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
America’s Founders courageously put their lives and fortunes on the line when they signed the Declaration of Independence 243 years ago, but today how would they judge the nation’s progress? Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin would surely be pleased that America has built on their legacy of hard work and remains the most prosperous nation in the world (pumping hard to maintain that stature).
Financial stability? President Washington suffered under a crushing debt remaining from the Revolution, until Alexander Hamilton came up with a fix to provide essential capital to grow the nation’s productivity and found a way to get the legislation through Congress. Today the Gross National Product of the entire world’s nations combined comes to nearly $30 trillion (2018) with the U.S. creating about $19.2 billion of that total–the highest individual tally, according to Piere Scaruffiin in “The World” (scaruffi.com). Americans are still making things, growing things, buying and selling things. Good for us. As you can see, it’s a “global economy” that no longer depends on slow-moving sailing ships, forty-acre farms, and hand-packed products.
Instead computer-generated decisions instantaneously flow into massive computers. Burgeoning agribusinesses are hampered only by weather-sensitive floods, record-setting heat waves, and last-minute tariffs that plow through paper-thin margins for the shrinking number of family farmers, who still help feed not just the U.S., but many parts of the world.
Courageous Congressional Leaders? Would the Founders see their courage projected among 21st century workers, farmers and managers, who overcome these obstacles and more? Possibly, but they might not look as fondly on the politicians who are elected to serve them. Instead of focusing on the needs of the nation and their electorate, too many politicians serve the special interest groups (U.S. Chamber, Realtors, Blue Cross, AMA, AT&T, Americal Hospital Association, Boeing and Lockheed, etc.) who funnel key politicians more than $750 million (top twenty lobbists alone) to keep their friends in power to do their bidding.
Data-driven Elections. This excessive funding allows politicians to team up with the lightening-fast calculations of 21st century computers that out-wit earlier determinations of generations past about where “their” voters live and who are most likely to vote for their party’s candidate and/or favored issues. Motivating like-minded voters to get to the polls had been Job 1 for politicians. Now modern websites scoop up information about the voter’s FEARS. Instead of educating voters about the policies their candidates support, they use online ads to feed these fears and swing independent voters into their own political column. Ignorance is bliss for them to insure these voters trust their politicians and NEVER BECOME CURIOUS ABOUT THE TRUE FACTS of an issue.
Reworking District Lines to Party Advantage. Thisgerrymandering is applied in the state legislatures–in the midterm elections (between the Presidential elections in 2012, 2016 and 2020) each state’s voters elect governors, senators and representatives at a time when many people skip voting–thinking it’s less important in non-Presidential years–thus leaving districting decisions to the political operatives.
Achieving America’s Promise
Righting Inequities. Nearly 250 years ago Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” but the words have been debated nearly every year since. Women didn’t get the vote until after the turn of the 20th century. Slaves owned by many of the Founders performed free labor until they died, and blacks without property weren’t assured the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which is threatened today by political battles in several states. The Equal Rights Amendment for women hit a wall in 1979 with simple noncombative words that fell into a left-right divide, not unlike what the nation experiences today. Now we have a different issue as a focus of the national attention pulls us to opposite sides.
Who Can Come. Who Can Stay. Who Must Go. Full disclosure: My sixteen-year-old great-grandfather crossed under the Statue of Liberty on a ship from Germany with his locksmith father in 1898. I have the ship manifest. Peter Joseph Tuerff was just one of 12 million immigrants who stopped at Ellis Island for processing before it closed in 1954.
Approximately 40 percent of living Americans had a relative at Ellis Island, so a brief, personal study of one’s ancestors might put a different perspective on immigration–unless we’re no longer capable of projecting our experience onto others. While we hear the nation is “full” with no room for more people from other countries, national unemployment is at three percent; we have people working at minimum wage who can’t afford housing. Immigration has always been a complicated issue since once a generation settles here, they covet freedom for themselves and may raise the same questions for subsequent generations of immigrants that they now see as competition for jobs, housing, space to stretch out.
Looking at the national economy with fresh eyes might yield new possibilities. Renewed research and development could expanded products, jobs, and find room for immigrants, but got lost in the trillion dollar deficit created by the Tax Cuts once promised to pay-for-themselves by pie-in-the-sky economic projections.
Washington has been mum on the nation’s low birthrate, now below 2.1 per reproducing female, with our graying population, so without the aid of immigration, America could find itself suffering as Japan does today–with not enough workers to maintain itself. Not enough workers to pay the taxes (particularly since the corporations have received a major pass in the 2017 Tax Cut, which offered similar goodies to the top 1 percent) and reimburse necessary federal funds for critical government programs, of no interest to to many of the well-heeled, particularly those who hold the majority in the U.S. Senate.
Without the younger workers to energize the workforce, bring ideas to innovate new products, and provide financial support through their taxes, the national initiatives, small insignificant government will become the reality. Problems will remain for the nation, but the leaders will no longer respond to the people who need their support.
Before anyone wants to close the U.S. borders to immigration (as Senators Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions proposed earlier), it’s important to think about companies that have been built by immigrants: Google, ebay, Qualcomm, VMware, Facebook, Uber, and SpaceX. The National Foundation for American Policy found that 51 percent of the 87 techstart-ups valued at over $1 billion were co-founded by immigrants and each of these created an average of 760 jobs. ( “How Immigrants Have Made America a Leader in Tech Innovation,” John Villasenoc, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 31, 2017). The population of immigrants from Mexico is decreasing, not increasing, and 69 percent are employed, primarily in natural resources, construction and maintenance, necessary jobs from which they and their children have an opportunity to move up the ladder, just as the Germans, the Irish and others before them.
Now America is receiving college graduates from Mexico, who are coming for opportunities, but there’s also reverse migration of college graduates of Mexican descent who received their education in America and are going back to Mexico now that its economy is stabilizing. Their talents are being lost because Congress has failed to provide protection previously promised under DECA to college age students and workers who were brought to American as children, many who never lived in Mexico.
Now the southern U.S. borders are feeling the impact of failed governments in Central America and an administration that leveled FEAR on both sides. Unlike in previous administrations, not decimated by a White House bent on force, a staffed State Department helped draft and fund programs intended to reduce chaos and restore order in Guatamala and Honduras. Now we see the devastating results when mothers and children are the pawns in a no-win, everybody loses political battle. Congress has failed to act to devise and pass a workable national policy. A modern nation can not survive with open borders, so legislative decisions need to be made– not pushed further down the road, as people on both sides of the border suffer and the divide grows wider and deeper.
Naturalization Laws Move in Waves
Naturalization laws change with public opinion and public need. In the second year of Washington’s Presidency, Congress passed the first immigration law–restricting unindentured white males–stipulating they must live in the U.S. for two years before becoming citizens. Extended to five years in 1795. After Washington left the Presidency, xenophobia had increased across the country, and the residency requirement in the Naturalization Act of 1790 increased to 14 years–with changes in the country reduced to five years by 1802.
Expatriation Act of 1868 after the Civil War–“the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people” extended to protect the rights of naturalized immigrants whose native countries did nt recognize their claims.
Naturalization Act of 1870– allows “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent” to become U.S. citizens. Ellis Island opened in 1892. By 1917 immigrants were required to read a 40-word selection from their native language. The Emergency Quota Law limited immigration to 350,000 and capped at 3% of the foreign country’s population based on 1910 census. By 1922 Congress revoked the provision that removed the citizenship of women who married foreign men. Two years later the U.S. Border Patrol was created under the National Origins Act.
During World War II with most of the working-age men serving the war, the U.S. allowed five million Mexican farm workers to enter the country to help produce food.Then after the war, the Displaced Persons Act allowed up to 200,000 refuges to enter the U.S. By 1980 the Refuge Act defines a refuge as a person who flees his or her country “on account of race, religion,nationality, or political opinion.” The President and Congress were to establish an annual ceiling on the number of refugees allowed. The total of immigrants allowed fell to 270,000 , but up from 165,000 in 1924.
The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. has fallen since 2004. in part because despite all the whoopla, the number of Mexicans coming to America illegally has declined to 4.9 million from 6.9 million in 2007.. With greater stability in Mexico, more are choosing to stay at home. Those coming now are from Central American countries plagued by gang violence, unemployment, and corruption. The number of unauthorized immigrants in 2017 totaled 10.5 million or 3.2 percent of the U.S. population.. Rather than letting this issue undermine the principles on which America was founded, we need to push for humane answers to serve the nation’s future and those seeking safety for their children, not years more of turmoil.
Note: *The top 20 special interest groups (U.S. Chamber, Realtors, Blue Cross, American Hospital Association, Pharmacutical firms, Business Roundtable, etc. The top three contribute $195 million–all in 2016.) Numbers would be higher for later years.