This week, George Washington’s 291st birthday will be celebrated by tiny numbers of Americans. That did not used to be the case.
For most of our history, Washington’s birthday was a big deal, a national holiday. Then, in 1968, George (Feb. 22) and Abe Lincoln (Feb. 12) got lumped in with everyone else in a generic “Presidents’ Day’’ holiday that largely celebrates mattress blowout sales.
George Washington has taken quite a fall in the public’s affection from the days of, “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
This didn’t happen by accident.
As George Orwell warned, “He who controls the past controls the future,” which partly explains why statues of our Founding Fathers and other historic notables end up in the center of so much controversy. The brand-new Martin Luther King Jr./Coretta Scott King monument in Boston has been mercilessly bashed on social media.
Still, Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee have nothing on the biggest name of all, the Foundingest of Founding Fathers, George Washington, America’s “indispensable man.”
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A simple fact: no George Washington, no United States. We would not have won the War of Independence without him. The United States Constitution would not have been written or ratified without him. The early republic would not have survived the rift between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson without him.
But today’s America is a divided land with no George Washington to unite us. Those with a beef against America have long known that if they can topple George, they can undercut the moral foundation upon which our Country was built.
In Los Angeles, this became literally the case. On Aug. 13, 2020, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, vandals toppled a life-sized bronze of Washington that had stood in Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles since 1933.
This was not a spontaneous act. According to the LAPD, the alleged perpetrators carried in their backpacks gas masks, helmets, googles, laser pointers and “a change of clothing to conceal their identity.” Vandals went hunting for Washington and bagged him, something King George III’s army was unable to do in the 18th century. I reached out to the DA’s office about what came of the vandals. I was informed the office resolved the case with a “pre-filing diversion program,” which means no jail time or criminal record will be recorded.
Over the past two-plus years, I have periodically checked in on George to see when and if he would be returned to his plinth in Grand Park. For many months the Washington statue gathered dust in a Department of Arts and Culture warehouse and I began to have my doubts. Washington owned around 300 slaves and, appropriately, not a lot of communities are interested in putting up statues to slave owners these days.
Still, on Valentine’s Day weekend, Walnut Park in southeast Los Angeles County erected a four-ton statue of the late Mexican singing idol, Vicente Fernandez, a cultural giant who was celebrated with a two-day festival drawing hundreds of his fans to Plaza La Alameda. That got me wondering again about Washington.
George Washington deserves better than this. (Courtesy of Doug McIntyre) “The George Washington statue is out of storage, and has been repaired and relocated to the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall, which houses the County’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs,” write Kristin Friedrich, director of communications for the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. That’s the good news.
Now for the bad news.
“Our Department is working with the Military and Veterans Affairs Department leadership to develop a plan for contextualizing the statue and its history, which will include engaging with local veterans groups and a historian,” continued Friedrich.
“Contextualizing?” How about this for context: George Washington is the single most important American who ever lived. If a statue of Vicente Fernandez can stand in a place of honor in Los Angeles County, and he should, so too should the Father of our Country.
Rather than a pedestal in Grand Park, the restored Washington now stands near the exit door in a function room on Figueroa Street, visible to a handful of people who pass through metal detectors.
Today, George Washington is being held to moral standards that were anything but the standard for the time and place where he was born. Just a few years shy of his 300th birthday, he has become a distant and polarizing figure and that is on us. What Washington should mean for today’s America is closer to what he actually was, a flawed but sincere man, always learning from his mistakes while endeavoring to do right by his countrymen.
As Washington matured, this included the enslaved.
While born to plantation wealth in Virginia, Washington traveled extensively within Colonial America as well as the early Republic. In his travels, he interacted with all kinds of people, Native Americans, free Black Americans as well as wealthy Whites, women, craftsman, laborers of every ilk and religion, including Catholics and Jews and slaves.
This might seem like nothing today, but in the 18th century, it was not only controversial, it was extraordinary.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Washington grew morally on the issue of slavery.
This, of course, does not make Washington a saint. But our nation was founded by humans, not mythical beings. In the tenor of the time in which he lived, George Washington was advanced in his thinking and courageous enough to cast off the cultural and economic blinders Thomas Jefferson and so many of his peers were unwilling to renounce. In his will, Washington instructed the emancipation of enslaved people owned by him upon the death of his wife. He also ordered the immediate freedom of William Lee and provided him a pension.
By all means, hold George Washington and all of America’s founders and subsequent leaders to the highest standards, just not impossible standards. He lived when he lived. We can’t redo the past, only learn from it. By tucking George Washington into a corner of an event space at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall on Figueroa Street rather than his proper pedestal in Grand Park, the only lesson learned is, in Los Angeles, vandalism wins.
Doug McIntyre can be reached at Doug@DougMcIntyre.com. His debut novel, “Frank’s Shadow” will be published in July.