American kids today learn only that George Washington was a rich, white, slave-owner with wooden false teeth–certainly not worthy of a national holiday like Martin Luther King. They don’t know that George Washington grew up poor, had his dream of a career in the British army shattered by anti-American discrimination, saved our independence from certain defeat dozens of times with his personal skill, courage, and determination, foiled a military coup, and two plans to make him a dictator, and made each of his slaves financially independent as well as legally free.
February was once an American History month. Our schools taught about Abraham Lincoln during the weeks before the February 12 holiday that honored him. By the sixth grade, I and most students in my class had memorized his 1863 speech at Gettysburg.
Our schools once taught the remarkable story of George Washington during the weeks before his birthday on February 22.
At that time, Black History Week, taught us about black leaders like Frederick Douglas (a staunch Republican), who was born on February 14, who also contributed to America’s greatness.
Now all of February is “Black History Month”, and much of January is also devoted to “Black History” during the weeks leading up to the national holiday to honor Martin Luther King. Washington and Lincoln have been shoved together into a single Presidents Day holiday, along with 41 other good, bad, and ugly Presidents.
After spending most of January and February teaching “Black History”, today’s public schools teach little else other than to prepare students for standardized tests like HSPA, the High School Proficiency Assessment Test given in early March.
These standardized tests measure “knowledge and skills in the areas of Mathematics and Language Arts Literacy as described in the Core Curriculum Content Standards”. Understanding and appreciating great Americans like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are not on those tests—so why waste time on them?
Most of our kids today finish school not knowing anything about George Washington other than that he was rich, white, owned slaves, and wore wooden false teeth.
Kids today don’t know that George Washington was not born rich, but grew up in poverty. Washington’s dad died when he was 11, and willed most of his money to his three kids from his first marriage. Washington mostly quit school by age eleven to help his mom and five younger brothers and sisters work their farm.
At age 15, George Washington became an unpaid apprentice–a type of intern– to learn a trade so he could support himself. He found a land surveyor willing to take him on and teach him that trade. At age 16, Washington led survey parties through the unexplored woods Kentucky and West Virginia hundreds of miles from any town or farm house. By age 17, Washington was the prosperous owner of his own survey business.
At age 20, Washington joined his local militia–a type of national guard unit. At age 21, he became its major. At age 22, Washington led 150 men into the woods of West Virginia to block French troops coming south from what is now Pittsburgh. This skirmish in 1754 touched off a nine year world war between England and France. Washington bravery, leadership, and organizing skills became famous throughout America. He was soon put in charge of all British and American troops in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.
When the war was over, 31 year old Washington wanted a career in the British army. But Washington was a victim of prejudice and discrimination. He was rejected by the London aristocrats who ran the British Army as a “mere colonial”. Washington came to despise the corrupt English society where family and personal connections meant more than talent and achievement.
Washington soon married, and he used his talent and energy to expand and improve his farm. He applied new science and engineering techniques, and switched from tobacco to wheat to make his farm one of the most productive and profitable in the world. He also processed and exported his wheat and bought a commercial fishing fleet.
This put Washington into conflict with Britain’s “mercantile” program. Today in New Jersey, we call it “economic development”. The British aristocrats who ran the government wanted “colonials” like Washington to make them rich—not compete with them. Their bureaucrats crippled Washington’s business operations with regulations that forced him to sell to English merchants at low prices, buy at high prices. Washington also had to spend a fortune on lawyers, lobbyists, and middlemen in the far away capital of London, so his business would not violate any of the complicated and contradictory laws, regulations, and tax codes. But Washington’s operations were so efficient, and his quality goods were in such demand that he and his wife succeeded in spite of these obstacles.
When the patriots of Boston rebelled against Britain in 1775, the British occupied and blockaded their town to isolate them and starve them into submission. But George left his comfortable home in Virginia and along with thousands of other men from all over America, rushed to defend the people of Boston. By then, Washington was a colonial Donald Trump–one of the richest men in America. By joining with the Boston rebels, Washington put his entire fortune, and his life at risk.
In 1776 and 1777, Washington overcame defeats and setbacks that would have crushed lesser men. When he achieved victory eight years later, the grateful nation offered to make him king. But Washington refused and went home.
Three years later, when the America’s Articles of Confederation caused chaos and depression, Washington started the movement to adopt a new Constitution. He then served eight years as President, and again went home. Washington told Americans to learn how to run their own country, and not look for kings or other leaders to save them. Washington spent the last years of his life drafting an estate plan that bypassed his less admirable relatives and made each of Washington’s 317 slaves legally free and financially independent upon his wife’s death.
Wasn’t America a better place when we honored George Washington, our greatest President, on February 22, the date of his birth? Didn’t most Americans enjoy far more liberty and prosperity when most kids learned his remarkable story in our public schools?
Seth Grossman, Executive Director