The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Presidents’ Day shows the complexity of America’s origins

The Constitution sanctioned some of the most politically progressive ideas in history. It also blessed slavery.

Statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass at National Harbor in Maryland. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
5 min

The celebration of Presidents’ Day creates an opportunity to ponder one of America’s most important, ongoing existential questions — namely, how to assess the nation’s origin. Was the founding of America decidedly positive and progressive, or was it simply a moment in which the world gained another tyrannical power?

This question is even more important given that Presidents’ Day occurs during Black History Month. These joint commemorations are testaments to a complex truth that Americans have long struggled to understand and accept, which is that America’s founding is neither categorically good or bad. It is both.

As the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it sanctioned some of the most politically progressive opportunities for White men that had ever been recorded in human history. The rights and privileges granted to this first group of citizens poised them to advance socially and politically, and many distinguished themselves by accomplishing noble feats at the local, state and national levels.

This was exemplified most notably in the life of George Washington, the leader in whose honor Presidents’ Day was created. Washington’s array of accomplishments as hero of the Revolutionary War, and his subsequent willingness to relinquish his military power after the war, established his reputation as a model citizen and leader, which paved the way for his election as the nation’s first president.

Yet, both he and many of his contemporaries also promoted and protected the nation’s original sin, slavery, an institution that contradicted the expressed values of the new nation and placed the country on a collision course that nearly destroyed it.

Most vividly, the founding generation addressed debates over slavery with the three-fifths compromise in Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution, a negotiation that helped to secure the unity of the states during the Constitutional Convention. But slavery was not a subject that the founding generation completely tucked away for their political descendants to handle. In fact, the founding generation and Washington unequivocally did take steps that they deemed necessary for their time to ensure slavery was protected.

Washington prohibited enslaved men from enlisting as soldiers in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Enslaved men undoubtedly fought on the American side, but they did so under the legal designation of enslaved people rather than with the dignity and rights of soldiers. This is an important distinction because Washington knew that the Revolutionary War was not just about the colonists gaining their independence from England; the war also affirmed a soldier’s worthiness for citizenship and leadership, and it validated his manhood. Therefore, making an enslaved man a soldier would have given him legitimate grounds for insisting upon political equality and personal freedom. It would also have encouraged other enslaved men to seek their emancipation through military service. In Washington’s private correspondence, he explained to a confidant that making enslaved men soldiers would have jeopardized the institution of slavery.

In addition, Washington as president asked Congress to pass a Fugitive Slave Act. At that time, the Constitution already possessed a Fugitive Slave Clause in Article 4 Section 23, but Washington thought this clause needed to be strengthened with legislation. Going against the advice of Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Washington supported the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which laid the groundwork for the more strict Fugitive Slave Law that was passed in 1850, one of the most intentional legislative efforts to preserve the union while simultaneously protecting slavery.

The 1850 version of the Fugitive Slave Law proved influential in helping Abraham Lincoln (the other leader that we celebrate on Presidents’ Day) to eventually understand that the nation could not be preserved as long as slavery existed. Although Lincoln came to the presidency with the belief that the union could be preserved as long as slavery was contained in the South, he grew to understand that the very nature of slavery made it an unending, violent contest between the enslaved and enslavers inside and outside the South. He saw that slavery threatened everybody’s rights, not just those who were then enslaved.

A war, a proclamation and three constitutional amendments were the first steps to placing the nation on track to becoming an entity that honored its professed values of justice and liberty. Just as the Constitution and the office of the presidency perpetuated slavery at the founding, they contributed to eradicating it 87 years later. In short, the political system that perpetuated the problem at the founding was the system that became integral to bearing a solution.

This is why Americans can proudly celebrate the founding despite the violent reality of slavery that was so central to shaping our political institutions. The first generation of Americans created a political system that privileged justice and that encouraged citizens to challenge and correct our course when we understand that our laws and customs are at odds with our founding principles.

The necessity of celebrating Black History Month demonstrates that we as a nation still have work to do — the myriad contributions that African Americans have made and continue to make to the nation should be regularly discussed as a part of American history — but the political system bestowed upon us by the founding generation gives us the room and the mandate to continue improving.