Tag Archives: George Washington

Blind leading the blind

As a fledgling history blogger, I’m conflicted about whether or not to keep posting about Glenn Beck’s ongoing historical shenanigans.  On the one hand, it makes for great blogging fodder.  It’s timely, controversial, and relates to fascinating questions about the way that historical memory intersects with contemporary politics and culture.  

On the other hand, the fact that it does intersect with contemporary politics and culture makes me leery of it.  I don’t want this blog to turn into another current events soapbox. 

Let me therefore offer a possibly unconvincing qualifier.  I’m about to say some rather unkind things about Glenn Beck, but my motives here are not political, and I’m not trying to score any ideological points.  I’m not interested in doing so, and even if I were I doubt that either his ratings or his credibility would suffer due to the online rantings of an obscure adjunct professor of history.  Indeed, I hope that my own political inclinations are a mystery to most of you, since this is not intended to be a political blog. 

Is Beck’s engagement with history on his show important?  I think it is.  You might denounce him as a demagogue, as a blowhard, or as a laughing stock, but the unavoidable conclusion is that a lot of people listen to what the man has to say.  After he plugged George Washington’s Sacred Fire, its sales on Amazon skyrocketed.  In fact, when I searched for it to insert the link, its name appeared as a search suggestion as soon as I typed “George W,” despite the vast number of books on Washington that are out there.  Its sudden popularity seems entirely owing to Beck’s endorsement, since this is a massive book from a relatively obscure publisher, written by an author without a track record of popular publications on the founding, and containing conclusions at considerable variance from the findings of most historians.  

If Beck can send a history book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, then his remarks can potentially shape the way that a lot of people think about the past.  And to be frank with you, I think that’s a problem—not because Beck’s historical interpretations are ideologically driven, but because he seems to be remarkably ignorant of basic historical knowledge. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand what constitutes general historical knowledge and what doesn’t.  On May 21, he told his audience that he intended to “show you some of the examples of where history is just wrong.”  He then asked, “The New Deal — how many of us grew up in households that said the New Deal saved America, OK? All did. Now that you’re learning something about the New Deal, did the New Deal save America?”  Why he’s convinced that this is some type of arcane knowledge that’s been lost to the ages is entirely beyond me.  Both of the survey textbooks I used while teaching introductory survey courses last semester flatly stated that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression.  So does academic historian David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear and any number of other books. 

On the same show, Beck asked his audience, “How many of you had heard of George Whitefield before, what was it, last week or the week before?”  He then noted that only three or four had.  This is somewhat astonishing, since Whitefield is hardly an obscure figure in either historiography or in general surveys of early American history.  If Beck and his audience were unaware of Whitefield’s existence or the New Deal’s shortcomings, the problem is not that history is being lost or that historians are engaged in some type of cover-up, but rather that they should have paid more attention in high school. 

Similarly, in a May 28 piece, Beck discussed the Wilson administration’s anti-German propaganda and curtailing of civil liberties during WWI.  He then claimed, “This history of the country has been so erased, we’ve been searching for days on images, pictures, anything on all of this stuff.”  Again, none of this information has been ignored or neglected by historians or teachers.  He and his staff would have found what they were looking for in any decent textbook, or even online; I’ve never had trouble finding visual representations of WWI propaganda on the internet for use in my lecture slides.  Perhaps Beck needs to fire his research staff and hire some fourteen-year-old who’s familiar with Google. 

Beck’s ignorance, though, doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind or even from presenting himself as an expert, as evidenced by his recent remarks about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This segment possibly set a broadcasting record for the highest number of inaccurate statements made within a short period of time.  After chiding his staff or not knowing what the scrolls are, he claimed that the scrolls were hidden away after the Council of Nicaea (they predated the council by centuries), said council having been organized by Constantine in order to build an army (it had nothing to do with an army) and resulting in death sentences for heretics (nope) and the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed (ditto).  This is not just a slip of the tongue or a case of misspeaking; this is buffoonery on an epic scale. 

And yet this is the guy sending history books to the top of the bestseller list, presenting regular history segments on his show, garnering honorary doctor of philosophy degrees, and assuming responsibility for educating America.  I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity or his patriotism, but if he’s going to keep up this history bit, then he desperately needs to be better informed.  If the blind lead the blind, it’s been written, both will fall into a pit.  And just for the record, that’s not from the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Here’s a pretty devastating review

…of the book on Washington’s religion that Glenn Beck has been plugging.  Check it out.

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If George Washington chops down a cherry tree in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it but Glenn Beck, does it make a sound?

The other day I was sitting in Pizza Hut with a friend of mine, enjoying a plate of boneless chicken wings, when I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall to find Glenn Beck talking about George Washington. 

Beck’s new favorite book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback.  He’s been bragging that its sales have skyrocketed because of his endorsement, and evidently he’s right.  As of my writing this, it’s ranked no. 1 on Amazon.  I haven’t read the book, but as far as I can determine (and if anybody knows differently feel free to correct me), Lillback is trying to make the case that Washington was a more orthodox Christian than a lot of us believe.  Personally, I think Washington was well along the deism end of the spectrum, though not as far as some of his contemporaries. 

While I was looking for information about the book, I found out that Beck has been on a real Washington kick lately.  On May 7, his guests were Andrew Allison and Earl Taylor.  Allison is co-author of The Real George Washington; Taylor is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization that published Allison’s book.  Beck has been encouraging people to read that one, too, but based on the transcript of his interview with these guys, I think I’ll have to pass.  Here’s a sample: 

BECK: Yes, and [Washington] was trusted on making treaties. And people, they did. They trusted him. Tell me the story of — I’m trying to remember the name of the Indian that came up and made the George Washington prophecy. A, is it true? Tell me the story and then, is it true? 

TAYLOR: That is true. This is actually in the French — during the French and Indian War when he in his early 20s was on aide to General Braddock – British General Braddock. And they were leading about almost 1,500 troops out to western Pennsylvania, Fort Duquesne, around Pittsburgh now. And Washington had warned — because Washington knew the area and he had warned Braddock that there are places that are real good ambush sites, I wouldn’t go there. 

Washington at Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela, from the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-02418)

Well, General Braddock, he was a — he was a British general. And, you know, they’re — most of them are quite proud. And they know it. So they march right into — through this area. And almost 1,000, I guess the number is 700 French troops with Indians ambushed them and just started mowing them down. And out of the almost 1,500 that they started with, there was over 1,000 deaths and wounded. And among those were all of the officers including Braddock, except George Washington. And he wrote the next day to his family, he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here. It must be the hand of Providence that had preserved me. I’ve got bullet holes in my hat, through my clothing. I’ve had two horses shot out from under me.’ 

BECK: He was never wounded ever, was he? 

TAYLOR: No. Not in battle. 

BECK: And he — and the troops talked about bullet holes through his clothing and he was on a white horse. 

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. 

BECK: It would be like camouflage! 

(LAUGHTER) 

BECK: Camouflage your horse! 

TAYLOR: Well, 15 years later, Washington — this was in 1770, Washington was with a group of men that were reviewing and kind of scoping out the same area. And an old Indian was part of an Indian band that discovered them and invited them to sit down in the council, around the council fire. And this old Indian chief gets up and he said, ‘I was there. As a matter of fact, I was in command when the Indians and the French drenched this area with the blood of the soldiers. And we killed a lot of them. But we could not kill that man.’ He said, ‘I had moved my best marksmen on him and I told them they cannot miss and they usually did not miss.’ ‘But this time,’ he said, ‘we couldn’t hit him.’ 

BECK: And is this the same Indian that said, you will be a great leader of… 

TAYLOR: Yes. And that was his — that was his prophecy. He said, ‘I’m telling you, the great spirit is with that man. He will one day be the great chief of a great nation.’ 

ALLISON: Preside over an empire. 

TAYLOR: ‘He cannot die — he cannot die in battle.’ 

Washington did indeed escape from Braddock’s defeat without a scratch, which is remarkable enough, but if the part about the prophecy sounds more like drama than history, it’s because that’s probably all it is.  Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote a play about the incident in 1828, claiming that he got the story from Dr. James Craik, a physician who was at Braddock’s defeat and on the 1770 surveying expedition.  (He was also, incidentally, one of the attending physicians at Washington’s death.)  

Years later, the tale turned up again in Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, where he again attributed it to Craik but admitted in a footnote that Washington made no mention of the incident in his diary.  Interestingly enough, the same footnote mentions a separate meeting with Indians during the same trip that is found in the diary, and for which (unlike the supposed prophecy visit) we have a specific name for the embassy’s leader.  I suspect that Craik took this visit, embellished a few details, and turned it into the prophecy story after Washington was dead and elevated to the pantheon of early national heroes, but that’s just me. 

This wasn’t the only bit of questionable history Beck and his guests were throwing around.  Here’s Beck during the same show: 

His country, Britain and then the United States of America, had him serving for year after year after year after year. After he won the Revolutionary War, he went back to be that farmer in Mount Vernon. And things started to fall apart. And they came knocking at his door and said, ‘George, we need you, because the whole thing is falling apart.’ I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was pretty close to — ‘Have I not yet done enough for my country?’ No. He went back and he didn’t say very much during the Continental Congress and the constitutional convention. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. He was a revered figure. He was — that’s my favorite painting of him. He was a revered figure. He was a guy — this was actually a painting done on the, just on the words of one of the — I think it was a farmer if I’m not mistaken. A farmer came into the field one day, and heard some noise and heard him standing there, in the field and he just watched him as he got down in Valley Forge on one knee and he prayed all by himself. He’s a guy that in the end could have been made king. He could have been made a ruler. He’s a guy who could have been really upset at Congress. Boy, oh, boy. 

The “farmer” was supposedly a Quaker named Potts, who decided after seeing the general in prayer that soldiering wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and became a fervent supporter of the Revolution.  That, at least, is the story as it originally appeared in the Washington biography by Parson Weems, who never met an anecdote he didn’t like.  Since then it’s appeared in illustrated form so many times that the question of whether or not it actually happened is essentially moot.  It probably didn’t.  Weems is a notoriously unreliable source, and in 1918 Valley Forge park officials refused to allow the erection of a monument to the event when they were unable to find any evidence to substantiate it. 

At one point during his Washington segment, Beck claimed that “it’s ironic to me that we make up a lie about ‘I shall not tell a lie’ on George Washington when there are so many great truth stories with him.”  That makes two of us—or maybe one of us.  I’m glad he’s urging his audience to study the founders; I just wish he’d do it a little more carefully himself.

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That’ll be fifty gazillion dollars, Your Excellency

It seems George Washington checked out two books from the New York Society Library that were due back on November 2, 1789.  He never returned them.

Keep an eye out for the mother of all yard sales at Mt. Vernon.

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Hey, speaking of the History Channel

…did anybody watch that documentary on facial castings of historical figures that aired a couple of nights ago?  If you didn’t, it’s running again in early November.

If you didn’t catch it, they took life masks and death masks of notable individuals, scanned them into a computer, and added color and other enhancements to create three-dimensional representations of what these guys actually looked like.  The idea is that what you end up with is as accurate as a facial cast, but you can move it around and  manipulate it.  You can make Lincoln smile and blink, you can take out Washington’s dentures to see the natural shape of his jaw, and so on. 

George Washington, from the Laurence Hutton Collection, Princeton University, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts Division

It was morbidly fascinating, and parts of it were instructive.  (Who knew Washington’s mouth was so flabby without his false teeth in there?)  It’s hard to deny the captivating power of facial casts, and the insight they give us into a person’s appearance that transcends anything you can get from a painting or sculpture.

I got a little irritated, though, at all the overselling of results.  Now, for the first time, we can see Washington as Martha saw him!  Here, for the first time ever, is the real face of Lincoln! 

Scientists, doctors, and technicians who dabble in history have this tendency to overstate the implications of their work.  I don’t deny that the hard sciences sometimes offer historians a certainty that’s very appealing.  The only catch is that what they can tell us is often so very limited.  They can reconstruct Washington’s appearance, but not his world.  They can show us Lincoln’s face, but not what was going on behind it.  No high-end scanner or empirical test is going to answer these types of questions, the questions that demand the kind of research and analysis that historians have been doing for a long, long time.

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History in your veins

Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers.  One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.

For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.

I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee.  It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County.  The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.”  I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville.  But lo and behold, it was true.

Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew.  But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr.  That’s good enough for me.

I actually met a John Sevier descendant once.  She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.

I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes.  Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.

  • News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant.  I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
  • Jefferson descendants have their own organization.  Benefits include burial at Monticello.  Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
  • Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
  • There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants. 
  • No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address.  But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation.  Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
  • Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
  • A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
  • Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
  • If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group.  Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
  • Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
  • Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents.  One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who.  According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer.  Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website. 
  • The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B.  He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer.  I think this one finds people to run companies.  (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)

And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.

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Part shrine, part museum

Regular readers of this blog (God bless ‘em) know that for the past few months I’ve been in the habit of posting brief reviews of the museums and historic sites I visit.  I debated long and hard whether to take a crack at Lee Chapel & Museum, located on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.

It was one of my favorite stops from my recent Virginia trip, but it’s also as much a shrine as a place of historical interpretation.  These reviews are meant to be assessments of how well museums and historic sites present themselves and educate their visitors, based on the time I spent working in the public history business.  This approach just didn’t seem appropriate for a sacred space.    However, since W&L has constructed a kind of interpretive center in the chapel’s lower level, I’ve decided that it’s a legitimate subject for a review, so here goes.

This particular site owes its existence to the two figures who cast longer shadows across Virginia’s history than anyone.  On the one hand, you’ve got George Washington, whose donation to the college led to its being re-named in his honor.  On the other hand, you’ve got Washington’s relative-by-marriage Robert E. Lee, who became the school’s president after the Civil War.  It was Lee who directed the building of the chapel (1867-68) that bears his name, and who now lies in a vault below the sanctuary level.

By any measure, visiting the sanctuary itself is an incredibly impressive experience.  On the outisde, it’s a beautifully constructed nineteenth-century brick church; on the inside is an auditorium with a seating capacity of 500, which is still in use by W&L.  Two portraits, one on each side, flank the front of the sanctuary.  On the right is a painting of Lee in uniform, similar to some of the famous photographs taken of him during the war.  On the left is an absolute gem, the oldest portrait of Washington, painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, which depicts him wearing his colonel’s uniform from the French and Indian War.  I had no idea the original was at Lee Chapel until I walked in the door, and seeing it was an experience that was hard to beat.

The sanctuary’s other highlight, though, comes pretty darn close.  When Lee died in 1870, he was buried underneath the auditorium, until the addition of a new section to the building in 1883.  Under the sanctuary, the addition contains the Lee family crypt.  Upstairs, it houses Edward Valentine’s magnificent recumbent sculpture of Lee, which rivals any monument or work of art I’ve ever seen in my life.  It’s an incredibly lifelike work of art, practically life-size, with a uniformed Lee lying in repose underneath a folded drape that looks far too natural to be made of stone.  (Here’s a photo that gives you the general idea, although it doesn’t do it justice.)  The one-two punch of this amazing sculpture and Peale’s famous Washington portrait in the same space is quite a thing to experience, and I don’t think I can convey the impression it makes on you if you’re a history enthusiast.  You just walk into the door and they’re right there.

Since the chapel area is meant to be more of a shrine than a museum, the interpretation upstairs is pretty discreet, as it should be.  There are a couple of interpretive panels near the sculpture with background information on Lee’s funeral and the construction of the addition.  During visiting hours a guide is on hand to talk about the chapel’s history and answer questions.

Most of the interpretation takes place in the “museum” of Lee Chapel and Museum, which is downstairs from the sanctuary.  In 2007 the college installed a beautiful new exhibit, “Not Unmindful of the Future:” Educating to Build and Rebuild a Nation.  Although it’s a relatively small display, you should plan on spending some time here.  There’s a lot of fantastic material to see.  The exhibit tells the story of the school’s founding, with an emphasis on Washington’s role and the inclusion of some of his personal items.  There’s a fine assemblage of Lee material here, too, including not only personal belongings from his years at the college, but also artifacts from his life before and during the Civil War. The exhibit also explores W&L’s evolution within the context of the history of American higher education (Lee, for instance, helped launch the inclusion of professional and practical programs of study in U.S. colleges) and the role the school’s students and alumni played in the Civil War.

Stepping outside the museum, you’ll see the Lee family crypt on your left.  Robert E. Lee isn’t the only famous American commander laid to rest here.  His father, “Light-Horse” Harry Lee of Revolutionary War fame, is buried next to him.  Just a few steps away from the crypt is yet another grave, this one for Traveller, the horse Lee rode during the war and after.  (You know you’ve made it into the pantheon of heroes when your horse’s grave becomes a pilgrimage site.)

It’s a lot of history for one building, and well worth a drive to Lexington.  The collection and interpretation in the museum at Lee Chapel are both first-rate, and the sanctuary itself is not to be missed.

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Is Washington filmable?

For some time now an unfilmed script about George Washington has been floating around online.  It’s credited to David Franzoni, presumably the same person by that name who wrote Gladiator and Amistad.  You can read it for yourself here.  I just ran across it again while doing some online browsing.  As much as I’d love to see the Revolutionary War play out on the big screen, I’m not sure a Washington biopic is a workable proposition.

It’s not that I have a problem with Washington himself.  Far from it.  It’s pretty hard to study him and come away with anything other than the conviction that he was a genuinely great man, largely because of his persistent efforts to live up to his own demanding standards.  But he was also notoriously aloof and stern, keeping himself remote from others and from his own emotions.  This reservation would make it difficult for an audience to sustain their identification with him for two to three hours. 

There are a lot of episodes from Washington’s life that I’d like to see on film; David Hackett Fischer’s recent book on the fall of New York, the retreat across New Jersey, and the battles for Trenton and Princeton would make a great starting point for a script.  But I think Washington’s own austerity makes it necessary to tell these stories from additional viewpoints, approaching the man himself from the outside, with his emotions only rarely breaking out of that formidable exterior.  This is the way Washington’s contemporaries experienced him.  Washington’s usual, deliberate composure was what made his outburst of rage at Kip’s Bay seem so explosive, and his rare show of weakness at Newburgh so moving.  Any onscreen Washington should also keep his emotional armor fastened tightly, so that the rare opening in that armor would be similarly affecting.  (My main problem with Franzoni’s script is that it conveys a familiarity between Washington and some of his contemporaries that strikes me as inappropriate.)

Like many public figures, Washington consciously crafted his persona.  Uniquely, though, he played his role with sincere determination when no one was looking.  Few of today’s actors could do him justice, and that’s a shame.  Among modern Americans, Washington’s effort to become an embodiment of virtue is a lost art.

(I obtained the Washington portrait from Wikimedia Commons.)

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