Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2002 / 7 Adar, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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Holiday revisionism -- THE holiday we have just celebrated, now called "President's Day," was within living memory called "George Washington's Birthday." It is our loss that we no longer have any sense of this great man, who had more than anyone else to do with our being a free people today.

Part of the reason is this generation's sheer ignorance of history. Worse, it is also due to misconceptions of the world borne of that ignorance.

For many of the politically correct today, it is enough to dismiss George Washington because he was a dead white male -- as if he had anything to do with any of that. Others condemn him because he owned slaves. But the slaves were here before George Washington was born and there was nothing he could do about slavery, even when he was president. The most he could do was advocate the abolition of slavery in general and free the particular slaves he had inherited -- and he ended up doing both.

George Washington was generations ahead of his time on this issue in the Western world, and centuries ahead of his time as far as non-Western civilizations were concerned. People grossly ignorant of history -- and that includes graduates of our leading colleges and universities -- have no idea that slavery was not even a controversial issue before the 18th century, and only in Western societies beginning then. Everywhere else in the world, it was as widely accepted as it was widely practiced -- and it had been for thousands of years.

It was not slavery that was unique, it was freedom that was new and rare. George Washington was the key figure in the creation of the first major modern nation with an elected government, which was to become a model for the creation of other such governments in the centuries to come. Even now, however, free nations remain the exception, rather than the rule.

Governments with autocratic rulers were so prevalent in George Washington's day that it was assumed by many that he would become king after the American revolution succeeded. However, he said that he had not fought against George III in order to become George I. He not only threw his weight behind the creation of a constitutional republic, he set the precedent of voluntarily leaving the presidency after two terms, in order to forestall a tradition of one-man rule that has ruined so many other countries, even those with republican governments.

There have been many insurrections and revolutions in history, but the American revolution was one of the few that did not end in tyranny, like the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, for example. George Washington was a big part of the reason why American freedom not only persisted but spread, both internally and internationally.

As late as Abraham Lincoln's time, the United States was still an experiment. As Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, the terrible war then going on -- the bloodiest ever fought in the Western Hemisphere -- was testing whether government of the people would perish from the earth.

We cannot take for granted the hard-won blessings of this country -- created by the wisdom and character of people like George Washington, as well as the blood and deaths of the patriots who supported them -- and then also demand that their words and deeds mirror our notions today, in a time with much easier choices.

No one called the United States a superpower in George Washington's time. The big question was whether it could survive at all, in a world of bigger and more powerful nations, all on the lookout for more prey for their empires.

Putting the country together and keeping it together was the key to whatever chance it had for survival. To act as if the Constitution of the United States could have been written as if it were an exercise in abstract principles, discussed around a seminar table, is to betray both ignorance and moral hubris.

We should never forget that British troops marched through the capital of the United States in the early 19th century and set fire to the White House. But of course millions of Americans cannot forget that because they were never taught it in the first place. What they have been taught is silly political correctness about dead white males. When you lose your national memory, you risk losing what you need for understanding your own time -- and you risk losing the future as well as the past.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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© 2002, Creators Syndicate