponent of slavery.

Not only did his views evolve on black people, but Washington was one of the first people to stand up for other groups as well. In a letter to Moses Seixas, a leader of Newport, Rhode Island’s Jewish community, Washington wrote “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.” (read more here)

As Washington neared the end of his life, which is the time when “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” takes place, he signed a will saying that, upon Martha’s death, all slaves they owned together were to be freed. He also stipulated in the will that money be left to those enslaved to provide for education or for living expenses.

The conclusion we are left with is that Washington was a product of his time, whether we like it or not. 250 years ago, slavery in most parts of America, especially the South, was considered acceptable and that’s what you did if you were among the better off who could afford vast tracts of land. A good comparison is to how many people today may think poverty is immoral, but do little to make the kinds of changes we need to raise the poor up. For example, opposing or not supporting school choice programs that would allow impoverished children who attend poorly performing schools to attend another school for reasons that have nothing to do with the child or that school, but have everything to do with money and who gets it.

I wish those who are commenting on this book in anger would take the time to understand Washington’s evolving views and recognize that, while hardly perfect, Washington was still ahead of his time and overall one of the greatest men who has ever lived. These attacks are part of a widescale effort to demonize our Framers as “evil old white men” whose Constitution we should ignore because women, blacks, and First Nation peoples (among others) were not granted equal privileges right away.

To be fair, I haven’t read this book, and I do not know whether the slave called Hercules was “happy and content”, though I doubt there were many slaves happy to be treated like inhuman beings. I personally think the author should have considered this before writing a book following a few of Washington’s slaves and making them look happy. (update: In hindsight, the author probably did consider this and did what we love- generate drama to boost sales).

But I’m sure the people attacking Washington for his slave-ownership haven’t read the book either. And few of them will take the time to study the Framer’s views on this issue or the tumultuous Constitution conventions where slavery was a major source of contention between those who supported the institution and those who wanted to see it banned. Keep in mind in that time tarring and feathering were common forms of punishment, and most doctors treated illnesses with leeches, cold baths, or beliefs in “negative energy” because they were not aware of viruses and bacteria like we are today.

Read more about Washington’s views on slavery HERE

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2 thoughts on “Being Realistic about George Washington’s Slave Views

  1. Look at the sales. Look at the Amazon ranking. I think the author knew exactly what she was doing. I’ll bet more Muslims read “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie than “infidels.” Having such a preponderance of negative reviews is driving the sales upwards, as opposed to a book that has a slew of luke-warm reviews. And here’s another theory to consider: Perhaps the author wanted young kids to ask questions about what it meant to be a slave. This could be a version of “Springtime for Hitler,” perhaps – a different motivation, but similar in disguising the true rationale for the work.

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