Myths about the Founding Fathers
Dear Friends, A most amazing phenomenon is happening in America. While scandals are breaking out almost weekly, engulfing the highest officials of our land and while concerned Americans and religious leaders are urging people of principle to get more involved in governmental affairs, yet polls show a very high approval rating for the very objects of the scandals. It is as though Americans have divorced morality from government service. It is not uncommon to hear immorality in private lives rationalized by pointing to the lives of past leaders and telling stories of similar disgust about them. NCCS has received calls from people asking about these stories, mostly about our Founding Fathers. How does one defend them? What can we say? The mountain of claims as to their promiscuity is told in nearly every school and in every media in the land. Americans must know there are answers. Most of us know this intuitively, but we must know the solid facts if we are to stem this tide of filth and rationalization being heaped upon us in order to justify immoral behavior in high places. This letter contains short explanations concerning myths spread about three of our Founding Fathers. They are all taken from the American Classic Series published by NCCS. They are given here to remind us all that there really are answers and to encourage a full reading of the referred to texts for documentation and related information. Myth #1 - George Washington sent a letter to Sally Fairfax which some historians claim indicates he was passionately in love with Sally. Of this letter and the charges hurled at Washington down through the years, Andrew Allison writes: We have little to go on, little to tell us of George's feelings for any woman before he found Martha Custis, the one who was to be his heart's companion for life. Even the obscure letter quoted above, in which Washington confesses himself a "votary of love," is difficult to interpret. After carefully reading the letter, all that one can say for certain is that Washington was in love and that he was confiding his secret to his friend, Sally, who knew the "lady" Washington had given his heart to. But who was she? We don't know. That letter holds another problem, every bit as difficult as its internal vagueness. The letter remained undiscovered for more than a hundred years, until March 1877, when it was published in the New York Herald. The next day it was sold at an auction-but in neither case was it subjected by a known authority to the usual authenticating tests. Was the letter a forgery? Was it written by someone else? Was it quoted correctly? None of these questions can be answered, since the letter has long since been lost, never having been subjected to the necessary tests of handwriting, paper, and ink. When scholar John Fitzpatrick was collecting Washington's writings into a huge and exhaustive thirty-seven-volume set earlier in this century, he seriously considered omitting this letter, since its validity is so questionable. In the end he included it-but only with a warning that one must consider it with caution. If the letter was authentic, if Sally was a flirt with George, if the young colonel was indeed attracted to his friend's wife-all these combined give us an opportunity to see the depth of George Washington's character, even at that early age. All evidence suggests that, regardless of his personal feelings, he chose to conduct himself properly, keeping himself entirely free from any immoral or improper encounter with the wife of his neighbor and close friend. As the eminent scholar Douglas Southall Freeman has noted, "There survives not one echo of the gossip that would have been audible all along the Potomac had there been anything amiss in their relations." (The Real George Washington, pages 68-69) Myth #2 - Benjamin Franklin was a womanizer in France and America and fathered as many as thirteen illegitimate children. Of this charge Andrew Allison writes: Carl Van Doren, whose masterful biography of Franklin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, noted that "there is no support for the tradition which insists that the philosopher was a lively lecher in France." Another historian has asked, "Did he really have affairs with French women? There is no shred of evidence. In that age of diaries and memoirs not a single Parisienne ever boasted that she had captured the famous philosopher." And a third scholar places the whole matter in perspective: In any sophisticated social gathering at which the name of Benjamin Franklin comes up, somebody is almost sure to remark with a leer, "Say, that old boy was quite a man with the ladies," or "Wasn't he the old reprobate?" This concept of the worthy doctor seems to have started many years after his death and to have grown during recent years-there is no reference to it in early writings about him, except for scurrilous political slander regarding his son William's legitimacy. There is not one iota of evidence in history to justify this image. True, Franklin liked women, and many women adored Franklin. He was closely associated with several, ranging from eleven-year-old Catherine Shipley in England to sixtyish Madame Helvetius in France. He spent much time in their company, and some of his most interesting writing is in correspondence with female friends. But there is nothing to indicate that his relations with any of them were other than gallant and intellectual. No wonder Jefferson wrote in later years: "I have seen, with extreme indignation, the blasphemies lately vended against the memory of the father of American philosophy. But his memory will be preserved and venerated as long as the thunder of heaven shall be heard or feared." (The Real Benjamin Franklin, pages 232-233) Myth #3 - Thomas Jefferson fathered slave children by one of his slave women named Sally Hemings. Of this charge, Andrew Allison writes: One of the victims of the Sedition Act who was pardoned by President Jefferson in 1801 was James Thomson Callender, a Republican journalist who had been an unrelenting critic of the Federalists during the last presidential campaign. But Callender wanted more than a pardon: later that year he plainly told James Madison, the new Secretary of State, that he hoped to be appointed postmaster in Richmond, Virginia. When it became clear that he was not going to be offered any government post, the embittered Callender sought revenge by going to work for a Federalist newspaper in Richmond. In March 1802, he began publishing various charges against Republican leaders in Congress and certain members of the Cabinet. By autumn he was training his guns on the President. Callender has been described as "the most unscrupulous scandalmonger of the day,.a journalist who stopped at nothing and stooped to anything..[He] was not an investigative journalist; he never bothered to investigate anything. For him, the story, especially if it reeked of scandal, was everything; truth, if it stood in his way, was summarily mowed down." True to his style, he fabricated a series of scandalous stories about Jefferson's personal life, the ugliest of which charged him with having fathered several children by a mulatto slave at Monticello, a young woman named Sally Hemings. Although Callender had never gone near Jefferson's estate, he alleged that this was common knowledge in the neighboring area. He included many lurid details of this supposed illicit relationship among the "entertaining facts" he created for his readers, even inventing the names of children whom "Dusky Sally" had never borne. Other Federalist editors took up these accusations with glee, and Callender's stories spread like wildfire from one end of the country to the other-sometimes expanded and embellished by subsequent writers. The President was charged with other evils as well; the torrent of slander never seemed to let up. As one biographer has written, "He suffered open personal attacks which in severity and obscenity have rarely if ever been matched in presidential history in the United States." (The Real Thomas Jefferson, pages 228-229) Dr. Allison included this footnote on pages 231-232 of The Real Thomas Jefferson because the Brodie publication referenced in it is still widely used in college courses today as the "authority" on Jefferson's so-called extramarital affairs. He says: The most widely distributed of these works in recent years is Fawn M. Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1974), which relies on slight circumstantial evidence and amateur psychoanalysis. The book has received very poor reviews by scholars who are familiar with the life and times of Jefferson. David Herbert Donald, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard University, observed that Mrs. Brodie did not seem to be troubled by "the fact that she can adduce only slim factual support for her tales of what she primly calls Jefferson's 'intimate life.'. .. Such absence of evidence would stop most historians, but it does not faze Mrs. Brodie. Where there are documents, she knows how to read them in a special way.... Where documents have been lost, Mrs. Brodie can make much of the gap.... Mrs. Brodie is masterful in using negative evidence too.... But Mrs. Brodie is at her best when there is no evidence whatever to cloud her vision. Then she is free to speculate." ("By Sex Obsessed," Commentary, July 1974, pp. 97-98.) Historian and author Garry Wills, after noting the abundance of obvious historical errors in the book --"one can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort"-remarked that Brodie's writing "involves heroic feats of misunderstanding and a constant labor at ignorance. This seems too high a price to pay when the same appetites can be more readily gratified by those Hollywood fan magazines, with their wealth of unfounded conjecture on the sex lives of others, from which Ms. Brodie has borrowed her scholarly methods." ("Uncle Thomas's Cabin," New York Review of Books, 18 April 1974, pp. 26-28.) One other representative comment comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone: "This determined woman carries psychological speculation to the point of absurdity. The resulting mishmash of fact and fiction, surmise and conjecture, is not history as I understand the term.... To me the man she desc ribes in her more titillating passages is unrecognizable." Quoted in Virginius Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1981), p. 132. It is interesting to note that Brodie's three earlier biographies of historical figures also dwelt on their supposed sexual misconduct and were written in a similar vein. Americans must be armed with the words of the Founders themselves. Studying these three books will lead an honest student to exclaim: I cannot believe the lies told and immoral charges made of these men. They emanate a different spirit than what comes from the pen of the critics. These books are a must for each family's I Love America shelf! Sincerely, Earl Taylor, Jr.