University Community to Celebrate Washington’s Legacy

Public lecture, social events begin this week in recognition of university namesake.

George Washington Birthday Bonfire
The university will celebrate Washington's birthday with a bonfire Sunday night. (GW Today File Photo)
February 18, 2015

By James Irwin

University-hosted events on campus and around the world, including a public lecture and a wreath laying ceremony, will be held in celebration of George Washington’s 283rd birthday over the next month.

Philip Morgan, the Harry C. Black Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, will deliver the fourth annual George Washington Lecture, scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday in the Marvin Center Continental Ballroom. Sunday events at Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate (noon) and in University Yard (5:30 p.m.) also will serve to recognize Washington’s legacy.

Dr. Morgan’s lecture will examine how Washington’s life was entwined with the institution of slavery and the steps he took to remove himself from it. Slavery was an important issue in Washington’s life, said Denver Brunsman, associate professor of history in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Washington, Dr. Brunsman said, inherited his first slaves at age 11, when his father died. Like some other slaveowners in the Colonies, he underwent a personal transformation during the American Revolution.

“His was particularly acute in that he decided slavery was wrong and something he wanted to eliminate from his own life and, if possible, from American life,” Dr. Brunsman said. “The problem was actually doing it.”

Washington struggled to find ways to extricate both himself and the country from the institution of slavery, Dr. Brunsman said. He owned about one-third of Mount Vernon’s 300-plus slaves. The rest belonged to Martha Washington’s family. Many of those slaves married and started families on the plantation.

“The Custis family opposed the freeing of the slaves, and so this was a complicated family matter,” Dr. Brunsman said. “And in terms of America abolishing slavery, it would have split the union. It came down to a basic decision whether to maintain the union or pursue the abolition of slavery. Their ultimate solution was sort of a half measure and that was to leave it to the states.”

The issue of slavery is at the forefront of current Washington studies, Dr. Brunsman said. It is a topic that stains many of the founders, including Washington's fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, slaveowners, who, like Washington, advocated and wrote for the emancipation of slaves, but, for various reasons, did not do so themselves. Jefferson freed two slaves during his lifetime and bequeathed freedom to five others in his will. Washington's will called for the manumission of his slaves at his wife's death. The George Washington Lecture is free and open to the public.

Sunday’s events, also free, begin with a visit to the Mount Vernon Estate. GW will provide shuttles from the Mount Vernon and Foggy Bottom campuses for the trip, where George Washington President Steven Knapp will lead a short ceremony and place a wreath at Washington’s tomb. Guests also will be able to tour the mansion.

The event that night, a bonfire in University Yard, will include a short speaking program honoring Washington’s legacy. In addition to on-campus events, GW Alumni Association birthday celebrations in more than 50 cities worldwide will be held over the next month, according to the Office of Alumni Relations. Of those events, 24 will be held in international communities, including New Delhi, Paris, Istanbul, Beijing and Shanghai.

“I think what’s exciting about the university’s approach to Washington’s birthday now is it really is a holistic approach,” Dr. Brunsman said. “We have the intellectual component—the lecture, which allows us to explore important issues related to his life—and then we have the trip, where we bring students to the Mount Vernon Estate. We also have the bonfire and the alumni events, which are public celebrations of our namesake.”

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