George Washington was never a ‘Colonial’

Denver Brunsman is an associate professor and associate chair of the history department.

Great universities do not shy from conversations about their history or identity. Therefore, I salute the efforts of Student Association Sen. Hayley Margolis, CCAS-U, and other student leaders on campus who have questioned the University’s Colonials nickname.

This conversation has demonstrated that the name Colonials offends a broad cross-section of the campus community, particularly international students and faculty who come from areas still fresh with memories of colonialism.

The term “colonial” denotes a power relationship of one group over another, which in the American experience includes the history of conquest and enslavement of American Indian and African people by Europeans. The University has seemed to admit this legacy by eliminating the name Colonial Invasion from the annual basketball tipoff and by cautioning students from wearing clothing with “Colonials” on it while traveling abroad outside of Europe.

Clearly, this is not an association that an institution like GW, which prides itself on embracing diversity and inclusion, should want to keep. Yet, change is hard and one common defense of the Colonials name is tradition. Specifically, the name, its defenders argue, is a tribute to our University’s namesake, George Washington. As a professor charged with teaching and lecturing on George Washington, including for a course that is taught annually at the Mount Vernon estate, I can confidently say that Washington never called himself a “Colonial.”

The word “colonial” was almost never used during Washington’s life in the 18th century. The American people who lived under British rule were known as colonists and subjects of the British crown, but never colonials. In fact, the few times that Washington used the term it was mostly in a pejorative sense. During the Revolutionary War, Washington condemned the effectiveness of military units organized by the states, commonly known as militia, in contrast to his national Continental Army. On a handful of occasions, he used Colonial as a substitute for state, including when referring to militia units. In February 1777, for example, he denounced recruiting efforts that favored these state “Colonial” forces over his Continental Army as “fraught with every evil – manifestly injurious to the common cause – and an indirect breach of the union.” In short, the Colonial Army, though a term Washington never actually used, was antithetical to what he prized most in a military.

Instead, during the Revolution and after, Washington tirelessly promoted the American Union. If he had a guiding political ideology, it was America itself. Washington battled against the provincialism of his countrymen who continued to harbor the highest loyalty for their states, which was a colonial mindset in the way he used the term. Through the U.S. Constitution, he hoped to make the United States one unified nation rather than a confederacy of 13 sovereign states. Likewise, Washington promoted the idea of a national university during his presidency to bring young people from around the country to the federal district to train new American citizen leaders. That vision remains GW’s deepest connection to George Washington, except today the principle includes not just America but the world.

Why, then, would we stubbornly cling to a nickname that not only offends current and prospective students and faculty but also has nothing to do with George Washington?

The name Colonials began in 1926 as the brainchild of longtime faculty member and administrator Elmer Louis Kayser. As my fellow historian and GW writing professor Phillip Troutman has uncovered, Kayser chose “Colonials” at the height of America’s Colonial Revival, a cultural movement manifested in architecture and historical preservation. Kayser did not intend for the nickname to be offensive, but times and values change.

Just three years ago, Amherst College dropped “Lord Jeff” as its mascot. Named after Lord Jeffery Amherst, an 18th-century British general who sought to infect Native Americans with smallpox, the mascot had outlived its utility for Amherst’s students. At first glance, Colonials appears more benign than Lord Jeff or the racist Washington Redskins football team name. Yet, as a mindset, colonialism subsumes both these and other offensive nicknames.

We are long overdue to show the institutional courage to at least study GW’s nickname and possible alternatives in an official way. I encourage University President Thomas LeBlanc to form a committee to explore this issue and prepare a report for the University’s Board of Trustees and the greater campus community on the pros and cons of changing the Colonials nickname.

We teach our students to value reason and to respond to evidence, even when it is inconvenient. In this case, it is our students who are asking us, the faculty and administration, to live by our own words. We owe it to them to at least study and consider this issue.

George Washington had the fortitude to make change when the conditions called for it, a spirit that GW’s students clearly embrace. It is time for us faculty and administration to do the same.

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