Even Washington’s career as one of the most significant slave owners in the early United States has barely made a dent in his popular persona, as compared for example with his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. The subject of slavery is raised only infrequently with regard to Washington, which many commentators on Hamilton in particular have noted, and which was also true of Sons of Liberty. When slavery does enter the narrative, it more often indicts the practice itself rather than the character of Washington. Last month, for example, Scholastic pulled a children’s book about Washington’s enslaved cook baking a birthday cake for the president amid protests. The objection to the book focused not on any portrait of Washington, but rather on how the book may have misunderstood the emotional state of Hercules, the enslaved man who worked as the president’s cook.
Americans have developed a deep and rich mythology about the creation of the United States. In recent years, that mythology has permitted a view of the Founders more in touch with their flawed humanity. Yet Washington continues to be an enigma when he should otherwise be coming to life. That the conundrum is more than two centuries old offers little consolation, and instead points to the difficulty of humanizing the one Founder who has zealously resisted it both in his lifetime and since. For better or worse, for the moment, most Americans agree with TV, film, and stage producers that they’re OK with that.
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