Hero or Villain? My Vote on George Washington

How to understand history — and understand our place in history.

What should we do when we discover a historical figure we have long admired did something fatally, unquestionably wrong?

In March 2020, I stumbled, big time, in my Columbia Business School leadership class. A student made a provocative remark, causing some others to rise in near-revolt. The issue at hand was the position we should take on a historical figure — America's first President. For a class focused on the pursuit of goodness and greatness in life and leadership, was George Washington to be admired or reviled? Some students wanted to defend him, others wanted to attack him, and still others found this debate to be an unnecessary distraction. I tried to reestablish a spirit of unity in the class, but failed, abjectly.

Little did I know then that the schism that had formed in my class that day would presage a nation-wide rift that erupted a few months later on the same question of George Washington’s legacy. As anti-racism protestors went to work dismantling the symbols of the Confederacy, a statue of George Washington was toppled in Portland, and other Washington statues around the country were vandalized. Op-eds started to appear in leading newspapers, some cheering these actions and denouncing the nation’s first President for being an enslaver, and others defending his mark on history. I realized I could not stay on the sidelines anymore. The moment had come for a reckoning of my own.

Some years back, I had written an article praising Washington for his exemplary leadership during America’s founding days. Is the right thing now, I wondered, to reject my prior scholarship, disown Washington, and write off his contribution to nation-building? This was harder for me than it may seem, because I had deep love for this founding father. It was not simply a matter of canceling him from my roster of great leaders; I would have to cancel him from my heart. I resisted, I agonized, I dithered. But finally, I decided.

I decided I had to step back from the narrative we were taught in school about America’s first President and step back also from the new narrative we were being given by the protestors and op-eds, to reformulate a point of view for my own self. So I returned to the pages of history to once more place Washington under the microscope.

What I learned anew just multiplied my pain. I had loosely believed that there were mitigating factors around Washington’s enslaver status. He had inherited a group of enslaved people upon the untimely passing of his father at a tender age of twelve. Later, upon marrying Martha Custis, he took temporary ownership over her enslaved people who he was legally required to pass on to her children. He wanted to free his enslaved people but many of them were tied by marriage to these enslaved Custis people. He did free many upon his death.

While this was all true, I now learned the full extent of his dealings with slavery — his purchase of a large number of additional enslaved people over the years, his requirement that these people work hard on his land from sunrise to sunset, his orders to flog them on occasion, and his vigorous efforts to apprehend those who escaped. I was brokenhearted. George Washington could for me no longer be an exemplary human being, or leader. Independence Day was approaching, and I wondered if this day of joyous commemoration may instead become a day of national mourning for the sins of our Founding Fathers and the America of their time. I quietly deleted the article I wrote about Washington from my website.

But try as I may, I could not delete Washington from my heart. I could not help but see another side to him. I could not deny the steadiness of purpose and inspired leadership he had shown as Commander of a scrappy Revolutionary army seeking to wrest the American colonies from British rule. After securing a hard-earned victory, Washington, at the height of his popularity and power, surrendered his military commission to Congress and walked away. He could have in that moment established himself as a monarch. Commenting on the prospect of Washington surrendering his power to Congress, Britain’s King George III had said back then, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington’s sacrifice of personal ambition laid the foundation for a democracy. The world took notice, and in the ensuing decades, this form of people’s rule spread rapidly across all continents. How was it possible, I wondered, for a man to be so heroic and yet so flawed?

Perhaps, I thought, I need to step into Washington’s shoes and see the world through his eyes. I studied the conditions in the eighteenth century in which Washington was raised. Slavery was then a pervasive institution across Europe, Asia, Africa, Middle East, and South America. Whites were doing it to Blacks, and Whites were also doing it to Whites, Blacks to Blacks and Blacks to Whites. Brown-skinned people too were enslavers, and were also enslaved. Encyclopaedia Brittanica reports that “remarkably few people found the institution of slavery to be unnatural or immoral until the second half of the 18th century.” What if I had grown up in those dark conditions, I wondered, where people worldwide asserted power over others by enslaving them, and where people had simply not known a different form of society for hundreds of years?

I started to feel a deep sense of empathy for Washington. His virtues were exceptional — and his moral failings a reflection of his times. Were he born in our times, I surmised, he would have rejected slavery. But a voice of caution arose in me. “We should practice empathy for those who do good, not for those who do bad!”

Then I remembered the story of Alex. “I grew up poor. My father walked out on my mother, and on his children, early in my life. With three younger siblings, I had to grow up really fast to help my mother provide for everyone. I took the easy path — selling drugs. I became very good at it, and it more than paid the bills. I did not think twice about it, because that’s what smart young men did in my neighborhood. Once I was unhappy about a client who had not made his payment. I showed up at his home with a gun, intent on making an example of him for our neighborhood. I rang his doorbell. His mother opened the door and informed me he wasn’t at home. I came this close to killing him that day.”

“Over the years, I started to realize the folly of my ways. I started to interact with people beyond my small crime-ridden community, and this made me see the world in a bigger, better light. I saw how drugs were ravaging my neighborhood and decided to give up this way of life. I took on the job of a delivery-truck driver, and re-enrolled in school. Around the same time, my wife decided to leave me. She had had enough. I was so enraged with her the day she walked away taking our newborn child with her. I so clearly remember how close I was to reaching out for my gun to shoot her that day, but something again prevented me from doing so.”

Alex was sharing this story at an Executive Education workshop I was teaching at Columbia. His fellow participants and I at this point were breathless in shock and suspense.

“I continued to take small steps. After school, I got myself through college. During the holidays, I would deliver food to apartments and offices on Park Avenue, and I would tell myself, ‘One day, I will be the one receiving and enjoying this food, not delivering it.’”

“I became a supervisor. Later, a manager. And then, an executive. And now look at me today. Here I am, with all of you people, so incredibly accomplished and noble, here at Columbia! I cannot believe how blessed I am to see my world change after that very dark beginning!”

Alex had been a former drug dealer, and had come within a split-second of being a murderer, twice over. And yet, that day, as he shared this story with all of us, there was only one primal feeling in the room — love. Somehow, we were all able to see the world through Alex’s eyes. We could see that he had always possessed a pure heart. Life had taken him down some blind alleys, and one day, he had woken up to his true nature. How often I have wished for all the young men in crime-ridden communities to rise above their circumstances like Alex was able to do. I cannot but feel pain and empathy for the conditions in which they grow up — the poverty, the broken homes, the gunshots on the streets, the hopelessness, the racism, and the gang culture that may drive them toward violence.

If I empathize with those like Alex who grow up in conditions of material deprivation to end up as criminals, then, I concluded, I should also empathize with those like George Washington who grew up in conditions of a form of moral deprivation that got them to become enslavers.

As I traced the full arc of Washington’s life, I discovered that his views on slavery changed over time as he came into increasing contact with those who opposed the institution. In his later years, he once confessed in a letter to a friend, “No man desires more heartily than I do [the end of slavery]. Not only do I pray for it on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.”

Then why did Washington not use his power to root out slavery as an architect of the Constitution, or later as President? My blood boiled every time I remembered that the Constitution as originally framed had recognized as legitimate the institution of slavery. I faced a choice again — reject Washington summarily, as a leader, or try to practice more empathy. I chose the latter.

I sought to attune myself to the consciousness of his era. Washington’s world was a world of autocracies, hierarchies, dynasties, and clan-consciousness. Coming out of the dark ages, everyone looked out for themselves and their kin. Might was right, and whoever had power, exploited it for their personal or institutional gain. By enslaving others, relegating them to a lower caste, or making them live in fear of a Judgement Day. This appropriation of power even extended to the home, where children and women had no say or sway in a patriarchal system. You were not meant to feel guilty if you exploited those with less power; you were meant to feel entitled.

And yet, Enlightenment was coming. Certain thinkers were starting to propose the virtue of creating a more equal society. How do you go from a world where everyone is seeking to exploit those who are weaker to them, to a world where everyone strives to treat one another as equal? As Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. That one step is what George Washington and America’s other Founding Fathers helped humanity take when they enshrined the idea of a just, free, and equal society in the Declaration of Independence, and when they put in place the early workings of a democratic system of government.

Could Washington have done more? Not if he wished to respect the principle of democracy by surrendering power to his people. These people were not ready to permit him to meddle with their practice of slavery. They were only ready to expand their hearts in a limited way by going beyond their own kin to create an equal, just and free society for a subset of the American people — White adult men. Had Washington insisted on more, they would have revolted, reducing America’s nascent democracy to what the British had cynically predicted — an anarchy. Nevertheless, Washington’s actions gave us a crucial start to this journey toward creating a more perfect union. Subsequent generations of social reformers continued to advance this journey and that we now have the responsibility to advance it further. Because this journey of a thousand miles is still in progress, and because, as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Finally, I was there. The underlying sentiment I now felt for Washington was not adulation, nor condemnation — it was affection. I grieved at his blind spots, empathized with the conditions of his time, appreciated his change of views on slavery, and applauded his contribution toward showing the world the first spark of democracy. In every age, there are those who are trapped in the past, holding us back, and then there are those who, like Washington, even while being the imperfect imprint of their time, move us forward in small steps.

My reformulation of Washington’s narrative is now complete. I am grateful for the struggle I experienced in managing my class in March 2020. It exposed the incompleteness in my assessment of George Washington and led me to do this research and reflection. I placed Washington under a microscope and learned that each of us is complex and multi-dimensional.

A part of me is in the light, and a part is in darkness, some of it coming from the darkness of the time I live in. It is for you, the observer, to choose what part of me to focus on, and what meaning to draw from it.

And I learned that humanity is a work-in-progress. As it advances, each generation uses a more illuminated lens to assess the moral compass of past generations. One day in the future our own lifestyles will be critically examined by a future generation. They will point a finger at some of the morally questionable things you and I are consciously or unconsciously doing today, and ask of us, “What were you thinking? Why didn’t you care? How could you?”. Let us not begrudge them for this finger-pointing, for why would we not wish for humanity to keep marching forward to the drumbeat of an ever-expanding moral consciousness?

I am now finally at peace, ready again to re-embrace the special significance of America’s founding history, and its first President, though this time with a heavier and wiser heart. And the article I wrote on him some years back is now back on my website.

“It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be coextensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn.” 
George Washington