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Date: July 17, 2007
Byline: J.D. Mullane

Revealing truth isn't unpatriotic

One of the troubling marks of this decade is the ease with which Americans will question each other's patriotism.

Some readers have questioned my patriotism since I wrote that George Washington owned slaves, and that he brought nine of them to live with him in the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia after he became president.

He did this even though Pennsylvania had abolished slavery. There is written evidence, according to historians quoted by the National Park Service, that President Washington deliberately deceived the public over slave ownership.

"How do we know if the historian who dug up this stuff is telling the truth or lying?" a caller asked. "George Washington was a very fine Christian man. He got down on his knees and prayed before battle and he was a very fine person. To write [that he owned slaves] is unpatriotic. I believe this is a dishonor and disservice to our country and to your readers. I'm disappointed in you. I thought you were more of a patriot yourself, but I guess you're not."

Others have similar views. Basically, they conclude, I am a jerk for reporting that beneath the Liberty Bell pavilion, where millions of tourists walk, is the spot where President Washington had slave quarters.

"Why didn't you write that George Washington freed all his slaves when he died?" another caller asked, saying I was out to smear the first president.

Learning that Washington had slaves as president is troubling, for sure. But that he freed them upon his death in 1799 doesn't make me say, "Oh, wasn't that nice of him?"

I mean, if I were a slave and my owner freed me after years of salary-free service, I'd feel used.

As for smear — no.

I didn't know that the National Park Service had uncovered the slave story until May. I was attending a journalism conference in Philadelphia and Mayor John Street, a guest speaker, told us about it. He encouraged us to visit the site near the Liberty Bell on Market Street and write about this hidden piece of history.

Obviously, this is troubling history. "All men are created equal" — except for African slaves — is an astounding contradiction for a man like Washington.

And yet I still see, and respect, the good that he accomplished.

Washington was a great man. Like most greats he had huge shortcomings. If you examine the lives of any great historical figure, you will find disturbing faults.

Theodore Roosevelt praised eugenics. Earl Warren and Franklin Roosevelt endorsed locking up Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Is it unpatriotic to say this stuff? I didn't make it up. Maybe in our oh-so-easily-offended culture, we lack the perspective to see that even great human beings do really bad things.

Of course, we should not forbid pointing out unpatriotic acts or speech. But these occasions are so obvious that no one needs to.

Burning a flag to make an anti-American point is unpatriotic.

Advocating the violent overthrow of the government is, obviously, unpatriotic (and criminal). So is rooting for the nation's enemies during war or for the nation's defeat in war.

But reviewing uncomfortable facts about beloved men and women of history is not unpatriotic.

It's uncomfortable, though.

Like this. The lionized "Greatest Generation" won a world war to preserve freedom, yet came home and attempted to keep black GIs from moving to places like Levittown.

Do you think less of that generation — or less of me for pointing it out?

Me, probably.

But that doesn't make me a flag burner.


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