Up Against the Wall with Washington

Why didn’t Sir Isaac Newton, the famed English mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, invent the automobile? 

Newton was a clever guy. He came up with calculus, and all it took was an apple dropping onto his noggin to give him his epiphany about gravity. He plotted the movement of planets and comets on paper using a quill pen, not even a ballpoint. Why couldn’t he think up an internal combustion engine and have mankind tooling around in snazzy convertibles by, say, 1673? He lived until 1727, so he would have had time to invent seat belts, air bags and, just for fun, tail fins. 

But, he didn’t. He was absolutely ignorant about automotives. There are guys who flunked high school auto shop who know more about cars than he ever did. So, should we expunge all mention of his genius from our history books? 

No. Newton was doing the best he could with what he had. And we accept that. A lot of other stuff had to be invented before anyone could go cruising Main Street on a Saturday night.

Everyone seems fine with scientific progress taking incremental steps over time. We may be amused by the brick-like cell phones that the early adopters hauled out with a flourish to envious eyes just a few decades ago, but we aren’t angry with their creators. Not even a Betamax or an Edsel offends our sensibilities. We are aware that technology can take wrong turns. 

We also accept that technical progress can be slow. In the early 20th century, Buck Rogers-type science fiction suggested that we’d soon have robots to walk Fido and atomic rockets would zip us to Mars for family holidays, but Fido still needs a human to go walkies on frosty December mornings and there aren’t any Martian hotels boasting rooms with scenic views of that planet’s ruddy mountains. 

We may be disappointed, but we don’t get mad. We understand that improving the world can be difficult and slow. 

Unfortunately, some don’t extend this understanding to more human forms of progress. They expect the world instantly to transform into the utopia of their desires and declare anyone who isn’t up to date on the latest iteration of the scheme an evil monster. This attitude is a particular characteristic of today’s progressives, who wield political correctness like a flaming sword. Not satisfied with hacking away at living opponents, they seek to destroy enemies they find in history who failed to change the world centuries ago in a way that meets their approval today. 

That’s what is happening at San Francisco’s George Washington High School. Recently, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to spend an estimated $600,000 not on books or classroom improvements, but instead to destroy murals painted in the 1930s on the walls of that high school.

Titled “The Life of George Washington,” the murals were painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born artist and Communist who, though no fan of Washington or of America in general (he would spend the last years of his life in the USSR, in fact) was willing to take a check to the work. Indeed, Uncle Sam’s Works Progress Administration, an effort by the Roosevelt Administration to employ artists during the Great Depression, paid artists like Arnautoff to decorate public buildings, which they did more or less according to their own ideas. 

Arnautoff’s mural shows scenes from Washington’s life. The school board claims they are racist because a dead Native American is shown in one part and slaves are depicted doing menial work in other parts. The images are mild. The corpse shows no wounds, and the slaves aren’t being abused as they too often were in reality. 

Arnautoff was illustrating the negative side of our first president’s life while also showing his accomplishments. Washington had waged war on Native Americans and was a plantation owner who used slave labor. Ironically, rather than accepting this nuanced depiction (offered by a Communist, no less!), the woke board decided that the images were too traumatic for the school’s students to see. That students had seen them for about eight decades without much complaint had no effect on the board’s decision.

While American high school students are more and more ill-educated, it is unlikely that any are unaware that Native Americans were harshly displaced when Europeans arrived in the New World or that Africans were enslaved here. Indeed, in the classrooms of George Washington High School you can be certain that lectures have been delivered upon these topics, homework assigned from textbooks containing this information, probably illustrated with images similar or more lurid than the murals, and tests administered with poor grades dispensed to those who didn’t absorb what they had been taught. 

Will these teaching materials be similarly censored or the lessons abandoned as racist and traumatic? Of course not. It’s obvious that the intent of the destruction isn’t to shield students from harm. It is to reduce the status of Washington by further associating him with the racism their lesson plans surely already lay at his feet. The San Francisco School Board is very progressive and an important part of the progressive effort to transform America is branding Old America as requiring transformation. To that purpose, heroes like Washington must be shown to be defective, which renders anything they created or honoring of them also defective.

Washington is considered very flawed by progressive standards. During the Revolution, he fought Native Americans. That Native Americans had, however, sided with the British and were therefore fair game like any red coat escapes scrutiny. 

Also escaping mention is that Washington did make war on Native Americans as president; he far preferred to make peace. He entertained multiple Native American delegations and forged treaties that were beneficial to both sides. The Creek, in particular, did well from his efforts. Unfortunately, Washington’s approach—avoiding war, purchasing lands, negotiating treaties, and making efforts to assimilate Native Americans into America’s growing nation—didn’t continue after he left office.

Washington’s relationship with slavery was less advanced. His slaves were freed upon his death, but that was less of a sacrifice than freeing them when he was alive would have been. Still, it is likely they appreciated the gesture and we should remember that slavery was considered an inevitable if unfortunate part of the world in which Washington lived. Indeed, it was common around the world and had been throughout history. It would take a horrific civil war to end it in the United States. 

To suggest that Washington, or anyone else, could have ended slavery earlier without tearing apart the infant country is foolish. Lincoln and a massive Union army barely managed to free the slaves and hold the Union together in the 1860s.

This brings us back to Newton and the incremental nature of progress. He once said of his accomplishments, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton used mathematics that can be traced back to clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia. Newton added his own great advancements, and others have followed. 

The same is true of progress in freedom. America’s Founders built our nation upon work that can be traced to Roman law and England’s Magna Carta. Washington, like Newton in science, made great contributions that built on earlier efforts to increase recognition of human dignity and freedom. First, he won the nearly impossible fight against Britain that allowed America to form the first modern republic. Then, he refused to be made a king. He became a wise president and left office after two terms in a peaceful transfer of power that many nations would come to envy. 

With respect to racial relations, Washington did not take America all the way to where it is today or to where some might wish it to be, but any honest thinker must admit that his were heroic accomplishments that were fundamental to building a country that could arrive there. Without them America and all the good its ideals and actions have accomplished would not have happened. Like Newton, we should be grateful that we have had the shoulders of giants such as Washington to stand upon.

Right now, new forms of tyranny that would astound George Orwell are clamping down on great masses of humanity and freedom is in jeopardy as never before. We are witnessing the creation of computerized totalitarian states where Big Brother augmented by artificial intelligence seeks to monitor every moment of their drone citizens’ lives. 

Even in nations that have long enjoyed freedom, forces are at work seeking to curtail rights that were once thought fundamental and secure. If the San Francisco School Board is truly interested in creating a better world, they should be defending what Washington and our other national heroes helped incrementally to build and asking how those advancements might protect against this burgeoning turn toward tyranny, instead of obsessively picking at past failings.

People are imperfect and nations are imperfect, but virtue should be respected and not scorned as inadequate to the smug prejudices of those who sit in freedom and safety on a school board two and a half centuries away from any danger of being hanged by George III.

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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About Ed Morrow

Ed Morrow is an author and illustrator who lives in Vermont with his wife Laurie and their son Ned. Morrow’s books include “The Halloween Handbook,” “599 Things You Should Never Do,” and “The Grim Reaper’s Book of Days.” His work has appeared at National Review Online, The American Spectator, the Daily Caller, and Front Page Magazine, among others.