A Fuller Picture Of The Presidential Past

On a day that Americans typically celebrate with patriotism, Clarence Lusane calls attention to “a largely hidden and silenced black history of the U.S. presidency“:

George Washington’s stated antislavery convictions misaligned with his actual political behavior. While professing to abhor slavery and hope for its eventual demise, as president Washington took no real steps in that direction and in fact did everything he could to georgewashington.jpgensure that not one of the more than 300 people he owned could secure their freedom. During the 10 years of construction of the White House, George Washington spent time in Philadelphia where a law called the Gradual Abolition Act passed in 1780. It stated that any slaves brought into the state were eligible to apply for their freedom if they were there for longer than six months. To get around the law, Washington rotated the people working for him in bondage so that they were there for less than six months each. …

In textbooks and popular history, the White House is figuratively constructed as a repository of democratic aspirations, high principles, and ethical values. For many Americans, it is subversive to criticize the nation’s founders, the founding documents, the presidency, the president’s house, and other institutions that have come to symbolize the official story of the United States. It may be uncomfortable to give up long-held and even meaningful beliefs that in many ways build both collective and personal identities. However, erasing enslaved African Americans from the White House and the presidency presents a false portrait of our country’s history. If young people—and all the rest of us—are to understand a fuller, people’s history of the United States, they need to recognize that every aspect of early America was built on slavery.