Even in Virginia, George Washington’s home state, and Alexandria, his chosen hometown, there have been attacks on statues and memorials honoring him, the man whose contributions did more than anyone else’s to win our freedom and entice our fractious states into a united nation. His colleagues, recognizing he was the only man who could do so, named him commander-in-chief of our Revolutionary forces and later wrote the Constitution with him in mind as our first President. Unanimously elected President twice, even he found it difficult to maintain our tenuous unity. The benefits of attacking Washington are unclear, but attacks are mounting. Mind-boggling, shameful and far-fetched, they reveal dangerous ignorance and/or callous disregard of our history.
Last August on the national TV show “Face the Nation,” U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine called for the removal of George Washington’s statue from the U.S. Capitol — to be replaced by one honoring another Virginian whom he declared “would better represent us.” I was informed by another source that he later attempted to “walk that one back,” but the senator never confirmed that change in response to my phone calls and emails that his staff had requested I submit.
Soon after, an unnamed Alexandria historian publicly cast a slur on the character and reputation of our greatest American hero by declaring that Pohick Church had refused to sell him a pew. This allegation suggested that he was unworthy to be a regular member of the congregation because the usual custom at that time was to fund a new church by income from the sale of pews for a family’s use. In fact, Washington bought a pew at auction and served as a vestryman (re-elected member of the governing board) there for 22 years.
Although Washington attended our Christ Church regularly after his Presidency and had bought the largest and most expensive pew in the church, its new rector, supported by the vestry’s unanimous vote, decided to remove his memorial plaque from the church wall where it has been for 148 years, because seeing it makes some people “feel unsafe and unwelcome.” As a member of the parish for many years, I found the plaques to Washington and RE Lee inspirational; when I faced difficulties, I was reminded those men had prayed and persevered — and I should too. Church leaders also alleged it is “inappropriate to honor him and RE Lee in our sanctuary.” Of course, many Episcopal churches have long honored people by stained glass windows and wall plaques. Worthy dignitaries were buried even under the chancel. A bronze replica of Houdon’s statue of Washington has long stood in the National Cathedral’s (Episcopal) nave.
It is especially distressing that even past recognitions of Washington in city facilities have been discontinued this year. The Duncan Library, which for the last two years sponsored a George Washington birthday party for children that included reenactors in 18th century attire telling information interesting to that age group – and birthday refreshments – declined to offer that event this year; the new youth services manager said she “wanted to go in a different direction.”
Also, although three of the library branches (Burke always declined) have regularly displayed copies of our mayor’s proclamation of Alexandria’s George Washington Birthday Holiday Celebration during the month of February, this year the Director of Libraries, Rose Dawson, upon learning of the practice, immediately forbade it because she claims there is no space for the one-page document and the George Washington Birthday Celebration Committee has not sought permission to have a library exhibit. As the committee member who initiated this practice, I note that three branch managers easily found space for it, and a one-page proclamation is hardly an “exhibit.” Displaying the Washington proclamation never interfered with any existing exhibit.
It is well-known that for many decades students, including ACPS students, have performed poorly on standardized tests of their knowledge of American history. Many high school classes have emphasized the mid-19th century to the present, especially wrongs done to various groups. Our earlier history has received short shrift, with little said about people and their deeds which have made America great. Not everyone attends college, and many colleges do not even require an American history course.
To ensure the continuity of our federal republic, Americans must be better educated about our admirable history, including especially George Washington’s exemplary character and remarkable deeds. Citizens and employees of Washington’s chosen hometown have a special obligation to honor him and inform our youth and visitors about his contributions to our city, state and country.
Ellen Latane Tabb