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Batavick: Museum a stark reminder of America’s Original Sin, Washington’s legacy and ‘a covenant with death’

We’ve become accustomed to our political leaders having feet of clay, but there are some historic personages who are still fully sculpted in marble. One of them is George Washington, though I noted some cracks in his pedestal when my wife and I visited the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. If you haven’t been there, put it on your “must see” list.

Opened in April 2017 and located amidst the shrines of liberty in “old city,” the museum is an eye-popper architecturally and exhibit-wise. We spent over 5 hours there and didn’t see everything. The experience is extremely immersive and, through the magic of video and computer special effects and reconstructions, places visitors in the “moment,” whether it is the front lines of the Battle of Brandywine or under the twinkling lanterns of a Liberty Tree. This ersatz tree mimics Boston’s, but sports a section of real wood from the tree that sheltered the Sons of Liberty in Annapolis over 250 years ago, and you are encouraged to touch it!

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The museum pulls no punches when it consistently weaves America’s Original Sin into the national tapestry. I’m talking about slavery, of course. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship’s arrival in what is now Virginia. Commemorations of the event and a New York Times series on slavery’s history have set some conservatives on edge. For them, any discussions of the topic fuel racial grievances and are akin to picking at a scab they don’t like to acknowledge.

Meanwhile, back to old George. Throughout Washington’s esteemed career, his personal assistant and slave, William Lee, was by his side to comb his long hair and tie it behind his head, empty his chamber pot, and hand him his telescope or the reins to a back-up horse during the terror of battle. Washington purchased the teen-aged Lee in 1768 for the enormous sum of 61 pounds and 15 shillings — over $5,000 today. Lee remained beside Washington throughout the eight years of the Revolutionary War, including the brutal winter at Valley Forge and the siege of Yorktown. He lived in immediate danger, especially during those instances when Washington had two horses shot out from under him and four bullets ripped through his coat.

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Washington brought nine slaves from his home at Mount Vernon to work in the President’s House when Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800. This proved to be a tricky challenge because Pennsylvania had passed the nation’s first emancipation law in 1780. It gradually abolished slavery by emancipating any enslaved blacks, including those brought into the state for more than six months. Washington did a devilish workaround by rotating his slaves from Mt. Vernon every six months.

Pennsylvania’s emancipation law exempted slaves owned by members of Congress. This is emblematic of how the young nation attempted to accommodate slave-owning interests. Other examples are two notorious provisions found in the 1787 Constitution. The first, known as the Three-fifths Clause, provided that representation in Congress be based on “the whole Number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons.” Of course, these “other Persons” were slaves.

This was a raw power grab on the part of southern states to gain Congressional seats and contradicted their claim to owning slaves as a property right. Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, argued that if slaves “are property, and are used to the southward as horses and cattle [are] to the northward” why shouldn’t northern states be granted representation on the basis of their numbers of horses and oxen? This was logical, but logic had nothing to do with it.

The Constitution also included the Slave-Trade Clause to protect the slave economy from abolitionists. It prohibited Congress from outlawing the international slave trade until 1808, though southern states later found unique ways to circumvent the ban.

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These two provisions, as well as ones dealing with putting down rebellion and returning fugitive slaves, were written to ensure the ratification of the U.S. Constitution by the slave-owning states. In reality, the clauses were more ransom than compromise and remain a blot on our early history. They caused a slow burn that combusted into civil war some 70 years later and that still smolders today in our riven society, whether the topic is gerrymandering, vote suppression, or Black Lives Matter. Tellingly, the abolitionist and journalist William Lloyd Garrison considered the original Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement in Hell.”

I should note that when Washington died in 1799, he freed William Lee in his will for "his faithful services during the Revolutionary War." Washington’s other 123 slaves had to wait for his wife Martha to depart this life three years later before they tasted freedom.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

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