Thursday, April 22, 2010

Profound Effect

The tragedy, for the nation, is that Washington did not act upon his convictions during his lifetime. Had he freed his slaved in 1794 or in 1796, while in office, the effect might have been profound. He would have set the precedent that the chief executive cannot hold slaves. When the question of slavery arose at the Constitutional Convention and later in Congress, South Carolina and Georgia were always adamant in their opposition to any emancipation plan, no matter how long it might have played out nor how the costs might have been defrayed. Those states threatened secession. As Joseph Ellis has pointed out, "perhaps, as some historians have argued, South Carolina and Georgia were bluffing. But the most salient historical fact cannot be avoided: No one stepped forward to call their bluff." Washington the practiced Williamsburg gambler, was the man who could have called the bluff. Jefferson himself said that Washington was "the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people."
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 359-360.
What blows my mind about George Washington is the unique position of authority and influence he had. Based upon his own stature, he set forth examples upon which the office of the Presidency still adheres to this day. The power of his influence was beyond question. And yet in one of his deepest personal struggles - that of slavery - he was unable to move beyond politics. He could not make the one decision where his influence was needed most. As a result, he helped contribute to the ugly sin of slavery in America. Profound results take profound efforts. Washington was never able to muster up the courage to do something because his family, his politics, and his opponents were too much for him. We certainly commend the man for the manumission of his slaves in his will. However, in the end it feels like a weak attempt at justice.

How many of us fail when the attempt to make a profound effect comes across our paths? We may never be in a position of influence like Washington, but each of us has a chance to make a true difference in whatever field we are in. If the fear of people forces us to not contend with the internal struggles we have, then we - like Washington - will fail. We must make the most of every opportunity and wield our greatest strength, our influence, to fight for that which is most critical. In the end our lives will either have a profound effect on that which we deem worthy - or we will go to our graves with the hope that someone else will make the change that we ourselves were too weak to fight for.


Jeremy said...

This is something I've thought about before as well.

I also wonder how many things the generations after us will fault us for not tackling. It is easy to find fault with Washington, but I wonder about the difficulty of realizing the opportunities in front of you right now. To me, that seems to be the real challenge. What opportunities will my grandchildren think that I missed?

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