When George Washington became this country’s first president, it was a fractured nation. Even more than we are today.
The “revolution” that America had just fought was really more of a civil war, pitting Patriot against Loyalist, slave against free and native against invader. This was a divided country, to be sure, and the fact that the Patriots won and are now so roundly celebrated is a testament to the adage attributed to Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.”
In his book, “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804,” historian Alan Taylor doesn’t necessarily look at it that way. Instead, he delves into the many conflicts that enveloped this period in American history. He even calls it a civil war, not only between the colonists and the British but also between the slaves (a fifth of the colonies’ population at that time) and their owners, and between the native tribes and those who sought to expand their territory.
During the war, Indians and slaves alike tended to side with the British, not their American counterparts. They saw British rule as their best chance at survival and freedom. The liberties that the Patriots demanded were for themselves alone.
And yet, despite these flawed beginnings, America has become a beacon of light for all kinds of people seeking those same liberties. Through the years, the United States has expanded its rights and freedoms to include just about everyone rather than a select few. A full-blown civil war, less than 100 years after this nation’s founding, would redirect our course toward equality for all.
As a slave owner, Washington was a walking contradiction when it came to equality. But he deserves credit for his forward-thinking. He realized that, to survive as a nation, a collective identity had to be forged.
Politically, Washington was a federalist even before there was a Federalist Party. He realized that states’ rights must take a back seat to the rule of federal law, and with Alexander Hamilton as his “right-hand man,” he dedicated his presidency to strengthening and expanding federal government.
Plus, Washington saw the need for unity through shared values—and went to great lengths to create a nation with its own identity. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” weren’t his words exactly, but he was a unifying force in their implementation.
Our American identity remains intact to this day. With the rule of law as a foundation, we see as sacred our right to speak and live as we choose, within the context of other values we still hold dear, including:
• Duty and service. Military service is held in high regard in the U.S., and so is civic service to one’s community. We are a nation of fighters and helpers. We value acts of heroism and generosity, both in our everyday lives and during times of crisis.
• Freedom and liberty. It’s both our strength and our weakness. Our liberties give us the right to explore, expand and innovate—and to screw up. Our values include the belief that every person has a right to make a better life for themselves and their family, but with that comes the right to self-destruct.
• Justice and equality. We believe all are created equal, but we’re not all born into “equal” environments. And when inequalities are man-made, we believe in justice. As a result, most Americans are fair-minded, even if we do come from wildly different perspectives as to what “fair” is.
These value are part of our American identity, which somehow, almost miraculously, grew out of America’s first civil war, the American Revolution. Our founders gave us words that would become a battle hymn not for the privileged but for the oppressed. That’s embedded in our collective identity.
Washington recognized the inconsistencies in his own values, that’s why he freed most of his slaves upon his death (though he left some enslaved for his wife Martha). He understood that the values upon which this nation was founded should be for all, not just a select few, but he was a product of his times. As we all are.
Let’s make the most of our national inheritance—not just for now, but for the generations to come. Their future hangs in the balance.
Tom McDonald is editor and founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and owner-manager of Gazette Media Services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.