What we “know” about the past or even its most celebrated characters—might not be true! Or it might once again warm us to a visionary leader whose actions continue to serve us to this day.
21st Century Americans are fixated on Washington’s white “wig,” which appears everywhere, particularly in the Gilbert Stuart portrait that hangs in the White House (nearly consumed by flames in 1814 when British soldiers torched the “Executive’s House” along with the U.S. Capitol). It wasn’t a wig. One of his slaves, possibly valet Billy Lee, the only slave he freed outright, gathered his long, natural hair, fluffed, curled, and powdered it white. This from Alexis Coe, author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. His hair color (shows below his military hat in the painting from the French and Indian War years earlier): Red!
About the “Executive House” — the name given the President’s home before the fire. After the application of whitewash to the remaining walls to cover the smoke stains left by the blaze and the rebuilt mansion, the building became the “White House.”
The story that Washington freed his slaves seems also to stick in the minds of his countrymen, maybe because we want to believe it. Washington did put into his will that his slaves would be freed when he died (1799). This may have come after letters from the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who at 18 came to America and helped Washington fight the Revolution. Strongly against slavery, the Marquis encouraged those American officers he fought with to free their slaves in respect for the battle for liberty.
In his will, Washington passed the ball to Martha, saying the slaves would be freed when she died, probably not wanting her to be “without help.” But he may not have realized how this would impact his wife and household after his death. Slaves who had waited a lifetime for the General to die believed they would be freed then, not upon the death of Martha. Within the year she freed the 126 slaves she controlled, unfortunately more in fear for her own safety than in a gesture of good will, according to Abigail Adams. There were other slaves, maybe 100 or more, who were chained to the next generation through inheritance and whose future generations would be held in slavery until Emancipation in 1863.
Benjamin Franklin, not a President but as a multi-faceted, multi-talented Founding Father who spent a great deal of time in France as a diplomat, freed his slaves long before he died. He also petitioned Congress to abolish slavery in keeping with the liberty achieved through the American Revolution. But instead of freeing slaves, Congress in 1793 passed the Fugitive Slave Act, granting slave owners the right to track down their “property” across state lines and take slaves back into captivity, even after they reached “free” territory. Washington signed this bill into law.
Lincoln, the great American martyr, left many things undone when he expired never regaining consciousness to offer final words to family or those left to attempt to put the country to right after that week’s surrender. James Tackach, a professor at Roger Williams University, reminds us of Lincoln’s visit to Petersburg, VA, with his wife and friends as the Civil War wound down in April 1865. He urged the entourage to stop at the site where months of trench warfare took the lives of tens of thousands. Lincoln stopped to look at a huge oak—the only one left standing that he called a “magnificent specimen of the stately grandeur of the forest.”
Tackach labels Lincoln the first “green president” in his book “Lincoln and the Natural Environment, exploring the famous president’s relationship with nature. Earlier Lincoln set aside thousands of acres of California forest in the Yosemite Grant Act—laying the groundwork for the U.S. efforts to preserve, protect and study the environment. This precedent also nudged President Theodore Roosevelt to expand the national park system, though certainly he shared Lincoln’s admiration for mother nature.
As a boy Lincoln may not have had vast personal resources, but when he laid upon the forest floor and looked up at the variety of trees and wildlife around him, he enjoyed the tranquil beauty. My bet is that he believed by helping nature back into place after the war, he would assist generations of children, their relatives, and friends to regain the calm that he’d enjoyed. He’s left it to future generations to see and protect what he saw. When I visited Yosemite several years ago, I had no idea that Lincoln’s pen protected it. Knowing that only makes me savor it more.
This Presidential Week pick up something you haven’t read about one of our Presidents to get a renewed vision.
Alexis Coe, “Five Myths about George Washington,” February 14, 2020, Washington Post
Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
Hannah Natanson, “Lincoln’s Forgotten legacy as America’s first ‘green president,” February 16, 2020, Washington Post