First slaveowner

“George Washington was a good president” because “he freed us from England,” Elena Aguilar’s son learned in kindergarten. Aguilar, an Oakland school improvement coach and Edutopia blogger, is angry. She wants critical analysis of history. In kindergarten.

“Some people think he was good, others disagree,” I said.

I then explained to my son that I thought he’d done some things that weren’t fair. “George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was,” I told him.

The George Washington comment had Aguilar “boiling,” she writes.

First, this is not the way to teach history. This approach — an uncritical, history-as-true-fact, spoon-fed-hero-worshipping of rich white men and the unquestioned glorification of those who have always had power — is not acceptable for my kid or any kid.

Secondly, I’m shocked by any teacher’s lack of cultural competence. I can’t imagine what one might think as they look at students’ faces, such as those of my son’s classmates (some of whom are African American or recent immigrants), and declare, “George Washington freed us from England.” He sure didn’t free my people who immigrated in the twentieth century, and he sure didn’t free my husband’s ancestors who were brought to this country in shackles.

Comments critical of Aguilar’s post were deleted without explanation, writes Robert Pondiscio. Edutopia responded by printing two comments censored for racism, neither of which I would consider racist. It did not print Pondiscio’s deleted comment or at least one other.

Pondiscio questions whether Washington was motivated by financial gain.

. . . didn’t Washington, a wealthy planter whose wealth was largely created by planting tobacco for export, have much more to lose than gain – including his life – by rebelling?  I was surprised to read that his leading the American Revolution was essentially a business decision.  Too, there’s the issue of viewing historical figures through a contemporary lens.  And isn’t all of this a bit much to put on the plate of six-year-olds?  Presumably over the course of a K-12 education there should be several occasions to expand one’s knowledge, see with more nuance, and come to see history in all its contradictions and complexities.

I added a comment:

When teachers include all children in the “us” who were “freed from England” that means that we are all equally American, with equal citizenship. It doesn’t mean we’re all descended from colonial Americans. My grandparents came here in 1890-1910 so they could be the heirs of George Washington.

I think it’s a grave mistake to urge kindergartners to see George Washington primarily as a slave owner rather than as the general who helped us win our independence and the first president (who refused the title of king). As Robert writes, financial self-interest could not have motivated Washington. The Revolution was far more likely to lead to his complete ruin and to his death. Hence the phrase “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

As it happens my daughter was born on George Washington’s birthday. When she was in elementary school and had to dress up as their hero, she chose Washington. My efforts to make her a wig out of cotton balls have left me with Post-Art Project Stress Syndrome (PAP SS).

About Joanne


  1. Reading the teachers’ comments at Edutopia reminds me why I home educate my little darlings. Zinn as a primary text. Geez.

  2. Wasn’t it great, though, to see the kids rejecting the teacher forcefeeding them Zinn? God, I can’t imagine having to deal with a year of “white people suck” history.

  3. Well, it is pretty sloppy history if he actually was taught that “George Washington was a good president because he freed us from England”.

  4. greeneyeshade says:

    You know the Bay Area better than I do, but I’ve been thinking for years it resembles the famous line about secession-happy South Carolina: “Too small for a Republic, and too large for an Insane Asylum.”

  5. I’m guessing Elena Aguilar wasn’t a history major.

  6. “ ‘George Washington owned slaves and one of the reasons he wanted to be free from England was because he wanted to be even richer than he already was,’ I told him.”

    She works for free, I suppose.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    “Hey, hey”
    Ho, ho.
    Western civ
    Has got to go”

    I heard some flake claiming the founding fathers went to war to get out of debt (to England). He didn’t know–he was too stupid to know better and then lie–that businessmen frequently like to “work on other people’s money”, being frequently and almost permanently in debt. The key is to make more on the loan than you pay.
    It’s not a big deal and going to war, risking as somebody else said, your life and your family’s welfare, isn’t a “solution” because it isn’t a problem.
    What a maroon.

  8. SuperSub says:

    Yet another modern “civil rights hero” wannabe that feels it is necessary to superimpose current society on the actions of past individuals.
    Plain and simple, I don’t care whether Washington owned slaves, just as I don’t care that the Irish (my people) have experienced the short end of the stick also. Washington and everyone else of that period were raised to believe that slaves were little more than animals, and I can’t fault them for believing it.
    The important thing to note is that Washington and the other founding fathers established a country that not only freed the slaves but has also bled for the rights of numerous other populations.

    Funny how those who are the first to complain about imposing our Western standards on other societies are the first to impose the modern world on the past.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Strikes me that cultural relativism regarding existing cultures is a bad idea. However, for those who disagree, I have a proposition.
    Let’s call being non-judgmental about existing cultures “lateral relativism”.
    Is there any reason not to apply the same lack of judgmentalism to long-gone cultures? Call it “vertical relativism”.
    So, regarding the Founding Fathers, who are we to judge?

  10. My youngest son, now 10, came home from kindergarten, around MLK Day, and asked my why white people were so bad? I talked with him about all the white men he knew, his Dada, grandpa, uncles, and explained all the good things they had done. Talked about Lincoln and Washington. We also talked about slavery, and how it was bad and all the good MLK had done for our country. I didn’t bother to say anything to the teacher, because what good would it have done? Best case she inadvertently sent that message to my 5 year old son. I’m fairly certain if we were an African-American family and my son had come home asking why black people were so bad, a different scenario would have unfolded.

  11. Cardinal Fang says:

    And Dwight Eisenhower was a good president because he won WWII? Neither Washington nor Eisenhower was involved in their war while they were President. There’s something strange about being thought a good President for doing something you didn’t do while President.

  12. Supersub and Richard,

    No, NOT everyone at the time thought that slavery was OK or “were raised to believe that slaves were little more than animals.”

    Benjamin Franklin was outspoken about his belief that slavery was evil and should be abolished, even at the time of the Revolution and the writing of the Constitution. This idea that no one at the time knew that slavery was evil and therefore cannot be judged because of that is revisionist B.S.

  13. I’d just like to point out that upon his death George Washington freed all his slaves, sold off a significant portion of his property, and provided all his former slaves with a life time stipend.

    Does that justify a life time in bondage? No, but it is illustrative of Washington’s character. He came from a time and place that found slavery an acceptable practice, Virginia, not Boston or New York. He, nonetheless, recognized its evil and attempted to rectify. He was a good man.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    I know that. I may not be a teacher, but I know my history….wait.
    Maybe that’s why I know my history.
    Well, either which way, so what?
    It was a culture. Who are we to judge?
    I’m sure some inhabitants of Saudi Arabia don’t like Shari’a or the repression of women, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get to judge the society as ranging from rotten to vicious. Except if we’re relativists, in which case we have to pretend the women like being treated that way, or we ignore them, or something.
    You have no right to judge eighteenth-century white colonial and early independence culture.
    Unless you think that there is a degree of difference between, say, us and Sudan.
    My point is that relativists don’t get to judge vertically–back in time–unless they judge laterally–current cultures.
    Can’t have just one.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Reread your comment.
    Can you find me saying nobody knew better? Or is that a lame attempt to mislead?

  16. I’m shocked by any teacher’s lack of cultural competence.

    I’m shocked by her lack of mental competence. Maybe she’s assuming that all these 5 yr olds had been brought up indoctrinated by racial grievances but I’d bet she’s wrong. She also claims that ‘her’ people weren’t freed but I’m assuming (maybe incorrectly) she’d have an anuerism if anyone suggested she weren’t an American.

  17. SuperSub says:

    Richard –
    I was the one Jab referred to with the “nobody knew better.” He just lumped us together I guess.

    Jab –
    Yes, I am sure that there were many individuals who saw the inhumanity of slavery, but as it was socially accepted, the majority did accept it. So yes, point to you for arguing my choice of words… but minus five points for ignoring the whole concept of my post.
    Also, while Franklin did embrace abolitionism later in his life, he did actively own, buy, and sell slaves. He continued to keep slaves even as he began to speak out against slavery.

  18. Supersub – I do fault past people for owning slaves. However, I don’t think that in historical context it’s a fault so terrible as to overshadow everything else that might otherwise be regarded as admirable about a person.

    And as for imposing Western standards on other cultures, well, the Maori and white sides of my family were/are generally happy to criticise other cultures according to their own standards. (They were/are often rather less good at imposing their own standards on themselves, but that’s another matter). So imposing my standards on other cultures is part of my own cultural traditions, and people telling me not to do it are thus inherently hypocrites.

  19. Bill Leonard says:

    Cardinal Fang, your comment conveniently ignores several key points about Washington and the way he performed during his presidency:

    1. He was the first president. Everything he did was precedent-setting. Perhaps most important of all, he turned down a crown and thereby changed the course of US history. (FWIW, such was not the case with some of the “liberators” in Latin America. And to this day, most of those countries labor under a caudillo heritage.)

    2. He established the two-term maximum as a precedent. It was violated only by FDR, and the situation ultimately was corrected by Contstitutional amendment.

    3. He understood that, once the war was over, the nation’s natural ties and affinities really were with the British Isles; he encouraged that, and not withstanding the War of 1812, it has endured, and probably will, despite the current administration;s bungled foreign policy efforts.

    4. His advice about avoiding foreign entanglements was sound for the nation in its early decades, and in fact it worked to the young country’s advantage.


  20. I think the actual risks taken by all the Founding Fathers aren’t really taught anymore. Washington, and indeed all who signed the Declaration and fought the troops of the Crown, were considered traitors, and if they’d been caught, they’d have been hanged and their property confiscated. These weren’t armchair revolutionaries, but the real deal.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: New blog post: First slaveowner […]

  2. […] kindergartners can analyze George Washington’s financial, class and racial values, surely third graders could learn something more substantive about women’s history than the […]

  3. […] Joanne Jacobs has the story of the growing reaction to a post by a mother/teacher/blogger on the Edutopia site complaining that her kindergartner son told her he’d learned in school that George Washington was a good president. The seething mother wanted her son to know that Washington had been a slaveowner and that he joined the Revolution so that he could become richer. The post has generated lots of comments and a number of items in other blogs. (And it is alleged that some comments critical of the blogger were taken down.) Joanne assembles the package on her blog. […]