What Would Washington Think?

george washington“What happened to my country?” asked the bumper sticker with George Washington’s grim-faced mug on it.

The sticker was on the back bumper of a parked pickup truck. I didn’t see the truck driver, and I wasn’t sure what message he or she meant to convey.

Then I saw a National Rifle Association emblem keeping it company. I figured the truck owner is not a fan of the current president. I suspect he thinks the Father of Our Country wouldn’t be either.

Of course, it’s impossible to know what Washington would make of our country. But history books are plain about what Washington’s country was like.

Our first president was part of Virginia’s wealthy, old-money elite. Only men like him –white guys who owned property or had money – could vote and hold office.

Everywhere in Washington’s country, well-heeled white guys ran everything.

Today, a working class African American is president. Every citizen 18 and older can vote, though some Republicans favor measures that make it harder for minorities to cast ballots. (The old white supremacist Southern Democrats would love the neo-Jim Crow GOP voter suppression laws.)

Not long after I saw the Washington bumper sticker, I spotted another sticker of seemingly similar sentiment. It clung to the back window of a van that was also parked. “In Loving Memory of Our Liberty 1776-????” it said.

I don’t know what “lost” liberty the van owner laments. But I doubt he or she voted for Barack Obama.

In Washington’s country, a lot of white folks defined their “liberty” to include their right to own black slaves. Indentured servants were still around, too.

Free workers were almost completely at the mercy of their employers. Courts forbad them to form unions and bargain collectively for higher pay, shorter hours and improved job conditions. There were no laws protecting the lives and limbs of workers on the job.

There were no workers’ compensation laws, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no food stamps — no social safety net, period.

White women were free persons, but they couldn’t vote. White men treated women like second class citizens, and they — white women, too — looked even more askance at free African Americans. In addition, whites guys were routinely killing Native Americans and driving them from their lands.

So what has happened to Washington’s little “r” republic? It has become miles more little “d” democratic.

We are getting closer to that “more perfect union” the constitution was supposed to make us. Far more people enjoy “the blessings of liberty” cited in our national charter than they did in Washington’s day.

Berry CraigHistorians — myself among them — generally rank Washington first among our three greatest presidents. Abraham Lincoln and FDR usually finish two and three, which is where I rate them, too.

But I’ll take 2013 America over George Washington’s America — and Lincoln and FDR’s America to boot.

Berry Craig

Monday, 6 May 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on May 6, 2013
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.