The greatness and the blindness of us all. Reflections on a visit to George Washington’s farm

I am in Virginia, United States of America, for a conference. Two days ago I travelled to the farm and mansion of George Washington, the great military leader who triumphed over the British in the war of independence and who went on to become the first President of United States.

The estate is magnificent. Grassy fields and forests overlooking the Potomac River. And Washington himself is lionised, his story surrounded with mythology and deep reverence. Weave your way through the mythologies and two things are clear. First, Washington had a number of opportunities to seize absolute power and on each occasion he laid them aside in order that the republic might succeed. It seems to me that this alone confers greatness upon Washington. He had wielded power of an almost absolute nature during the war and it surely must have been a seductive force, yet he resisted.

The second indisputable fact about Washington is that he was a slave owner. He and his wife had 450 slaves working their estate. He could have manumitted every one of them and given them a share of the estate, but he did not. He did set his slaves free upon his death, which suggests he recognised their longing for freedom, yet for one reason or another chose to keep them in a state of oppression & exploitation throughout the course of his life.

It’s a vivid reminder that we are all creatures of our age, that at the same time that greatness lies within us, so does blindness to the evils in which we are complicit. And I’m not sure there is an awful lot we can do about it, for the very nature of moral blindness is that you don’t see that to which you are blind. Perhaps the best we can do is to listen to the whisperings in our heart, to be attentive to the doubt, and to open ourselves up longings and pain of others.

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