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A Prince of Tolerance Offers Lessons for the Future of Race Relations

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As approval ratings for America's first Black President continue to
soar, I'd like to point out that two of our early Presidents, George
Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned Black slaves, and Thaddeus
Kosciuszko, a Polish general, tried to buy those slaves -- and free
them.



Kosciuszko arrived in Philadelphia in August of 1776, where Benjamin
Franklin put him in charge of building forts. George Washington
ordered Kosciuszko to draft the blueprints for West Point, the same
plans that Benedict Arnold tried to sell to the British, and Thomas
Jefferson sent the Pole to Paris to negotiate the freedom of American
seamen after the XYZ affair.



Jefferson said of Kosciuszko: "He is as pure a son of liberty, as I
have ever known, and of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to
the few or rich alone."



After the revolution, Kosciuszko made Jefferson the administrator of
his last will and testament, in which he instructed the founding
father to use his money to buy slaves and free them, and to give them
each 100 acres of land, farming tools and cattle, so that they could
earn a living as free citizens of the United States. But Jefferson
never carried out that will, and a lawsuit wound its way through the
courts for decades, until the will was thrown out by the United States
Supreme Court in 1852.



In 1908, Israel Losey White, literary editor of the Newark Evening
News
, wrote, "This will is an unwritten chapter in American History.
It is possible that if its suggestions had been followed, there might
have been no Civil War in the United States, and the race problem of
today would not be so perplexing to economists."



African Americans are not the only people that suffered from
discrimination in this country. In fact, the United States has always
had a totem pole of bigotry, where the latest arrivals were notched in
at the bottom of the shame pole.



The exception to this rule was the treatment of Native Americans, who
were here first. Yet they were abused and killed by white Europeans.
Already in the 1790s, Kosciuszko stood up for these tribes, and chief
Little Turtle of the Miami tribe visited him in Philadelphia to give
him a combination tomahawk-peace pipe as a sign of appreciation.
Kosciuszko took what he had learned during the American Revolution to
Europe, where he started a revolution to try to end another form of
slavery, feudalism, in which feudal lords enslaved white serfs. And
because Jews were taxed unfairly, Kosciuszko took on their cause as
well. His friend Berek Joselewicz started a Jewish cavalry to fight
alongside Kosciuszko. It was the first wholly Jewish military unit
since biblical times. Even a black man named Jean Lapierre traveled to
Poland to fight for white serfs, and Kosciuszko also welcomed Sunni
Muslims into his army.



The fact that American historians have ignored Kosciuszko is also due
to bigotry. His story does not fit into the cookie-cutter framework
that the United States was simply founded by WASPs. That's why the
stories of people like Kosciuszko, and his friend Haym Solomon, are
also ignored. Solomon was a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York and
financed much of the American Revolution.



Every ethnic group in this country can tell you how they suffered
indignities when they first arrived. Irish-Americans remember the
"Help Wanted -- Irish need not apply" signs. Chinese Americans know
that the phrase "Chinaman's Chance in Hell" refers to the dangerous
jobs they were forced to take placing explosives on mountainsides to
clear the way for the transcontinental railroad. Japanese-Americans
are still pained by the concentration camps that their families were
held in during World War II. And the Pollack jokes that my parents had
to face when they arrived were simply dreadful.



It is not until new ethnic groups learn to speak English and reach a
modicum of success before they are tolerated in the United States.
These days, many look with a suspicious eye at new arrivals from
Mexico, Muslim countries, and elsewhere. We must get over our fear of
newcomers. They come here for a better life, and they are eager to
work hard.



Kosciuszko's motto was that he fought "for your freedom
and ours." He understood that all people yearned to be free. Without
question, America is the greatest country in the world, but we must
remember that this is because we are the melting pot. Other nations
look to us for inspiration, and the new immigrants that arrive on our
shores send back lessons about American freedoms to their own
countries. The United States has an incredible opportunity to
encourage other nations to achieve freedom on their own terms. That
is why we should learn about the histories of other lands, and even
that of our own country, as it really was, and not just some feel-good
formula.