08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

George Washington: The Dignity and the Slavery

Writing on the op-ed pages of the New York Times on July 7, 2009, columnist David Brooks clearly touched a nerve.

His column, entitled "In Search of Dignity," topped the Times list of most emailed articles and drew hundreds on online comments, many of them laudatory. Brooks used the column to celebrate the good manners, civility and dignity possessed by George Washington. These attributes, Brooks believed, could be traced back to Washington's boyhood, when he scrupulously copied out maxims from the "Miss Manners" of his day, a book called Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Among its 110 rules:

When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body not usually Discovered.

Brooks then contrasted Washington's demeanor in public with that of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford -- he of the secret rendezvous in Argentina that didn't stay secret-- and Governor Sarah Palin, who chose Friday afternoon on the July 4th Weekend to inform the world that she was resigning as Governor of Alaska for reasons that many found mystifying. Brooks bemoaned the fact that these modern Republicans just couldn't hold a candle to Washington when it came to dignified behavior.

Brooks, an unapologetic conservative, finally made the leap to Barack Obama, surprising many readers with an admiring nod that placed the current President on equal footing with the First President in terms of his public demeanor.

Set against the backdrop of the day's Michael Jackson memorial frenzy, the piece clearly tapped into a great American yearning for civility and a gentler time when wise men with Washington's virtues held court.

But his argument has a fatal flaw. As I read Brooks' words, the obvious jumped off the page. In his catalog of Washington's public virtues and civility, David Brooks neglected to mention that George Washington owned, bought and sold his fellow human beings. When they ran away, he took out advertisements offering a reward for their return. He ran such an advertisement in 1761 when three of his "Negroes" took flight.

Whoever apprehends the said Negroes, so that the Subscriber may readily get them, shall have, if taken up in this County, forty shillings reward. . .

Brooks neglected this uncomfortable fact of Washington's life. It is a truth all the more evident in light of the recent celebration of the Declaration of Independence. With its clarion call that "All Men are created equal," the Declaration was written by Washington's fellow Virginian who also relied completely upon slave labor to put food on his table. Yet both men would have been completely at home owning Barack Obama, his wife and their children and perhaps selling some or all of them if necessary.

It was for this fact that Samuel Johnson once railed in Parliament:

How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?

The great contradiction between Washington's dignity and idealism and the fact he was a slave owner is at the heart of so much of what was rotten in this country for centuries. It strikes me as outlandish to attempt to laud Washington's courtly demeanor without reflecting on this great stain on his character. And the "everybody did it back then" defense doesn't cut it either. Washington knew slavery was wrong and completely at odds with what he was fighting for. It is shameful to give him --and the rest of the "Revolutionary Generation-- a pass when it comes to America's "original sin."

As the events of the day have shown, we live in a world that is quick to lavish praise on the departed --to cover a multitude of sins up in an orgy of adulation that allows the country to feel some pride in a sanitized past. But when we overlook the "evil that men do" in singing those praises, the music starts to sound very tinny.

True dignity demands far more than decent manners.