The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re whitewashing the history of our founding. It’s fueling problems today.

A major book prize overlooks the racism and sexism of the past.

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale. Examinations of Washington’s role in supporting institutions of slavery and white supremacy are missing from the prize that bears his name. (Mount Vernon Ladies Association)

Tonight, the George Washington Book Prize of $50,000 will be awarded to Kevin J. Hayes for his book “George Washington, a Life in Books,” one of seven finalists selected as “the past year’s best-written works on the nation’s founding era.” Although over four decades of research on the history of slavery, race and gender have rejuvenated the history of the late-Colonial and Revolutionary periods, the list of finalists was notable for neglecting books on the place of women and nonwhites in expanding the white male founders’ vision of freedom.

This is disappointing but unfortunately not surprising. It reflects the persistent struggle to complicate the history of our founding era. We still strive to craft an understanding that both acknowledges the prominent role that white men had in shaping the rightly celebrated documents of that era — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — and the ways in which many others worked to expand the possibilities of those documents for themselves and for the nation.

Book prizes are a fraught and misleading enterprise. In fact, the Washington Prize’s decision to expand its list of finalists from three to seven in the past few years, and to present these finalists as a “go-to reading list” even as the prize honors one book above all, reflects the fact that few books emerge as clear “winners” in these competitions. But this year’s list of finalists undermines that good intention to bring a wider range of historical material to a broad general audience.

Perhaps in an effort to protect the legacy of George Washington, this year’s list ignores works that address the complicated relationship of the first president and his contemporaries with slavery and enslaved people, native people and women during the Revolutionary era. By focusing on the experiences of whites and, largely, elites, the list ignores books that explore the limits on freedom and equality that existed at the founding of our country.

Over the past four decades, historians have transformed the meaning of the American Revolution by including the experiences and ideas of black Americans, Native Americans, non-elite whites and women. People of African descent, Native Americans and working-class whites seized Revolutionary-era language and wartime opportunities to broaden foundational definitions of the new nation and secure their own individual and collective sovereignty both within and outside it.

Enslaved Africans petitioned the British and Americans for freedom before, during and after the Revolutionary War, and ran away from slave owners when there were opportunities to do so. Native Americans struggled to protect their territories from the emerging nation, sometimes extracting tenuous agreements from the United States, and at other times calling out the hypocrisy of the Euro-Americans who unilaterally claimed native lands.

Working-class people also pushed for greater access to the rich economy and democratic processes in the new nation, regardless of their lack of elite status and education. And historians have uncovered the lives and politics of women ranging from elite white republican mothers and wives  to working-class, enslaved and native women, all of whom made sometimes difficult decisions to push for greater autonomy for themselves and their communities even as they were most often restricted from public, participatory citizenship in the new nation.

These histories reveal that there were many founders, of all backgrounds, who pushed beyond the limits of the venerated Founding Fathers to constitute a multifaceted struggle for freedom and equality.

The path of one of the most important scholars of the last two decades is instructive. In 1994, Annette Gordon-Reed launched an intellectual odyssey to make the Hemings family history and slavery a central part of the history of Thomas Jefferson and our nation. Her research was paralleled by and then intertwined with a major reinterpretation of slavery at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia, which included the complicated accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s intimate relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and the enslaved children they had together.

Gordon-Reed’s work received numerous awards — including the George Washington Book Prize. The acceptance of Gordon-Reed’s research was a substantial turning point in placing slavery at the center of the field of early American history and the world of the Founding Fathers.

But the reclamation of the Hemings family’s history has also allowed the nation to heap the sins of slavery solely on Jefferson. His “Notes on the State of Virginia” simultaneously stands in for the racism of the Founding Fathers, and spares the other founders from the scrutiny they deserve.

The exploration of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings has been matched by the almost complete public silence on the broader number of ways in which other Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers were implicated in intimate relationships with the human beings they owned. For example, in records kept by George and Martha Washington, the births of enslaved children on their plantations are carefully noted. They, like other slaveholders, sought to control the most intimate decisions of enslaved people in myriad ways in the pursuit of their own wealth and security. And like Jefferson, the Washingtons doubted the equality of the Africans upon whom they depended for their wealth and daily comfort.

Last year, it seemed that a turning point occurred when a two-year exhibition on slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon was launched. The current tours of the permanent exhibitions in the mansion and its well-preserved outbuildings substantially discuss the slave labor necessary to uphold the Washingtons’ lifestyle.

But the George Washington Prize committee’s decision not to include two new serious works on slavery and the Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers on their “must read” list reveals how deeply protected the mythology around the Founding Fathers remains.

This decision reinforces the idea that people such as Ona Judge, who fled enslavement in the Washington presidential household for liberty in New Hampshire, did not redefine the limited freedoms established by white Founding Fathers. In other words, the struggle of black people against slavery is not part of the definition of what made the United States a “beacon for democratic movements around the world,” in the words of the George Washington Prize news release. Only the ideas and actions of white Founding Fathers (and sometimes Founding Mothers) count — even when those founders were slave owners.

Many scholars and pundits have gone to great lengths to protect this skewed understanding. They dismiss nonwhite scholars writing on slavery, Native Americans and race, or women writing on gender, discounting their research, subjecting their books to greater scrutiny or writing off their focus on the history of enslaved blacks, Native Americans or women as simplistic. They laud scholars who focus on the elites who developed the ideologies and technologies of slavery and white supremacy, judging their work as more complex or “smarter.” This year, the George Washington Prize has contributed to this insidious hierarchy.

While few Americans may consciously seek out or hear about the George Washington Prize, the award is an important marketing tool for booksellers who genuinely seek guidance on what constitutes important new historical work. At a time when the nation is struggling mightily to understand just how diverse our history is — as we struggle over the meaning of slavery, race, gender and sexuality in our national past and present — the fact that not one book on this list deals substantially with any of these topics in our nation’s founding era is a failure.