MOUNT VERNON, V.A. — Peter James bent down to inspect a plaque about George Washington’s plantation profits. Mr. James, 24, is an independent hemp farmer visiting Washington, D.C. from Akron, Ohio this week for the Fourth of July. Like many Americans, Mr. James, who is black, said he was “taking a sober look” at history and “really trying to digest what it means to be an American today.” He’s hardly the only one.
Over this holiday weekend, Americans grappled with the founders’ complicated legacies. Nowhere was this more top of mind than in the nation’s capital, which sits 20 miles up the Potomac River from this bucolic glen where Washington once lived. On every other Fourth, the men made from marble seemed to gaze down serenely from Olympian heights, secure in the knowledge that they had done the impossible and created the most powerful nation in the history of mankind. But now, these monuments, shored up for centuries by a false mythology of cherry trees and wooden teeth, were asking difficult questions of those who’d never bothered to learn their history in full.
Why were so many of us taught in school that George Washington “never told a lie,” but not that some of his teeth came from the mouths of slaves? How are we to square his professed ideals against the story of Ona Judge, the woman who escaped his enslavement and was chased for three years, right up until the weeks before Washington’s death?
Colin Kaepernick tweeted that the holiday is a “celebration of white supremacy.” Days before, a bust of Washington was toppled at George Washington University. A statue of Abraham Lincoln with a formerly enslaved person kneeling before him sits surrounded by police and protective fencing on Capitol Hill. (Another Washington monument — the Washington Redskins — may finally have to change its name after decades or resistance). Politicians in this town love to drone on about the “soul of the nation”. But now, it is the nation’s very DNA, and the racial Rashomon of her origin story, that is on trial.
The morning of the Fourth, DaVaughn Montgomery, 34, a teacher at a charter school in D.C., stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the towering white obelisk once likened to “a stalk of asparagus” by its architect. Montgomery, who is black, was wearing a mask featuring the image of shackled black wrists and text that said “Free-ish Since 1865.”
“Now more than ever is the time where we’re actually having a conversation about what these figures mean,” he said. As with many black Americans, Montgomery said that this side to the founders’ legacies did not exactly come as a revelation. It’s something he’s known all along. His opinion of the first president “hasn’t changed — because it wasn’t that high of him in the first place. He’s kind of been this hypocritical figure in terms of standing for things, but not actually doing those things in his personal life. But now nobody can claim ‘I didn’t know the history,’ now it’s what can you do moving forward once you do realize the history.”
On a nearby lawn beside the Lincoln Memorial, Randy Bender, 59, a white I.T. manger from Rockville, Maryland, bristled at those who would impugn the founders. “People are inappropriately judging historical figures based on today’s standards, versus what was the case a couple centuries ago. Things change over time and the founding fathers were incredibly impressive,” she said. “Things that people believed 10 or 20 years ago have changed, so judging people who were around 250 years ago, they are not going to live up to today’s standards.”
At Mount Vernon, a day earlier, James, the hemp farmer, said he was thinking “about how it must have felt to sit behind a desk and weigh ideas such as freedom, liberty, and justice, while enslaved humans cook your meals and clean all of your clothes and take care of all your guests.”
Sammy Fudge, 59, a black middle school principal, was inspecting a storehouse on the grounds of Washington’s estate. “This place was successful because of the sweat that came off their brow each and every day,” he said. The day before, he had visited Monticello, the neoclassical labor camp belonging to Thomas Jefferson, and said that this July Fourth is “getting us to really reevaluate history,” which has always “been told from one perspective.” Fudge was with Wendi James, 53, an assistant principal of a high school, who is also black. “A lot of what is happening now is that African Americans and other minorities have a spending power,” she said. “I don’t think any company or any group wants to offend and run the risk of losing the contributions financially that we all make up.”
Our founders were egalitarians striving for a more perfect union, yes, but they were also hypocrites. Acknowledging that fact has posed a tricky conundrum for pols. “This nation was born in a moment of hypocrisy, there is no way to explain that away,” Mitch Landrieu, the white former Mayor of New Orleans who led the charge to remove Confederate statues from that city in 2017, told me on Friday. “I would love to talk to Thomas Jefferson. I would love to just say, ‘Tommy, listen, this is what you wrote, but tell me about Sally Hemings?’”
When Joe Biden spoke earlier this week, he cited Mr. Landrieu’s efforts as the ideal template. “The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and somebody who was in rebellion, committing treason, running, trying to take down a union to keep slavery, I think there’s a distinction there,” said Biden.
Monday morning, President Trump, to the horror of his Republican would-be handlers and donors, reversed course on the issue of Confederate symbols, tweeting that NASCAR had made a grave error in banning the Confederate flag because it led to “lowest ratings EVER!” In his Mount Rushmore speech, Trump said that “angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders” and that “these people have no idea why they are doing this.” He concluded that “the radical view of American history is a web of lies.”
Historians, however, are not so angsty about this Fourth.
“The silver lining of this moment, for those of us who ply the trade of history, is that people are talking about history and debating it a lot more,” said the historian Walter Isaacson, who is white. “But we shouldn’t get trapped into thinking that we can only memorialize people who were perfect.”
Douglas Brinkley, who is also white, agreed: “On this Fourth of July, Americans should be proud and ashamed at their national history, and you can be both. We can be proud of Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence, and heart-sickened that he never freed his slaves.”
Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian and the author of The History of White People, was in accord. “To me this is a very exciting time because I see masses of Americans acting really as intellectuals, of querying what was taken for granted in our history, and really engaging with history,” she said. “The Germans have a word for it — Vergangenheitsbewältigung — which means engaging with the past, and that’s what we’re doing. Germans have had to do it since the end of the second World War, and they’ve done it in a really fascinating way.”
But, the historians warn, now that destruction is in the zeitgeist, caution must be exercised. “At all costs we never want to do what the Soviet Union did and try to eradicate history,” said Mr. Brinkley. “The mobs are taking down some people I wouldn’t necessarily take down,” Painter allowed. “I wouldn’t take down Ulysses S. Grant for instance, but I would take down Lincoln with the crouching boy. That makes me cringe.”
Friday evening, by that statue, things were peaceful as Washingtonians stood at the newly erected fencing and pondered the statue. Q. McQueen —“like Lightning or Steve!” he said — looked at it and remarked “My people on their knees? I definitely think it should come down.”
The talking heads on Fox News had referred to this as ground zero for those who wish to “cancel America.” McQueen, 26, who works on signals intelligence at Fort Gordon, Georgia, said “It’s more complicated than that. It’s not just about the founding fathers themselves, because they did great things. We’re in America! The greatest country we got. The problem is the misrepresented history.” Does he have a hard time feeling patriotic on this searing Fourth? Absolutely not. “I did five years in the Marine Corps, this is my country and I’m going to celebrate it. You’re supposed to critique it and you’re supposed to want for it to be better.”
In imagining the very first Independence Day, John Adams wrote that it “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations.” To that effect, President Trump ordered up a bevy of World War II-era bombers and other military aircraft from the nation’s trigger-happy past to jet over the National mall, and a dazzling display of fireworks. Gabriella Daino, 20, a white woman visiting from New Jersey, wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat and waved two miniature American flags as she sat by the Lincoln memorial. “Our founding fathers, what they did with slavery, of course no one approves of that,” she said. But “I don’t think not idolizing these people and taking down these statutes is the answer when there’s so much rich history that happened besides how they lived their lives. Without them, this wouldn’t be America, and we wouldn’t be here.”
On the South Lawn of the White House, President Trump addressed the nation, saying “Our past is not a burden to be cast away” and that “we will never allow an angry mob” to “indoctrinate our children.” As he spoke, members of the far-right group the Proud Boys mingled with other Trump supporters waving Blue Lives Matter flags by the Washington Monument. One black woman, draped in a “Trump 2020” gown, remarked that “It’s my body, my choice, and I ain’t wearing no mask.” Each time a fighter plane flew overhead, the crowd roared “four more years.”
In interviews along the mall about the conversation around the founders this year, I heard some remarks from white people that are too vile to print. One government worker defended George Washington by reciting a partial history of “white slavery.” Another man compared the history of chattel slavery in the U.S. to the debate around abortion today.
On the other side of the White House, at the newly christened Black Lives Matter plaza, an alternate universe was unfolding as marchers shouted “fuck the police” and about the “fascist government.”
But, for the most part, the crowds in D.C. were sparse. Many Americans were cooped up at home, where the same conversation that was happening in the streets was playing out on TV screens. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the Disney+ app this weekend to watch “Hamilton,” the film version of the popular Broadway musical. That production forces viewers to wrestle with our founders’ legacies, too. Hamilton’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda, is Puerto Rican, and the play features a diverse cast. But it valorizes some of the founding fathers who were being denounced this year. Miranda, introducing the film, says that “So much of what ‘Hamilton’ is about is how history remembers and how that changes time.” A few days prior, over on HBO Max, “Gone with the Wind” was restored, this time with a new introduction from film scholar Jacqueline Stewart, contextualizing the classic that heaps glory upon the Confederacy.
Earlier that morning, by the heavily barricaded Washington monument, Tierra Cooke, 27, a black social worker, said the way forward is for “everyone to know everything, good and bad. It might be ugly and it might be hurtful, but it’s what happened.”