MLK Day – A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Our Department Manager back in the Public Affairs Dept. where I worked, was a black woman whose Tennessee ancestors were African slaves. We were covering an exhibit at Federal Hall in New York City on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln.  One of the assistant managers, who was also black, was there as well.  My job was to take photographs.

 

As we waited, she talked about stories of how the slaves willingly fought beside their Confederate masters during the Civil War. Her great (x’s?)-grandfather was one of those slaves and she assured us he had not volunteered.  If he hadn’t helped the Confederate soldiers he would have been beaten – or worse.

 

The assistant manager urged her not to go on a black rant. I didn’t consider a rant myself.  She’d never, in my hearing, ever blamed the white employees in the department for slavery or for Jim Crow laws.  My relatives were in Ireland at the time, starving during the Potato Famine, or in Germany, trying to avoid being pressed into military service.

 

I was incredulous at the Gone with the Wind “Mammy” tales. Well, maybe not the Mammy stories; I’m certain the black slave nurses were kind enough to the children.  But “We’se goin’ ta’ dig trenches for da’ South”?

 

Glenn Beck’s The Blaze introduced the story of a publishing company – Scholastic Books – recalling a book entitled, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” by Ramin Ganeshram. The author tells the story of George Washington’s real-life slave, Hercules, and his daughter, Delia.

 

“Oh, how George Washington loves his cake!” reads the publisher’s description of the story. “And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem — they are out of sugar.”

 

The Blaze’s article created a minor controversy with presumably white writers complaining about the politically-correct Left bashing the book. Back and forth the diatribe goes.  ‘Not all slaves were treated badly!’  ‘Martha Washington refused to honor her husband’s request that the slaves be freed upon his death because they belonged to the property!’  ‘The first slave was a white man owned by a black!’  ‘No, the first 20 black slaves were indentured servants lost in the Roanoke Colony!’  ‘This is all about white guilt!’  ‘This is all about white supremacy!’

 

And my favorite: Eventually, Hercules escaped, although some lore has it that Washington offered Hercules his freedom but he either wouldn’t (or more likely) couldn’t take it for fear of capture.  ‘Yeah, Hercules loved George Washington so much that he escaped from him!’

 

In my humble opinion, as a writer, the paragraph cited above has to be one of the most ridiculous pieces of literature in the 21st Century.  I know we white folks want to be rid of the mantel of white guilt which the Left has, in fact, thrown upon us unfairly.  But, ‘how he depends on Hercules, his head chef to make it [the birthday cake] for him’?   ‘Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake’?  And ‘there is one problem – they are out of sugar’?

Seriously?! Come on, guys.  I don’t feel any particular guilt over the slavery of black people.  Like I said, my ancestors were serfs, basically chained to the land during the early Middle Ages, at least until the Land Laws were passed.  You couldn’t leave the town in which you lived to go live in another unless your former town’s church gave you permission to go and the next town was willing to accept you.

 

That means I’m just as incredulous over this story as any black person, like my former Department Manager, would be. Even the notorious Wikipedia gives Washington credit for having evolved in his attitude towards slavery during his lifetime.

 

George Washington’s personal assistant, William Lee, like Hercules, was also black. Lee served by Washington’s side throughout the Revolutionary War.  Washington was legally allowed to free his own, inherited slaves.  But he could not free the slaves from Martha’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.  They were considered “dower” slaves that would be inherited by Martha’s children, and surviving grandchildren by Custis.

 

Washington brought Hercules to the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia when became President of the United States. Hercules was permitted was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen earned him nearly $200 a year, the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city.

 

Hercules escaped to freedom from Philadelphia in March 1797, at the end of Washington’s presidency. New research documents show that Hercules was left behind at Mount Vernon when the Washingtons returned to Philadelphia following Christmas 1796.  Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond (his son) listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.

 

In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, discovered that Hercules’ escape to freedom was from Mount Vernon, and that it occurred on Feb. 22, 1797 – Washington’s 65th birthday.  A birthday cake for George Washington, indeed.

 

The president celebrated the day in Philadelphia, but it was also a holiday on the plantation. An entry in that week’s Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules “absconded 4 [days ago].”

 

Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:

 

The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”

 

Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President’s House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:

 

“Since your departure, I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion.”

 

The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 “dower” slaves owned by Martha Washington’s family. Washington’s 1799 will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha’s death.  Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799. At Martha Washington’s request, the three executors of Washington’s estate freed her late husband’s slaves on Jan. 1, 1801. It is possible that Hercules did not know he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive.

 

In a Dec. 15, 1801 letter, Martha Washington indicated that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City. Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.

 

Because Alice, Hercules’ wife, had been a “dower” slave, their children were legally the property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the “dowers” divided among Martha Washington’s four grandchildren following her 1802 death.

 

Aren’t things bad enough between white and black people without one side making up pretty white lies and the other trying to lay a burden of guilt on innocent people? Is that really what Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today would have wanted?

 

White people admittedly don’t like celebrating this holiday. They don’t consider King their “hero.”  At the time, they suspected him of having Communist affiliations and the Black Activist community has done nothing to dispel this image.  In fact, they frequently propagate it in no small part because it angers the White community.

 

What someone who’s been dead now for 47 years is hard to define. Unless there are actual excerpts from some diary kept by King, we (on this blog) are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  We can’t say the same for the community activists lobbying in his name.

 

Ninety-three percent of blacks voted for Obama, who made no secret of his political leanings. Since blacks only make up 13 percent of the population, a fair number of other minorities and guilt-ridden whites also voted for him, trying to assuage a “shame” laid upon them by the media.

 

Communists are known for their “totem-shattering,” taking great delight in bringing down the statues of great men of a previous culture. Tsar Nicholas treated his political prisoners like guests in a hotel compared to the political prisoners Lenin and Stalin incarcerated, tortured relentlessly and murdered from 1918 until Khrushchev took over in 1953.  Even afterwards, the political imprisonments continued.

 

“History will be on our side,” Khrushchev declared. That’s easy to say, when you murder all the historians who don’t agree with you.  The United States, under Obama, has climbed aboard that notorious bandwagon.

 

History is busily rewriting the story of George Washington, even writing children’s books that were never true to begin with just to be able to denounce them and toss them onto the ash heap of revised history.

 

George Washington didn’t die of venereal disease or syphilis. But that’s what we were told when I was in grade school.  Motion pictures hadn’t been invented yet.  Our only images of our First President (and second through eleventh) were paintings.  George Washington posed majestically before the artist.  Much of his strong character appears in the imposing portrait, but little of the actual, flesh and blood man.

 

We don’t see the George Washington kneeling in Valley Forge.  We don’t see the George Washington weeping at the loss of cannon, ammunition and men at the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan, a battle Nathaniel Greene advised him he could win.  We don’t see the George Washington appalled at his first sight of  the militia preparing for the Battle of Breed’s Hill.  We don’t see the George Washington who loved balls and the theater.

 

Certainly we don’t see George Washington, the slave owner ordering his overseer to beat a slave or the George Washington who must brutally put down a mutiny over lack of food,  clothing, weapons and pay.

 

Fooling children of the Martha B. Day School about George Washington’s character would have been pretty hard in the Sixties (when the school was built, in 1963). The Pompton Mutiny occurred just down the hill from the school, where Avalon Bay Bloomingdale now buries that history.

 

Washington was the Father of the country. He led the Revolutionary War against great odds.  He was an amazing soldier about whom it was said by the American Indians that he would never be shot.  He was beloved in his times and beloved by the colonists whom he freed from the tyrannical rule of Great Britain.  Washington was appalled by the idea of being named as the new “king” of the United States and even balked at becoming the first president.

 

However, the tall and imposing Washington was no marshmallow president. He brooked no cowardice among his troops, no lack of discipline, and no mutinies.  He put down the mutiny in Pennsylvania.  When 300 soldiers from the New Jersey Line of the Continental Army mutinied, under the command of Sergeants David Gilmore, John Tuttle, and George Grant and the influence of copious amounts of spirits in January 1781, Washington, then staying at Ringwood Manor, wasted no time in giving orders to put the mutiny down, swiftly and severely. The soldiers began to make their way to Trenton to issue demands for a redress of grievances to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, echoing the actions of the Pennsylvania Line, which had successfully sought similar redress.

Alerted to this rogue faction by Pompton Camp Commander, Colonel Israel Shreve, who had in turn been informed by a woman whose name has been lost to history, Washington ordered Gen. Robert Howe to command a detachment to compel the mutineers to unconditional surrender.

General Howe completed this duty successfully and with great haste, surrounding the now sobered rebels and subduing them without resistance. Sergeants David Gilmore and John Tuttle were executed on the spot by a firing squad of 12 mutineers, Sergeant George Grant was issued a pardon based upon testimony by the troop body that he had advocated peaceable return to duty throughout the events of the rebellion.

The first-line firing squad refused to fire. A second-line firing squad was ordered in place.  They were told that if they did not fire, they would be shot themselves.   The second firing squad was reported to have discharged their duty and their weapons tearfully, slaying their former officers. The entire body of troops was said to have been penitent and genuinely contrite in the time following the unsuccessful mutiny.

 

Historians not entirely familiar with Bloomingdale and its local citizens are in doubt about where the execution took place, some claiming it occurred on one of the watchtower hills, most favoring Federal Hill in the south of Bloomingdale, alongside the Pequannock River.

 

Most locals claimed the mutiny happened to the west of this site, along what is now Union Avenue. This valley would have been more suitable for a general encampment, especially in the winter.  But this post is about ghosts of Revolutionary War soldiers.

 

It’s about the character of George Washington. Most serious historians agree that he had an incredible temper.  Some claim he whipped his slaves, although more likely that was the job of his overseer.  He expected order within the military ranks and disapproved of uncleanliness, bad manners, and drunkenness.  Other historians note that he did his best to act as a liaison between the military and the nascent Congress, which was beset by individualistic states that did not want to pay taxes, particularly to support the military.

 

We attempt to judge the Eighteenth Century Washington by now 21st Century standards.  Viewing their history from their perspective is tantamount to political incorrectness and would seem to justify institutions such as slavery.  Yet in the 21st Century, we readily approve of recreational drugs and gay marriage.  What would the Founding Fathers think of us?

 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” will never be realized if we persistently harken back to the issue of slavery. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensured that blacks would have equal opportunities to hold jobs.  That legislation has – slowly – brought the black and white communities if not together, at least onto neutral ground.

 

The two cultures still largely avoid one another, like young teens at their first dance; boys on one side of the room, girls on the other. They observe one another warily, their backs drawing up when one member of each side happens to approach the middle line.

 

This ridiculous book has sent a large number of the two sects back to their respective sides of the room, fuming over the storm of controversy. ‘How dare they attack a most beloved president!’  ‘Oh yeah, right;  Slavery wasn’t so bad!’

 

Perhaps we should heed the words of Margaret Mitchell’s southern belle character, Scarlett O’Hara: “Don’t look back Ashley, don’t look back. It’ll drag at your heart until you can’t do anything but look back.”

 

Whether you approved of the color of his skin or didn’t care, Martin Luther King Jr. urged people to look forward not backward (as far as I can tell). I said once before, observing black children at a book fair in New York City, that they had little interest in the numerous books about slavery (almost the only children’s books aimed at black children. Instead, they flocked to the stories for white children, with white characters.

 

These kids didn’t seem to care much whether the characters were white. The stories were happy stories, entertaining stories.  Kids don’t like being preached too or hammered over the head with the same subject.  They’re just like any other kids; they read to be entertained.

Instead of selling kids fake “slavery” stories (who was the author trying to sell slavery to, the white kids or the black?), where are the black writers who can write positive stories for black kids, about black kids having fun, having adventures, and living Martin Luther King Jr.’s real dream where black kids can feel happy and look forward to the future?

 

Is that too much to ask? Or must we all go back to our respective walls for asking such an outrageous, “treasonous” and “racist” question?

 

 

 

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Published in: on January 19, 2016 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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