Lott: What About Washington?
By Roger Lott, Contributing Columnist
Published on Monday, January 10, 2011
Last Thursday, Dartmouth kicked off a nearly month-long Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration that comprises 26 events and will climax with the cancellation of classes on Jan. 17.
In contrast, the College completely ignores George Washington’s birthday, otherwise known as President’s Day, as well as Columbus Day, the two other federal holidays that honor individuals who supposedly contributed to American history in a major way. The reason for not celebrating the latter is obvious — Columbus was a bloodthirsty tyrant who ruthlessly murdered and enslaved Native Americans. The College’s attitude towards Washington is more baffling, however.
Many people are reluctant to pay homage to Washington and other founding fathers because they owned slaves. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that the mores and expectations of 18th century society were very different from our own. Washington abhorred slavery, had all his slaves freed upon his death and was impressed by the valor with which blacks served in the Revolutionary War, but wisely opposed pressing the issue out of concern that it would keep the country from getting off the ground.
Like King, Washington fought for a noble cause with little concern for his safety — indeed, four bullets so nearly hit him that they put holes in his coat. Most of all, though, Washington loved his farm. Upon hearing that the general would retire to Mt. Vernon after the war, King George III remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington did not lead his country in order to pursue selfish aims. He could probably have made himself king, but instead took power extremely reluctantly and referred to his election as “the event I have long dreaded.”
Most Americans are remarkably unappreciative of all Washington did for posterity, and a holiday on his behalf is an excellent opportunity to give thanks. We can all learn from Washington’s example in perseverance, selflessness and humility.
It goes without saying that King also did a great deal for the world. He made Americans remember that treating a man based on the color of his skin is not only immoral but also contrary to the founding principles of this country. He led boycotts against segregated businesses in the Deep South, putting himself in great danger and achieving major victories against human bigotry.
But King also had his dark sides. A 1991 Boston University investigatory committee concluded, “There is no question but that Dr. King plagiarized in [his doctoral] dissertation by appropriating material from sources not explicitly credited in notes.” Numerous pages are copied verbatim from other works, including the thesis of fellow student Jack Boozer. The minister also had a voracious appetite for extramarital affairs. “King’s habits of sexual adventure had been well established by the time he was married,” says Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University.
King also held a number of beliefs that would probably strike Americans today as surprisingly extreme for a man we are used to associating with peace, love and equality. King believed in strict job quotas based on race, and once stated, “[i]f a city has a 30 percent Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30 percent of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.” King also believed in reparations for the descendants of American slaves, which he imagined being distributed, “in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures.”
As much as the College may wish to use MLK Day as an opportunity to celebrate racial equality, the holiday must still be able to rest on the merit of its namesake. Despite his extreme views and sometimes disgraceful personal behavior, King’s bravery, charisma and lasting influence may still be grounds enough for a national holiday. However, if we are to judge Washington and King by their life records and the contents of their characters, it simply doesn’t make sense that Dartmouth should give King a multi-week celebration while completely ignoring Washington. It would be a step in the right direction if Dartmouth gave Washington even one tenth as much attention as it gives to King.