Thomas Sowell

THE holiday we have just celebrated, now called "President's Day," was within living memory called "George Washington's Birthday." It is our loss that we no longer have any sense of this great man, who had more than anyone else to do with our being a free people today.

Part of the reason is this generation's sheer ignorance of history. Worse, it is also due to misconceptions of the world borne of that ignorance.

For many of the politically correct today, it is enough to dismiss George Washington because he was a dead white male -- as if he had anything to do with any of that. Others condemn him because he owned slaves. But the slaves were here before George Washington was born and there was nothing he could do about slavery, even when he was president. The most he could do was advocate the abolition of slavery in general and free the particular slaves he had inherited -- and he ended up doing both.

George Washington was generations ahead of his time on this issue in the Western world, and centuries ahead of his time as far as non-Western civilizations were concerned. People grossly ignorant of history -- and that includes graduates of our leading colleges and universities -- have no idea that slavery was not even a controversial issue before the 18th century, and only in Western societies beginning then. Everywhere else in the world, it was as widely accepted as it was widely practiced -- and it had been for thousands of years.

It was not slavery that was unique, it was freedom that was new and rare. George Washington was the key figure in the creation of the first major modern nation with an elected government, which was to become a model for the creation of other such governments in the centuries to come. Even now, however, free nations remain the exception, rather than the rule.

Governments with autocratic rulers were so prevalent in George Washington's day that it was assumed by many that he would become king after the American revolution succeeded. However, he said that he had not fought against George III in order to become George I. He not only threw his weight behind the creation of a constitutional republic, he set the precedent of voluntarily leaving the presidency after two terms, in order to forestall a tradition of one-man rule that has ruined so many other countries, even those with republican governments.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate