Washington state namesake’s challenging history of slavery
Ever since the death of demonstrator Heather Heyer in Charlottesville earlier this month, some Seattle area politicians, notably Mayor Ed Murray, have called for the removal of local Confederate monuments and even Fremont’s Lenin statue.
When, a few days after Charlottesville, President Trump voiced his opposition to removal of Confederate monuments and suggested that statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington might be next – since both Jefferson and Washington had owned slaves – some people began wondering about the George Washington statue on the University of Washington Campus.
After President Trump spoke, Nikkita Oliver — who came in third in the recent Seattle mayoral primary — said that she thought the Washington statue should come down.
But where did the 14-foot statue of our state’s namesake come from in the first place?
The George Washington statue
It was created by sculptor Lorado Taft of Chicago, and dedicated on June 14, 1909 during the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition or “AYPE” – Seattle’s first World’s Fair, which was held on the UW campus that year.
The idea for the statue (and for that world’s fair itself) came from UW professor and eminent historian and author Edmond Meany back in 1905. He got help raising part of the money, and leading the community effort to create the statue, from the Rainier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution or DAR through Dorothy Kane, a DAR member and the wife of UW president Thomas Kane.
More than a hundred years later, the Rainier Chapter of the DAR is still going strong. They have a chapter house on Capitol Hill that’s a replica of Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia home. They meet every month, and they’ve also been commemorating George Washington with special ceremonies at the statue around Washington’s birthday every year since 1910 – without interruption – including during World War II.
Lauri Langton is a member of the Rainier Chapter, and is a Washington State 2nd Vice Regent, meaning she’s an officer of the statewide DAR She also did extensive research on the George Washington statue for its centennial back in 2009, and has given presentations about its history.
Sitting on a bench near the statue earlier this week, Langton described the twists and turns that Edmond Meany and the DAR members faced as they worked to raise money for the statue and to make sure it was ready in time for the AYPE.
After various stops and starts, school children around the state were enlisted in a penny drive. Ultimately, the penny drive fell short, but DAR member Eliza Ferry Leary (daughter of Washington’s first governor, Elisha Ferry) and the state legislature came to the aid of the effort. The statue arrived by train just a few days before its dedication.
Langton says that the statue has been in its current location since the late 1930s, but it moved around campus quite a bit in the years before that. And, in spite of objections from artist Lorado Taft, it also stood on shorter and more flimsy pedestals, and sometimes even right on the flat and muddy ground.
Lauri Langton is clearly proud of the Rainier Chapter’s efforts to help bring the Washington statue to fruition, and to commemorate Washington each year. But she’s particularly moved by sculptor Lorado Taft’s own description of the work.
“These are Lorado Taft’s own words about why he wanted to make this sculpture, and it is just perfect, it’s spot on,” Langton said, before reading aloud a quote from Taft about the Washington statue.
The father of his country, rather than the General Washington of Valley Forge or any other particular incident. I dream of it as a kind of apotheosis of Washington, a mighty, shadowy presence, serenely surveying the outermost territory of the nation which he founded.
“And I love that phrase. I just think ‘Yes, that’s why he looks west, that’s why he’s simple yet strong,” Langton said. “And that’s how I see this statue, and I didn’t really understand the statue until I read the artist’s concept.”
George Washington and slavery
But what about George Washington’s more challenging history – other than his leadership of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and his two terms as the first president of the United States – especially when it comes to slavery?
It’s clear that Lauri Langton doesn’t politicize the George Washington statue, and she demurs when asked about the recent controversies around monuments.
Dr. Scott Casper is Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He also teaches at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and has researched and written about 19th century slavery there.
“George Washington is a really interesting case, because George Washington is an example of somebody whose views and actions changed over the course of his life,” Casper said.
“George Washington first inherited enslaved people when he was 11 years old . . . and he continued to add more people to his enslaved community through much of the early decades of his life,” Casper said, “both by purchasing people and then when he married Martha Dandridge Custis, she brought to the marriage even more enslaved people than Washington had himself.”
“So, until the American Revolution, it’s fair to say that George Washington was fairly typical of many Virginia planters of his day in that he used slavery to make his living,” Casper said. “And he does not seem, at least in the early part of his life, to have questioned slavery as a moral system or an economic system.”
But then something changed for George Washington.
Dr. Casper says that Washington was influenced by the ideals of the American Revolution, by abolitionist friends such as the Marquis de Lafayette, and by coming into contact with African Americans who were fighting in the Revolutionary War. Casper says that Washington ultimately freed the enslaved peoples he owned – though not those owned by his wife – through his last will and testament.
“I think what you see, then, is a story of somebody whose views change and who takes action on that change, and we might very legitimately say that he takes that action very late, he takes it in his will, but that sets him apart from many of the other people in his own day,” Casper said.
“Were there people who were more solidly abolitionist than George Washington? No doubt,” he said. “And were there people who were much more committed to slavery as a social system than Washington was? I think there were.”
Would Scott Casper say that George Washington evolved?
“I think that’s right, and I think it’s also worth emphasizing that he evolved because of the actions and words of African American men and women,” Casper said. “That is, the fact that African American men and women demonstrated to him their capacity for thought, for intellectual ability, so it wasn’t just his Enlightenment views, it wasn’t just the ideals of the American Revolution, it was his actual experience with enslaved and free African Americans that helped lead him to rethink their capacity.”
The only trick is how to fit all of this onto a plaque.
Meanwhile, over at the UW, communications staff say that the Board of Regents has received no recent formal requests – by phone, email or mail – to remove the George Washington statue. They could find no record of any such request going back about 30 years.