One story of the Founding Fathers illustrates their character and how far their reputation has fallen in recent decades. On a cold, damp, blustery, gray day in March 1775, prominent Virginians gathered at Saint John’s Church in Richmond to consider action against the British Crown and Parliament. Foremost among this group stood resolute patriot Patrick Henry, a man Thomas Jefferson called the “leader in the measures of revolution in Virginia.” The mood was solemn and the atmosphere thick. Despite the bitter weather, windows were opened to alleviate the stifling air of the packed building.
A faint hope of peace still prevailed in the Old Dominion, and many members of the Second Virginia Convention appeared ready to accept any conciliatory proposal from the British. Not Henry. After offering a series of resolutions that moved Virginia closer to war with Britain, Henry delivered a speech on the “illusions of hope” that became a battle cry for a new republic. He said, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
It used to be that students not only knew this line, they knew the speech and its context; they knew that Henry was a devout Christian, that the Second Virginia Convention met in the oldest established church in Richmond, and that Henry’s belief in liberty stemmed from the assumed birth right of a free born Englishman. Today, students are far less likely to know any of these things—and they won’t learn them from most high school and college textbooks. Rather than learning that the convention took place in a church, and that Henry made frequent references to God, they will be taught to focus on the contradictions between Henry’s claim of liberty and his status as a slaveholder. You can even find college textbooks that ignore the speech altogether If you look at these textbooks, you might well wonder what has happened to the teaching of American history, especially about the Founding Fathers.
Tom Brokaw labeled the World War II generation the “Greatest Generation,” but he was wrong. That honor belongs to the Founders, the men who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the cause of liberty and independence. This is the generation that produced Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Henry, and a host of other patriots; this is the generation that established the United States, framed two successful governing documents and a host of state constitutions, and provided the foundations of American civil liberty; this is the generation that gave us the greatest political thinkers and constitutional scholars in American history, from Jefferson and Madison to John Taylor and St. George Tucker. The Founding generation has no equal, and it deserves to be rescued from politically correct textbooks, teachers, and professors, who want to dismiss the Founders as a cadre of dead, white, sexist, slave-holding males.
In 1971, Richard Nixon proclaimed that the national celebration of George Washington’s birthday would be re-named Presidents Day. The presidential directive had no legal effect, and Congress has never officially changed the name, but Americans no longer have a federal or state holiday marking the birth of our first president. In effect, Nixon attached his corrupt, insecure, and power-driven presidency to that of Washington’s, and Washington’s stature has been reduced by lumping him with every other man to have held the office—from William Henry Harrison to Millard Fillmore, from Chester Alan Arthur to Warren Harding, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. Today, the only American to have a federal holiday named in his honor is Martin Luther King Jr. Washington is relegated to being one president among many, rather than the “Father of our Country.”
Current “national history standards” consider Washington important— but only reluctantly. The original “standards” established in 1995 eliminated Washington and many other Founding Fathers from public school curricula and replaced them with more politically correct individuals and issues. Even with reluctant backtracking of the national history standards guidelines, American history textbooks are light on the men who established the United States and heavy on issues concerning feminism, civil rights, immigration, and American Indians. High school students spend weeks studying how various social and minority groups “felt” about the Revolution, and how the Declaration of Independence contradicted “the realities of chattel slavery,” yet detailed biographies of Washington and the other Founding Fathers, the “gallant gentlemen” in Douglas Southall Freeman’s phrase, have been removed. Students, instead, know about the limited participation of blacks and women in the Revolution, but little about Washington’s deep faith, his commitment to the cause of independence, or his impeccable character.
For example, David Goldfield’s The American Journey, published in 2006, dedicates more space to discussing Washington’s fashion preferences—two pages—than to his contributions to the Revolutionary War— one paragraph. In contrast, Thomas Bailey’s 1966 edition of The American Pageant discusses Washington on thirty-seven pages and describes him as a “giant among men,” who was “gifted with outstanding powers of leadership and immense strength of character.” In forty years, Washington has moved from a pillar of masculine strength, courage, and integrity to an effete dandy.
Why does this matter? The Left likes to argue that students are better served by a “complex” history that incorporates race, class, and what they call “gender studies” into the curriculum. The net result of this approach is that students learn little of the sagacity of the Founders and their heroic deeds and instead are indoctrinated into a politically correct worldview, where the Founding Fathers and the nation they created are seen as nothing special. Instead, America is almost irredeemably scarred by oppression: racial, sexual, financial, you name it. “America is a downright mean country,” as Michelle Obama recently proclaimed. This message is buttressed by historians like Howard Zinn, whose popular leftist textbook A People’s History of the United States describes the Founding Fathers as geniuses only because they figured out a way to plunder “land, profits, and political power” and in the process “hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
James Loewen echoes this sentiment in Lies My Teacher Told Me. Washington is not a hero, but a “heavily pockmarked” slaveholder. And Thomas Jefferson fares worse. Loewen claims that “Jefferson’s slaveholding affected almost everything he did, from his opposition to internal improvements to his foreign policy.” The Revolutionary generation, in short, was mean, racist, and downright ugly.
De-emphasizing, or disparaging, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Henry serves a purpose. It is meant to sever our attachment to, and our respect for, the Founders and their principles and to replace them with the Left’s own ideal of a “living” Constitution that better reflects our increasingly diverse nation and the interests of those (such as ethnic minorities, women, and others) who have had to struggle for their due rights.
The irony is that the Founders had a better understanding of the problems we face today than do our own members of Congress. If you want real and relevant insights into the issues, for example, of banking, war powers, executive authority, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, states’ rights, gun control, judicial activism, trade, and taxes, you’d be better served reading the Founders than you would watching congressional debates on C-SPAN or reading the New York Times. This book intends to restore a bit of our patrimony, to reconnect us with the greatest political thinkers in our history. The Founding Fathers didn’t always agree, but it is from their debates, and, as we’ll see, their underlying conservative principles, that we secured our liberty. It is only by understanding their principles that we’ll be able to keep the freedom that Americans have cherished for generations
The Founding Fathers: Myths and Reality
Just as Parson Weems wrote about Washington chopping down the cherry tree, liberal historians today have taken their axes to the Founding Fathers themselves, highlighting what they thinkwill discredit them in modern eyes, exposing some of them as slaveholders or as philanderers or as spawning illegitimate children. Some of what these historians write is true, but much of it is not—it is gossip, often ill-founded gossip at that, instead of history. If Parson Weems’s famous story was a myth, liberal historians have been propagating many more myths of their own—and they’re much more harmful than Parson Weems’s illustrative tale of Washington’s moral probity. Here are some of the more common myths liberal historians propound about the Founding era.
Myth: The Founding generation created a democracy
Please repeat: the United States is not a democracy and was never intended to be a democracy. The United States is a republic, and a great number in the Founding generation, if not the majority, classified themselves as republicans (not to be confused with the modern Republican Party). Most of the Founding Fathers considered democracy a dangerous extreme to be avoided.
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said at the Constitutional Convention that “the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” George Mason guarded against being both “too democratic” and running “incautiously” to the “other extreme” (monarchy). Mason equated the United States House of Representatives with the British House of Commons, and suggested, as did James Madison, that the other branches of government should have some check on rampant democracy. In the words of Madison, “Where a majority are united by a common sentiment, and have an opportunity, the rights of the minor party become insecure”—in other words, the Founders wanted checks against the tyranny of the majority. That was why the Founders wanted a republic of separated powers. While the government was to “be derived from the great body of society, not from an inconsiderable portion or a favored class of it,” the Constitution included a system of indirect appointments, including the Supreme Court, the Electoral College System, and, originally, the United States Senate, whose members were appointed by their respective state legislatures.
The only level of government that was to be directly responsive to the people was the House of Representatives. It was granted the most constitutional power, but was to be checked by the executive branch, the upper house of the Senate, and the judicial branch. Madison warned against a “pure democracy” in Federalist Essay No. 10. Pure democracies, he surmised, could not protect the people from the evils of faction, which he defined as a group whose interests were alien and counteractive to the good of society. Madison believed that in a pure democracy, factions could easily take control of the government through alliances (or dishonesty) and subject the minority to perpetual legislative abuse. A representative or federal republic, such as the United States, offered a check against destructive factionalism. Madison thought the states would help control factionalism by rendering a small group from one geographic or political region ineffective against the aggregate remaining states.
During the New York ratification debates, Alexander Hamilton also disputed the observation that “pure democracy, would be the most perfect government.” He said, “Experience has proved that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies . . . never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity.” The Constitution created a system far superior, in his estimation, to a pure democracy. John Adams echoed this sentiment and once wrote that “there was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Edmund Randolph of Virginia saw the Senate, with its members elected by their respective state legislatures, as a “cure for the evils under which the United States labored . . . the turbulence and follies of democracy.” United States senators were not elected directly until the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution (1913)—a change that destroyed the Framers’ original intentions for the upper house. No longer would it be the bastion of state’s rights and an aristocratic check on both the House of Representatives and the executive branch; no longer would it be what it was meant to be: a guardian against demagoguery, an evil the Framers associated with unbridled democracy. As Samuel Huntingdon, who was not only a signer of the Declaration of Independence but president of the Continental Congress (and governor of Connecticut), said in 1788: “It is difficult for the people at large to know when the supreme power is verging towards abuse, and to apply the proper remedy. But if the government be properly balanced, it will possess a renovating principle, by which it will be able to right itself.” That balance was to be provided by the indirectly elected Senate; if the federal government has become more demagogic since World War I, the Seventeenth Amendment might be to blame.
Myth: The Founding Fathers really believed everyone was equal
The most famous line in the Declaration of Independence is “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. . . . ” But the Founders meant something very different by that phrase than most of us have been taught to believe. It was written, of course, by a slaveholder—by Thomas Jefferson—and politically correct historians mock him, for that very reason, as a hypocrite. But they do so by ignoring what he meant.
When the Founders talked about liberty and equality, they used definitions that came to them from their heritage within an English culture. Liberty was one of the most commonly used terms in the Founding generation. When Patrick Henry thundered, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” in 1775, no one asked Henry to define liberty following his speech. Similarly, when the Founders talked about equality, they thought in terms of all men being equal under God and of freemen being equal under the law. But the distinction of freemen was important. The founders believed in a natural hierarchy of talents, and they believed that citizenship and suffrage required civic and moral virtue. Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be.” To that end, restricting the status of freemen was essential, in the Founders’ view, to the liberty of the republic, which is why some states initially had property qualifications for voting, and why equality did not extend to slaves (or for that matter to women or children). Most of the Founding generation favored a “natural aristocracy” consisting of men of talent and virtue. They believed that these men would be, and should be, the leaders of a free society.
The Founders were not at all egalitarian in their sentiments, as might be clearer if we quote Jefferson at greater length: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . .”
Jefferson declares the equality of men under God, but then is quite clearly referring to freemen—they are the men who consent to granting power to the government, because they are the men who elect representatives. Jefferson was not, in this instance at least, being hypocritical; he was thinking in terms that his fellow Founders, raised in the same English tradition, completely understood. He begins with every man being equal under God, but does not end in the idea that all men are equal in their talents, rights, and duties.
Myth: Slavery was a sin of the Southern founders
The importance of this myth is that it is used to divide the country into progressive and enlightened (the North) and reactionary and racist (the South), and allows historians to portray all of American history through that divide, dismissing the Southern founders and Southern arguments about limited government and states’ rights while praising ever-expanding powers for the Federal government in its long war to ensure racial and social equality.
But slavery was not a purely regional sin, largely because it was northern ships that conducted the slave trade. It is true that most New England states had abolished slavery by 1789, and the importation of slaves was abolished in 1808 by an act of Congress, but most Northern states retained anti-black laws, northern shipping interests continued to participate in the slave trade, and small numbers of slaves remained in the North. For example, slaves were still found in Connecticut as late as 1848 and in New Jersey until 1865. In 1790, there were more than 21,000 slaves in New York, more than 11,000 in New Jersey, more than 3,700 in Pennsylvania, more than 2,700 in Connecticut, nearly 1,000 in Rhode Island, and a handful in New Hampshire (158) and Vermont (17). (Of course, these numbers were miniscule compared to more than 293,000 in Virginia, more than 107,000 in South Carolina, more than 103,000 in Maryland, and more than 100,000 in North Carolina. In addition, Georgia had more than 29,000 slaves, Delaware had nearly 9,000, and in the territories, there were also nearly 12,000 slaves in what would become the state of Kentucky and more than 3,400 in what would become the state of Tennessee.) Included in the group of Northern slaveholders were prominent names in American history. William Penn and John Winthrop, the most important individuals in the early history of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts respectively, both owned slaves. John Hancock (of Massachusetts) and Benjamin Franklin (of Pennsylvania) owned slaves during the course of their lives, and many of the Northern signatories to the Declaration of Independence and delegates to the Constitutional Convention were slaveholders.
All New England states had a connection to the international slave trade. The small New England towns of Newport and Bristol, Rhode Island, were the slave trading hubs of the North American colonies. Rhode Island had a virtual monopoly on the North American slave trade in the eighteenth century, and as many as 100,000 slaves passed through its slave markets. Faneuil Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, commonly known as the “Cradle of Liberty,” was financed by slave merchant Peter Faneuil. The Easton family of Connecticut and the Whipple family of New Hampshire amassed considerable fortunes on the importation of slaves. Slave merchant James De Wolf of Bristol was one of the wealthiest men in America, a fortune obtained almost entirely from the slave trade. Brown University derived its name in part from John Brown, a prosperous slave trader who once wrote that “there was not more crime in bringing in a cargo of slaves than in bringing off a cargo of jackasses.”
Once the international trade was closed in 1808, many of the slave traders simply transitioned to the interstate slave trade or illegally continued the practice. Interestingly, John Adams, who was himself something of an abolitionist, professed to see no great difference in condition between laborers in the North and slaves in the South: “In some countries the labouring poor were called freemen, in others they were called slaves; but that the difference as to the state was imaginary only. . . . That the condition of the labouring poor in most countries, that of the fishermen particularly in the Northern States, is as abject as that of slaves.”
In the South, of course, slavery was a fact of life. The overwhelming majority of black people (about 95 percent) lived in the South. But Southerners, particularly Virginians, were vexed by the institution. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison cursed slavery, and George Mason called the slave trade the “nefarious traffic” and thought that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.” Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Mason (among others) are deemed hypocritical, because they denounced slavery but did not free their own slaves. But they were no more hypocritical than Benjamin Franklin, who at one time owned slaves and then argued for abolition.
The real dividing line is that the South had to wrestle with the reality that slaves were not only central to the Southern agricultural economy, but were an actual numerical majority in some states (at least in some periods), and certainly a large minority in others. In 1790, for instance, slaves made up at least 40 percent of the population of both Virginia and South Carolina. To leaders in the South, the granting of freeman status to hundreds of thousands of slaves who were by no means grounded in the English tradition of inherited rights and moral duties would have imperiled the very liberty they were trying to guarantee; it would have, in their view, overturned the Republic into a mobocracy. For Southerners, it was, as Jefferson would later say, a case of justice being on the one side and self-preservation on the other.
The North and South had a shared responsibility in the institution of slavery. But a better way to think of slavery is not as a uniquely American sin—because it wasn’t—but to put it in the context of what the Founders North and South, regardless of their views on race and slavery, had in common, which was the vital importance of defending the inherited rights of Englishmen and resisting tyrannical government. That was the cornerstone principle of the newly constituted American government, that was the Founders’ most lasting contribution to American politics, and that is the contribution that the “politically correct” and “progressive” centralizers would like you to forget when they disparage the Southern Founders and their devotion to liberty, limited government, the English common law tradition, and states’ rights.
Myth: Paul Revere single-handedly warned the Boston countryside of the impending British invasion
This myth falls under the historical embellishment category. If you attended school in the United States after the early nineteenth century—and if you are reading this, I am certain you did—then you probably heard the story of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, about how he singlehandedly alerted the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord that “The British are coming!” and helped spark the Revolution. This makes for a good story (or poem), but like Washington chopping down the cherry tree, it is almost entirely false.
The fabrication of the Revere story can be traced to 1860. On the eve of the American Civil War, New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned a poem entitled “Paul Revere’s Ride.” His purpose was to stir patriotic sentiment in New England by reminding his countrymen of their past. The last stanza of the poem was a direct call for action against the South. “A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, / And a word that shall echo for evermore! / For, borne on the night-wind of the Past, / Through all our history, to the last, / In the hour of darkness and peril and need, / The people will waken and listen to hear / The hurrying hoofbeats of that steed, / And the midnight message of Paul Revere.” The Union was in peril, and Paul Revere became the symbolic figure of action, the “night-wind of the Past.”
Thus, a politically aimed work of fiction became the accepted story for the events of 18–19 April 1775. But what really happened? On the night of 18 April, British troops, “regulars,” were ordered to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington, Massachusetts, and then to seize arms and provisions at the Concord arsenal. After he discovered the plot, Revere and another rider, William Dawes, took opposite routes to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams. (The idea was that if one were captured, the other would arrive safely with the warning.) Along the way, Revere and Dawes tried to warn people that the “regulars are coming out.” Other riders joined them, spreading the message, and by the early hours of 19 April, probably forty men rode through the countryside warning their neighbors of the impending invasion.
Revere arrived in Lexington first and met with Hancock and Adams. Dawes arrived thirty minutes later. Joined by Samuel Prescott, they rode on to warn the people of Concord of the impending attack. But before they reached the town, British sentries stopped them at a roadblock. Revere was arrested, but Dawes and Prescott escaped. Dawes, however, fell off his horse and was injured, leaving Prescott to alert the Minutemen of Concord on his own. Meanwhile, a group of Patriots freed Revere from the three British guards who were escorting him to Lexington. Revere, reunited with Prescott, managed to help Hancock and his family escape Lexington before the British arrived.
Revere’s actions were heroic, but Longfellow took a little poetic license with the facts.
Myth: Benjamin Franklin had thirteen to eighty illegitimate children!
This myth has been around for a long while, and is even, apparently, perpetuated by tour guides in Philadelphia. In my experience as a professor lecturing students, the image of the balding, portly Franklin as the consummate ladies man incites giggles from women and shocked astonishment from men. Those reactions are justified because the image is based on a myth, or at least an enormous exaggeration.
Franklin never married in a religious ceremony, and this fact might have contributed to the myth that he fathered numerous illegitimate children. Franklin courted young Deborah Reed of Philadelphia when he was only seventeen. Because Franklin was being sent to London by the Pennsylvania governor’s request and would not be back for some time, Reed’s mother refused to allow her daughter to marry. Reed married John Rogers, a notorious debtor who soon fled to Barbados to avoid possible incarceration.
Franklin, meanwhile, had returned to Philadelphia and fathered an illegitimate son named William, but was also eager to rekindle the relationship with his lost love, Deborah. Reed never obtained a legal divorce from her husband, and John Rogers was never heard from again. Therefore, without a divorce or a death certificate, Franklin and Reed were forced to marry through a common-law union in 1730. Shortly thereafter, Deborah Reed took the infant William Franklin (who had been born earlier that year) into her home. It has been speculated that William Franklin’s mother was a servant in the Franklin household. This might help explain the apparent strained relationship between Deborah and William. Some historians have claimed that Franklin fathered another illegitimate child, a girl, who later married John Foxcroft of Philadelphia. Details of this child are difficult to find, and it might be nothing more than speculation or hearsay, but it also could have fueled the wild imaginations of Franklin detractors. Benjamin and Deborah Franklin did have two children together, a son named Francis Folger who died of smallpox at the age of four, and a daughter, Sarah, who married Franklin’s successor to the office of postmaster general, Richard Bache.
Deborah Franklin died in 1774 when Benjamin Franklin was approaching seventy. This is when the story becomes more interesting and possibly salacious. Franklin was a man of fine taste who loved European court life, particularly in France. Franklin drew considerable attention from French women, and he, in turn, enjoyed their company. He was sent to France in 1776 to act as a special envoy on behalf of the American cause of independence. While in Paris, he became close with Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, the widow of the French philosophe Helvetius.
Franklin apparently proposed marriage, but she declined in deference to her deceased husband. Franklin and Madame Helvetius were both in advanced age, and it would be highly unlikely that she could have produced children even if they sustained an intimate relationship. She did organize one of the more popular salons in France and enjoyed the company of many notable men and, of course, many ladies of society, women Franklin frequently charmed.
In 1777, Franklin was introduced to thirty-three-year-old Madame Anne-Louise d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy. She was enamored with the American philosopher and is reported to have called him “Papa.” Their relationship, while flirtatious, appears to have been nothing more than innocent. Franklin often complained that she too often withheld her kisses and rejected his affection. For her part, Brillon often corrected Franklin’s French and tried to convert him to Catholicism. From the written evidence, it would be difficult to deduce anything more than the image of Franklin as a persistent suitor and Brillon as a coy object of affection.
Interestingly, both Franklin’s son and grandson fathered illegitimate children, making the practice a “family tradition.” But, while Franklin’s moral reputation suffers from his past indiscretions (William Franklin), his common-law marriage to Deborah, and the sheer volume of letters and references to French female interests, nothing connects him to more than two possible illegitimate children. Franklin loved the company of women, but the evidence that he was a prodigal fornicator is anecdotal at best and fabricated at worst.
Myth: Thomas Jefferson kept a concubine slave and fathered children with her!
In 1802, James T. Callender published an editorial in the Richmond Recorder that claimed President Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child with Sally Hemings, one of his own slaves. The story gained traction in the Federalist press (Jefferson was a Republican), but Jefferson ignored the allegation and never commented on it. His non-response has created two hundred years of speculation, a process that culminated in the 1998 DNA tests of several families that claimed connection to Jefferson. To those who wanted to believe the story, the DNA results “proved” that Jefferson did indeed father at least one of Hemings’ children. This conclusion has now been stated as “fact” in many newer books on the subject, and one History Channel documentary on United States presidents spent almost as much time on Sally Hemings as it did on Jefferson’s accomplishments as a statesman.
The Sally Hemings story is a fine example of irresponsible scholarship based largely on contestable circumstantial evidence. Even before he wrote the story linking Jefferson to Hemings, Callender had earned a notorious reputation. He had written a stinging pamphlet in 1796 that accused Alexander Hamilton of corruption and adultery. Hamilton admitted to the latter but denied the former. He was ultimately exonerated of having done anything illegal. Jefferson, ironically, had encouraged Callender when his targets were Federalists, like Hamilton, and even financed some of his projects.
Callender was arrested under the Sedition Act in 1800, was fined $250, and spent almost a year in jail. After Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he pardoned Callender. Shortly thereafter, Callender, in need of money, pressed Jefferson for the job of postmaster in Richmond, Virginia. True to form, Callender’s request included an insinuation of blackmail if Jefferson refused. Jefferson had come to see Callender for the scamp that he really was and refused to appoint someone with such a seedy past to any federal position.
Callender took a job with the anti-Jefferson newspaper the Recorder. He revealed that Jefferson had bankrolled some of his earlier scandalous writings—a charge that Jefferson was forced to admit. Callender then hit him with the Hemings story. Callender had never visited Monticello and based his information on the fact that several of Jefferson’s slaves were light skinned. Callender later implicated Jefferson in the seduction of a married woman. Jefferson eventually confessed to that charge, but deflected the Hemings accusation by pretending it did not exist (at least in public; privately he denied it). In 1802, one of Callender’s public targets clubbed him over the head. A year later, Callender was found drowned . . . in two feet of water. By the time Jefferson died in 1826, few remembered the accusations, save for the occasional snide attack in the Northern abolitionist press. That changed in 1873.
Madison Hemings, the youngest son of Sally Hemings, granted abolitionist newspaperman Samuel Wetmore an interview in 1873. Madison had intimated to close family and friends that he was Jefferson’s son and disclosed this alleged relationship to Wetmore, who published it in his newspaper in Ohio. The story quickly spread across the country. Critics argued that Wetmore’s article was a mere rewrite of Callender’s original (the same word was even misspelled), and Jefferson’s grandchildren denied its accusations. For most people that again put an end to it. Fast forward one hundred years. Fawn Brodie’s 1974 book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History revived interest in the “affair.” Brodie sided with Madison Hemings and argued that Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings’ children.
Historians, including Jefferson’s most important biographer, Dumas Malone, doubted the Hemings story, but the general public seemed eager to accept it. Twenty years later, lawyer Annette Gordon-Reed published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy in an attempt to vindicate Madison Hemings. The book and modern advancements in DNA technology led to several members of the Jefferson and Hemings line having their DNA analyzed. The results showed that a “male” in Thomas Jefferson’s family was indeed a direct ancestor of the Hemings children, principally Madison Hemings, but did not conclusively prove that Thomas Jefferson was the link. A 2000 study conducted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, however, determined that Jefferson was, unequivocally, the father of Madison Hemings and possibly Sally Hemings’ other children. Omitted from the report was the one dissenting voice on the committee, the medical doctor charged with verifying the DNA tests. Though noting that Jefferson could have been the father of Hemings’ children, he preferred to leave the question open due to the circumstantial nature of the evidence, and argued that the majority of the committee had arrived at their conclusion before examining all available information. In essence, most of the committee believed the burden was to prove Jefferson innocent, not guilty.
In 2001, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, a group that possessed more academic clout than the Foundation, released a report that directly contradicted the Foundation’s conclusions. In the summary to their findings, the scholars stated, “With the exception of one member. . . our individual conclusions range from serious skepticism about the charge to a conviction that it is almost certainly false.” The scholars’ report identified various inconsistencies in both the oral and written records that the Foundation used to indict Jefferson, and argued that Madison Hemings was upset because he felt Jefferson and his family had not treated the Hemings family well. The scholars also noted that Jefferson’s overseer, Edmund Bacon, had not only flatly denied that Jefferson had fathered any of Sally Hemings’ children, but reported that he had seen a white man— not Thomas Jefferson—leave Hemings’ bedchamber many mornings before work. The scholars pointed to Jefferson’s brother, often called “Uncle Randolph,” as the probable father of Heming’s children. Randolph Jefferson was reported to have a social relationship with the Monticello slaves and had possibly fathered other children through his own servants.
Because of the circumstantial nature of the evidence in the case, it cannot be proven conclusively that Jefferson fathered any of Sally Hemings’ children. It is possible but not probable. If Jefferson were to stand trial for paternity with the current evidence in hand, an honest jury would find him “not guilty.” So should historians and so should the public.
Myth: Washington had an affair with his neighbor’s wife!
This myth has been a rumor since the publication of a suspect letter in the New York Herald in 1877. The contents of the letter seemed to indicate that Washington and Sally Fairfax, the beautiful, intelligent, graceful, and potentially flirtatious wife of his good friend and neighbor George William Fairfax, had a passionate, romantic interest in one another.
Washington attended the union of Sally and George William Fairfax at Mount Vernon shortly before the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1753. Sally Fairfax and Washington also spent time together at balls and while Washington was recovering from a bout of dysentery in 1757 (George William Fairfax was in London). One year later, Washington proposed marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy and socially popular widow, but not the same reported picture of beauty and grace as his neighbor’s wife.
According to the “discovered” letters, Washington professed his love for Sally Fairfax shortly after proposing to Martha Custis, but he realized the impossibility of a romance under the circumstances. In a second letter to Fairfax, Washington compared the two “romantics” to fictional characters Cato and Juba in the famous Joseph Addison play Cato. Combined, the letters seem to indicate that Washington considered his impending marriage to Custis as nothing more than a matter of social convenience, more of a consolation prize, and that he would have preferred the forbidden fruits of a married woman.
There are several problems with this line of reasoning. First, no evidence of an affair exists. Washington’s primary biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, wrote that such an affair would surely been the subject of considerable gossip in Virginia’s elite circles. Freeman believed Washington loved Sally Fairfax, but she did not return the admiration and never spoke a word to anyone about it. Fairfax was described as a “prudish” woman, and Washington wished to remain in the good graces of the Virginia gentry. An affair would have tarnished his reputation and violated his ethics as a gentleman. Washington may have wished to know that Fairfax loved him, but he never pursued her either before or after his engagement to Custis.
After their marriage, George and Martha Washington frequently invited the Fairfax family to Mount Vernon, and Loyalist George Fairfax was the first to correspond with Washington from England at the conclusion of the Revolution. Washington even invited them to stay at Mount Vernon while their home was rebuilt after the war. Such cordial conversation would probably have been impossible between two men who loved the same woman, unless Washington had always hidden his feelings and maintained a proper state of decorum.
Second, while these letters have been cited on numerous occasions since John C. Fitzpatrick, who worked at the Library of Congress and had an enormous interest in Washington, included the letters in his thirtyseven volume series of Washington’s writings and correspondence (published between 1931 and 1944), their authenticity has always been in question. The letters were sold at auction the day after they were originally published in 1877, were never subjected to proper scrutiny, were doubted at the time, and have since disappeared. Fitzpatrick considered omitting the letters but reluctantly included them in the collection. Freeman believes this was justified since the style of the letters points to their authenticity and “forgery would not be easy,”4 but he also concluded that they offered no evidence of anything more than the memory of an infatuation.
The only honest conclusion, based on the existing evidence, is that Washington and Fairfax never consummated an affair and indeed behaved entirely honorably. It is true that women considered Washington to be dashing and gallant, but it is equally true that his marriage to Martha Custis appeared to be a happy union without any known improprieties.
Myth: Alexander Hamilton had a gay lover!
One often gets the impression that myths like this are perpetrated to justify modern moral impropriety. Hamilton certainly had a colorful career and death, but this accusation is based on amateur psychoanalysis and extremely circumstantial evidence. If Hamilton was gay, he certainly did a fine job of hiding it throughout his adult life.
The myth of Hamilton’s homosexual past centers on his relationship with John Laurens of South Carolina. Both men served under George Washington during the American Revolution. Washington referred to his staff officers as his “family” during the war, and Laurens and Hamilton developed a close relationship. When the two were apart, they corresponded frequently. Their letters were written in the flowery language of the eighteenth century, and while they would raise suspicion in modern American society, they were typical in style and tone for their time. Hamilton told Laurens that he loved him, and Laurens referred to Hamilton as “My Dear.” They were both young, involved in a dire situation, and had idealistic notions about life and society. They were kindred spirits, but no hint of a sexual relationship exists. Hamilton in fact requested that Laurens find him a wife. He described her desired attributes in detail, particularly her looks. Within a year, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of a wealthy American general Philip Schuyler. The two had eight children together and from all appearances had a healthy relationship, though with some indiscretion on Hamilton’s part. There were rumors that Hamilton and Elizabeth’s sister, Angelica, had an affair, but the family edited Hamilton’s letters after his death, so no conclusive evidence exists.
Hamilton did have an affair with a married woman in 1791. Maria and James Reynolds concocted a scheme to milk Hamilton for money. Maria Reynolds planned to seduce Hamilton, and James Reynolds, her husband, would then extort “hush” money from him. The scheme worked perfectly, only Hamilton continued to pay James Reynolds for the “use” of his wife long after the initial blackmail. James Reynolds was eventually arrested for counterfeiting, and in the process implicated Hamilton. James Monroe and Aaron Burr interviewed Hamilton, but found Hamilton innocent of the charges of corruption and counterfeiting, though Hamilton was forthcoming about the affair. Monroe and Burr decided to keep the affair secret, but James T. Callender caught wind of the illicit story and exposed Hamilton. Surprisingly, Hamilton publicly admitted to the affair. Thus, while Hamilton was an adulterer, his known and suspected affairs were all with women, not men. The Hamilton rumor, unfortunately, has been seized upon by activist groups who want to make him a champion of gay rights, for which there is not a shred of evidence. Hamilton deserves to be remembered for many things, but homosexual activism isn’t one of them.
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