A Foundational Belief

You have foundational beliefs. So do I. A foundational belief is dearly and certainly held in your heart, mind, and soul. It shapes your view of the world and everything in it. We know it is part of truth, a thing above and beneath time and place and circumstance. You build your life upon foundational beliefs. And they power your leadership. You arrive at foundational beliefs through your experience, your upbringing, and your learning.

But what if one of your foundational beliefs proved invalid? What if, over time, it was simply wrong?

The history of slavery in the life of George Washington is an example of such a foundational belief. Your leadership can profit from knowing more about his example.

In 1732 Washington was born into a slave-holding family, a slave-holding society, and a slave-holding world. In growing up and becoming who he was, everything about Washington’s life from birth to adulthood included slavery as important and necessary. All of his parents’ wealth rested on the backs of slaves. All of the additional wealth, prestige, rank, and status that Washington pursued depended on slavery. Even those areas of his life outside of slavery—his military life, for example—were often affected by slavery; he commanded as a young officer partly because of the number of his slaves and their annual production. The same was true for his neighbors and many of the people whom he admired.

After his years in the French and Indian War (1755-1760), Washington soon discovered the cause that would affect the rest of his life. That cause was American independence. He devoted everything he had to the protection and fulfillment of American independence. From the early 1760s to the late 1790s, Washington was deeply involved in, and often leading, issues of American nationhood. As we know, that cause included the principles of freedom, liberty, and equality, all derived from God or, as Washington’s friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson put it, “nature’s God.”

The American cause was dangerous to Washington, and in more ways than we first think. We assume rightly that he risked life and limb in defending American nationhood. He did. However, and though he may not have fully realized it at the time, he also risked his view, place, and understanding of the world at large. That, of course, meant his relationship to slavery. The great cause of Washington’s adult life posed a mortal threat to one of his foundational beliefs. Could he change this foundational belief to reflect the core of his cause?

The answer for many years after 1775-1776 was “no.” Despite the military, political, and moral necessities to altering his view of slavery, Washington held firm to his foundational belief. Slowly, ever so slowly, as people approached him with various plans for using slaves and ex-slaves in the Revolutionary War, Washington showed slightly more interest in acting on these proposals. His writings reflected a growing doubt, guilt over the role of slavery in the struggling new nation. He listened longer to ideas about ways to curtail slavery. Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to acting on proposals and plans that would have upset white slaveholders and the American political calculus. Washington retired from formal public life in 1796, following the end of his second term as president. His foundational belief about slavery was wavering.

Washington’s connection to slavery had another personal feature. It affected his marriage. Martha Washington also owned slaves in her own right. The deepening of their relationship did not prevent slavery from becoming a divisive issue for them. While George was grappling with the implications of slavery, Martha did not seem inclined to reconsider her opinion of the institution. It was a divide that only widened with the years.

The final crack in Washington’s foundational belief in slavery occurred by the late summer of 1799, at age 67. During one particular hot summer night Washington slept uneasily. He fell into a dream. The dream became a nightmare. In it Washington encountered an angelic figure that he believed represented death, and not the passageway to eternal life as taught by his Episcopal ministers. Instead, the angel of death was full of darkness and foreboding. The moment so troubled Washington that he bolted upright in bed. Sweating, he left his second-floor bedroom at Mt. Vernon, moved uneasily downstairs into his study, and took up a quill pen and parchment paper. Then, as the darkest hours before dawn ticked away, Washington re-wrote his personal will and testament to include a new “article.” It read: upon my death, those slaves which I own will be freed and they will draw from a fund to pay for their training at a skill. This is a remarkable pairing–the emancipation of slaves coupled with their access to financial support to learn a trade or a skill for use as free men and women.

Interestingly, Washington excluded from emancipation those slaves belonging to his wife Martha. Their disagreement over slavery was as strong, maybe stronger, than ever. Regardless, Washington did not allow his wife’s view to prevent this final action.

And so the revised will was executed upon Washington’s death a few months later in December 1799.

It was a remarkable thing—a foundational belief changed, overturned, and reworked at an advanced stage of life.

I know it’s far from perfect, far from a gleaming example of ideal humanity. Some could argue that it’s easy for a person to change a foundational belief at death; they have no stake in its implementation. I understand. Still, I think we should recognize that Washington did what few of his slave-holding brethren ever dared to do, in life or in death. And, unlike them, he bore the burden of other people’s and a nation’s expectations. He was, even then, depicted as the “father of his country,” making his every move that much more scrutinized by his fellow Americans.

Here are a few points I’d like you to consider. In so doing, you’re walking in the shadow of Washington, more than two centuries ago.

First, if you’re thinking about your foundational beliefs, I think Washington’s example holds several takeaways. Second, not all of your foundational beliefs may stand up over time. Have the courage to take stock. Third, your greatest personal causes may be the source of challenges to your foundational beliefs. Fourth, there are many realms in your life. Your ability to act on a foundational belief isn’t confined narrowly to work, to family, to community, or whatever. Fifth, regardless of what others say or do, your inner self and most private moments are those where you exert the most meaningful effort on your foundational beliefs. That’s where the big changes occur. Sixth, the weight of others’ opinions may often contradict, obstruct, or impede your progress on foundational beliefs. Seventh, the passage of time—the living of one’s life—will affect foundational beliefs. It just may be that the person in question is not the first to know. And eighth, age is no excuse. Old, young, or in-between, you can change.

I encourage you to take the time to identify your foundational beliefs. Then, ask yourself how about how and why you still have them after your personal history thus far. From there, set out a clear idea about where you think your foundational beliefs are, and ought to be, headed. Finally, if someone means a great deal to you, urge them to do the same thing. Washington acted on a nightmarish dream, built around a lifetime of churning about ideas that would not go away. You and I can act on something just as powerful, just as compelling. Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan