3 Quotes 3 Days: Day 3

“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

–George Washington to The Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island (August 1790)

Full text here.

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I decided to focus on an entirely different type of quotation for my last day of the challenge. I was reminded of these words as I reviewed my page proofs for my forthcoming book, The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia.  I love this sentence for its elegant wording, as well as its sentiments. The words are a reminder of what the US and its citizens aspire to when we are at our very best. In the past few months, here in the US, words and actions have gathered, stormed, and swirled with tornado-like winds of change. We’ve had recrimination and remorse; clemency and compassion. We’ve seen race riots and murders, flags raised and lowered, the past reexamined, and love is love made legal. We’ve seen people gathering in anger and spouting hate, and strangers and friends coming together in love and support of one another.

The quotation is also a reminder that most people are complex, complicated, and contradictory creatures. George Washington was known more for his leadership qualities than for his way with words. Here, however, he makes a statement that is simple and eloquent. I am struck by the phrase, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Yet, we know he was a slaveholder. His considerable wealth was built on the backs of men and women who served him and his family. (It also helps that he married a wealthy, slaveholding widow.) In this letter, George Washington discusses religious toleration, but he also refers to classes of people having the same rights. Most likely he did not stop to think at all of the irony of his sentiments or to consider the condition of the people who he held in bondage.

To those who venerate without question our “Founding Fathers,” it is wise to remember that they were not without flaws. No person or nation is entirely good or entirely evil. We are all fallible. Those who think heroes are perfect or invincible would be wise to remember Achilles. It is our flaws that make us human and not gods. At the same time, wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we all aspired to do our best and saw the best in one another?

For a bit more on Washington and slavery, see these links:

Mt. Vernon: http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/subject/slavery-and-enslaved-community/


This is Day 3 of the 3 Quotes 3 Days Challenge. Jane Dougherty, prolific writer of stories and poems, nominated me for this challenge: to post a favorite quote for three successive days.

For the last day of my quotation challenge, I’m nominating Frank of A Frank Angle. He always has a lot to say on all sorts of subjects, and I’m sure he has many favorite quotations!

14 thoughts on “3 Quotes 3 Days: Day 3

  1. You’re so right Merril, if we only aspired to do our best and strove to see the best in everyone. If we only tried to tolerate the differences between us instead of fearing them and hating them, then maybe we’d find we could live at peace with each other and leave a world without war and bigotry for those to follow.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

  2. How ironic – I was thinking about Washington’s slaves before I read that far down thinking he was a bit of a hypocrite. (I recently had a long discussion about this very subject with my sister the historian…where Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal”… but really he only meant white men -not women- who owned land.) But I do like the quote. 🙂

    • Exactly, Rachel! 🙂 I just saw a call for papers for a history conference on Washington and slavery for a conference next year. Apparently, there will also be a major exhibit at Mt. Vernon on that topic, too.

  3. On a day like today — Confederate flags in Oklahoma to greet the president, Sandra Bland is dead, another shooter goes on a rampage — it’s hard to read these words: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” Yet we need this kind of guidance more than ever. Even if the Father of Our Country wasn’t a perfect exemplar himself.

    • Yes, Shirley, that’s exactly it. We can’t ignore the evil, and we should fight it. People greeting the president with Confederate flags are reprehensible. None of us is perfect, but I believe that we have to aspire to greatness and embrace all that is good..
      I think that’s true of the nation, too. I think Washington meant what he said, he just perhaps closed his mind to the evils of slavery, like different compartments. His actions as a slaveholder do not dismiss the beauty–or truth–of his words, even if they are and have not been not always practiced in reality.

  4. Merril, what an incredible post. From my little hideaway in distant Australia, I have pondered the interconnection between slavery and the Declaration of Independence and it was pointed out to me that it was intended to be a work-in-progress and a stepping stone. Wasn’t aware of George Washington’s links to slavery so thank you for enlightening me.
    You encourage me reminding me of our weaknesses because I know I’ve been letting my paralyze me for some time. My kids have also reminded me of imperfection this week. Mum writes about the Golden Rule and daughter gets teased and kicks boy in the shins instead of telling the teacher. Parenthood is teaching me both to be humble and a how to negotiate better xx Ro

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Rowena. Yes, Washington (and several other “Founding Fathers) was a slaveholder. He was quite interested in agricultural improvements and technology, but he had slaves to do the actual labor. Your story reminds me of one about my daughter–the one who just got married–she told me that when she was in elementary school, she kicked a boy who was teasing her best friend. He never bothered either of them again, and he was friendly with my daughter afterward. It’s not what I would have advocated, but I guess it worked at the time. 🙂

  5. Well done, Merril. The quote, the contradictions between thought and actions, and your analysis of the irony … does put things in perspective. I often think of this when I hear someone put down religion because of a flawed human. We do all make mistakes. Hopefully, our better selves emerge and we overcome our flaws. 😉

    • Thanks so much, Judy, for the kind words. You are so right that we do all make mistakes. I think, too, that humans are all contradictory creatures. It’s what makes us able to be so creative, but also to be so awful sometimes.

  6. Thanks so much Merril – I’m coming to respond only now although I saw this a few days back. Feet of clay – we all have them. Especially those ‘high up’ onto whom we place our trust. Last night at reading group (study of Jung’s philosophy, sometimes in the original, other times other writers on Jung) was this passage by Lao Tzu: (this after discussion about ‘there is no morality without freedom’):

    The more taboos and prohibitions there are in the world,
    The poorer the people will be.
    The more sharp weapons the people have,
    The more troubled the state will be.
    The more cunning and skill man possesses,
    The more vicious things will appear.
    The more law and orders are made prominent,
    The more thieves and robbers there will be’.

    May we all continue to do our best and see the best in others .. the world would be a happier place.

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