Posted in African Americans, civil religion, commemoration, material culture, paternalism, racism, religion, rituals, slavery

In the Name of the Father

Furstenberg, François. In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

In In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg argues that American nationalism was created in the aftermath of George Washington’s death through public engagement with material culture, especially civic texts. To a large degree, Washington was deified and his 1796 Farewell Address was canonized, along with The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A prominent feature of evangelical Protestantism was the action of “engraving” key words on the heart.[1] Furstenberg asserts that Americans were taught to “take Washington into their hearts just as they took Jesus into their hearts.”[2] The Constitution was to be read in the same manner as citizens read the Ten Commandments. Furstenberg notes that American nationalism developed like other cultural systems, such as religion.[3] Furstenberg’s arguments build from Benedict Anderson’s work that stresses the power of print and education to construct national bonds.

Washington’s legacy was manipulated through popular civic texts. Furstenberg argues that through reading civic texts, such as Washington’s Farewell Address, Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington, and schoolbooks like the Columbian Orator and English Reader, Americans “learned the meaning of citizenship, and future generations learned to subscribe to the values of their fathers.”[4] Furstenberg shows how nationalism was promoted through “affective, emotive, even patriarchal appeals.”[5] Washington was to be venerated as the father of a new nation.

National identity was generated through two concepts that were diametrically opposed: “consent” and “slavery.” Even as the Founding Fathers articulated their vision of government grounded in consent, slavery was woven into the fabric of everyday life. “The presence of slavery, in short, undermined both the meaning of consent in the republic, and the very unity post-Revolutionary nationalism sought to enact.”[6]

Washington’s last will and testament, which legally freed some of his slaves, was added to the canon of nationalist texts. His will was “widely republished and quickly became a celebrated document.”[7]  Eulogies that followed Washington’s death focused on the threat slavery and slave insurrections posed to the nation’s future.[8]  Furstenberg also notes that slave insurrection were real fears of this time. News of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), and Gabriel’s slave conspiracy (1800) traveled far. Even Martha Washington, wife of the “father of the nation,” lived her last days among “hundreds of enslaved people she called family, people she believed would try to kill her.”[9] In addition, Jefferson’s grandchild-in-law feared that her black “family” would murder her.[10]

Furstenberg identifies two distinct narratives of Washington and slavery that emerged after his death. The first was an abolitionist interpretation that dwelled on Washington’s decision to free his slaves. It helped to mute fears of slave insurrection and threats to national unity by advancing a teleological understanding that all slaves would eventually be emancipated. The second narrative promoted the myth of plantation benevolence and slavery as a benign institution based on paternal affection. Furstenberg points out that both narratives promoted a “paternalist ideology of early American nationalism” which placed slavery at the center of Washington’s life.[11]

The particular challenge for those building American nationalism was to reconcile the consent of the governed with the enslaved, who could not give their consent. In a painting, “Death of Washington Dec. 14 AD 1799,” crying slaves and stoic white people surround Washington on his deathbed.[12] Furstenberg claims, “the Washington mythology opened a space for the incorporation of slaves into this national family, with slaves, like white Americans, united in bonds of affection and gratitude to Washington.”[13] Furstenberg claims that the enslaved’s bonds of affection (e.g., tears at Washington’s death) signaled a tacit consent to their enslavement, which allowed for a reconciliation between slavery and the new U.S. nationalism.[14]

The autonomous American identity was constructed against the idea of “the slave.” Schoolbooks taught free, white American children how to be “industrious, virtuous, thrifty, and religious” autonomous individuals.[15] However, white people imagined slaves to be “lazy, immoral, dissolute, and heathen.”[16] Different texts instilled an ethic of self-control, subordination, and obedience in enslaved black children, which helped to abate concerns about slave unrest. But, as Furstenberg shows through Frederick Douglass and his story “The Heroic Slave,” slaves also valued and fought for autonomy. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the conception of the autonomous individual was extended to slaves. Citizenship began with an individual choice.[17] Yet, this allowed white people to blame slaves for their enslavement. Furstenberg claims that this valorization of individual autonomy grounded citizenship and slavery in tacit consent.

[1] François Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 58.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] Ibid., 82-83.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 83.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Ibid., 150.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 220.