Moral leaders guide us in understanding how to comprehend and react to the ethical conundrums of our time. In his day, there’s no question that one of America’s Founding Fathers, George Washington, represented the ethos of his people. He inspired them, lead by example, and made them proud to follow in his footsteps. On George Washington Day, I’ve taken a moment to ponder how the first U.S. President might feel about one of the biggest moral issues of our time: the widespread suffering of animals in factory farms.
Factory farming is an intersectional problem that contributes to issues such as human health, sustainability, climate change, deforestation, world hunger, and, of course, animal welfare. How then, would George Washington feel about this unnecessary and highly destructive operation if he were alive today?
To answer this question, let’s look at what he stood for; his beliefs, the actions he took in his life, the mistakes he made, and the lessons he learned.
What virtues did George Washington uphold?
In his eulogy, George Washington was referred to as: “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
George Washington was known to be a virtuous man who fought hard for the liberty and prosperity of others. He sought peace over war, but he also stood up for religious freedom and democracy in the face of tyranny, and is thus regarded as one of America’s greatest Presidents.
As America’s first President, he sought to guide his people in how they should behave as civilized citizens of a new democracy.
Principles of Justice and Humanity
As a military general, George Washington knew how to stand his ground and how to assert dominance over his enemy. But, during an era when killing Native Americans was morally acceptable simply because they were of a different race and culture, Washington voiced a different opinion. In his eyes, every man – regardless of color or creed – deserved moral consideration, and killing an indigenous person was thought by Washington to be just as bad as killing a white man.
George Washington chose to treat Natives with what he called “the great principles of justice and humanity” and sought to make agreements with them over land disputes, rather than simply using brute force, as others would have.
Acknowledging wrongful traditions:
When remembering Washington, it’s important to remember the good and the bad. Washington was far from perfect; especially not by today’s standards. But he was a man who seemed to be guided by his head and his heart more so than by traditions and social norms, and he was apt to change his mind and associated behavior when he identified something as wrong or unjust.
George Washington was an aristocrat and, like all of the aristocracy during his time, he owned many slaves. Even so, the President became ever more critical of institutional slavery in his later years and, in his will, demanded that all his slaves be ‘set free’. This was over sixty years before the lawful abolition of slavery and an action that would have benefitted him none. But Washington did what he thought was right: deciding that no human life should own another, despite the fact that human-ownership was still legally and morally acceptable.
While human slavery is now illegal and thought of as morally abhorrent by today’s society, animal slavery is not.
The human slavery of George Washington’s era bears much resemblance to our treatment of farmed animals today. We bring billions of animals into existence, merely to exploit their bodies for our own personal benefit, while giving little (if any) consideration to their feelings and wants. We do this because we can, because it has been normalized by our society, and because we consider this ‘other’ species to be of lesser value to our own. But if, like Washington, we were to be guided by our conscience and values, rather than by our wants, how then might we feel about this modern-day form of enslavement?
Animals today, like the Natives of the 18th Century, have no choice in how we treat them. But, as people who were taught the value of moral consideration by our Founding Fathers, we do have a choice. We can choose justice and compassion by going vegan, or we can choose to close our eyes to social injustice by continuing to buy and consume animal products.
What would Washington have done?
Whatever we choose, history has shown that following our hearts and minds will eventually put us on the right side of history, just as seeing people as equals eventually defined Washington as a progressive pioneer.
So would George Washington be a vegan if he were alive today?
We think so – yes!
As a man ahead of his time, who chose to see value in all life even when most of society did not, there’s a pretty good chance that George Washington would choose not to exploit animals if he were alive today.
Sadly though, this is more than just a thought experiment. Animal slavery isn’t just a theoretical problem — it’s something that’s actually happening, and happening on an enormous global scale.
Just as we expect the leaders of our time to take a stance on important social issues, and just as we admire the leaders in our history for taking a stand against injustices when others did not, should we not then be inspired to take a stand ourselves and to follow in the footsteps of those whom we admire?
Today, we get the chance to follow in the footsteps of a leader who is all the more inspiring for the fact that she’s only 12 years old.
Join Genesis Butler in asking one of our most influential world leaders – Pope Francis – to go vegan and set the standard for a more humane, healthy and sustainable future that doesn’t come at the expense of others.
But don’t do it because I’m telling you to, and don’t do it because it’s what George Washington might have done either. Do it because, despite social norms, you know that animal agriculture is cruel and unnecessary, and that any practice that treats living beings as mere commodities is morally unacceptable.
Sammy is the Content Marketing Specialist for Million Dollar Vegan. He is a vegan advocate and growth marketer based in Washington, DC. Outside of helping animals, he is also an organizer in the effective altruism community. Follow his Twitter for more thoughts.