Looking back on historical events offers us a unique perspective. We see the impacts of past events in a way that we cannot see our own impacts. Looking at the past, we glimpse how small actions can spark cultural revolutions and how technological leaps propel us forward. But our perception of the past is inevitably clouded by the present. In a sense, we are looking at the past through tinted lenses.
What we see through the historic lens is compromised by our world-views, by cultural narratives and by our own experiences. This is inescapable. If we look at historic events from the perspective of the people who benefited from it, we find powerful inspiration. But the people and events that inspire some, are a painful reminder of our prejudices and ignorance. From our modern view, we see all the blemishes and mistakes of our ancestors along with their great achievements.
Looking back on great historical achievements and great leaders can inspire but we must approach it from a balanced perspective. We must be mindful of the context of historical events and, in a sense, forgive ourselves for the prejudices of our ancestors. When history is approached from a mature mindset, we can draw inspiration from the good while acknowledging the bad. The flaws our ancestors do not necessarily erase their positive impact.
Some of the greatest leaders were, by modern standards, ignorant and prejudiced. George Washington is celebrated as one of the founding fathers of the United States. He was widely admired as a strong leader and unanimously elected President in the first two national elections. But he was also a slave holder. He was born into a wealthy class in a society that relied on slave labor.
When George Washington was 11 years old, he inherited 10 slaves along with the 280 acre family farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. By 1799, he owned 123 of the 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon. Yet, he privately opposed slavery. He viewed is as economically unsound and morally indefensible. But, as president of the Constitutional Convention, the first president of the United States, and General of the Army he didn’t risk publicly challenging the institution of slavery. He wanted protect the unity of the nation and slavery was such an inflammatory issue, it posed a mortal threat to the unity of the nation.
Slavery is an abhorrent practice that was commonplace during George Washington’s time. Like his contemporaries, Washington inherited and bought other human beings as if they were livestock. But unlike his peers, his views on slavery were completely reversed by the end of his life. In his will, George Washington left directions for the emancipation of all the slaves that he owned, after the death of Martha Washington. Slavery wasn’t a practice he could public challenge in life, but he sought to right this after his death. Perhaps hoping to inspire others to do the same.