Tag Archives: George Washington

Should Washington’s letter to a Newport synagogue be on display?

An editorial in the New York Daily News makes a case that it should be, since the document is among “the seminal American endorsements of religious freedom.”

Some six decades ago, businessman Morris Morgenstern purchased the letter and later gave title to a personal charity, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation.

The foundation, in turn, loaned the document to B’nai B’rith International for display in a museum that closed about 10 years ago.

Since then, Washington’s words have been in storage and the foundation has declined to cooperate with efforts by the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American Jewish History and others to return this letter to wonderful public display.

While the foundation’s ownership of the document is unimpeachable, his inspirational words on paper are part of the American patrimony.

You can read Washington’s letter in its entirety here.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

A reader tells me what it was like back in the day and then lets me know what a jerk I am

The other day I got a particularly irate complaint on an older post in which I’d argued that Glenn Beck is a bit too credulous when it comes to stories about George Washington.  Something about these Beck posts really brings out the vitriol in people; I’ve got to stop doing them.

Anyway, this reader touched on a couple of my pet peeves, so I thought I might address his comment in some detail here.  His unedited remarks are in italics, mine inserted in plain type:

Isn’t it ironic that people who can’t even remember a world without electric lights (like Glenn Beck’s detractors) can tell us all about colonial times in America better than Mr. Beck can…?

Not really.  People who can’t remember a world without electric lights have access to colonial documents, books about the colonial era, colonial artifacts, and so on.  If being born before the advent of electricity is a requirement for discussing the colonial era, then I’m afraid Glenn Beck is in the same boat as the rest of us.

Well guys, I spent my first years in a log cabin–without electric lights, indoor plumbing or a telephone–and it wasn’t all that long ago…

Okay, this is Pet Peeve #1.

If his point is that living without electricity or plumbing gives you some unobtainable gnosis into the eighteenth century, I hope he’ll pardon my skepticism.  The problem here is that Washington’s life and times were about more than a lack of electricity and plumbing.  Knowing what it’s like to live without modern conveniences is of precious little help in determining whether George Washington really prayed at Valley Forge, which is the sort of thing I was dealing with in the post to which he responded.

If we follow this line of reasoning out to its conclusion, then I must have some insight into the childhood of John F. Kennedy which you don’t, because although I was born many years after his death into a family that did not consist of New England aristocrats, both JFK and I grew up with electricity and plumbing.

Look, as I’ve said elsewhere, personal experience has serious limitations as a means of understanding the past.  If you’re a former infantryman who served during WWII and you’re writing about mid-twentieth-century combat, then you’ve got a real leg up on the scholar who was born in 1968.  But if you’re trying to make sense of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century battles, your best bet is to go to the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature.  Likewise, I seriously doubt that merely growing up in a house with no phone lines is going to give you any profound insight into the lives of eighteenth-century Virginia planters.

There is a fundamental “otherness” to the past which is more pronounced the farther back in time we go, and this otherness is an insurmountable obstacle to the history-by-personal-experience approach, unless we’re talking about history that happened within the span of current lifetimes.  The fact that this gentleman is alive and breathing indicates that he probably doesn’t have any direct knowledge of the Revolutionary era.

Funny, I have a slightly different opinion of what Mr. Beck is trying to do than you have. Could it be that I have just a little bit different perspective about our country’s origins than you have–and maybe I have seen and experienced some things beyond your wildest imaginings…!

I don’t know; I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff.  I actually met Bob Saget once.  I’m not making this up.  Remember those episodes of Full House when they all went to Disney World, and Saget was trying to propose to his girlfriend but could never find the right opportunity?  I was there with my family and I got to be in the background during the Indiana Jones sequence.  I’ve got a picture of me and Saget and my dad somewhere.  (That would make an awesome post, come to think of it.  I need to find it.)

And then when I was in grad school I went to a Shakira concert in Detroit, and when she did “Whenever, Wherever” she bellydanced while wearing a lit candelabra on top of her head.  You don’t see that every day.  I would’ve gone to see her on her next tour when she was in Atlanta, but I’d wasted like four hundred dollars on a birthstone ring for my girlfriend, so I couldn’t really justify spending the money on tickets so soon afterward.  And then that same girl dumped me by e-mail a week or two after that.

I mean, getting dumped is lousy enough, but what really had me peeved was the fact that Shakira was going to be performing only four hours away, and I’d knocked myself out of seeing it.  The only way I’d buy jewelry for a woman again would be if she actually was Shakira or if I was married to her.  Of course, Shakira’s got loads of cash, so she probably wouldn’t care about jewelry.  You could probably just take her to Baskin Robbins or something, and she’d be like, “Hey, it’s cool.  In fact, I’ll buy.”

Okay, where were we?

Why don’t you guys find something productive to do with your time–like finding some ANSWERS to our problems–maybe beyond the scope of “community organizing”…?

Ah, there we are.  This is Pet Peeve #2, the old “scratch someone who doubts your favorite historical myth and find a flaming liberal” routine.  I took issue with something Glenn Beck said about George Washington, so therefore I must be a left-winger.

Is agreeing with Glenn Beck’s historical claims a requirement for conservatives?  I really hope not, because I don’t particularly care for an interventionist government myself, but I have yet to listen to one of Beck’s historical lectures that did not involve the ladling out of more horseflop than most ranch hands move in an entire afternoon.  Remember his segment on Native Americans, when he tried to draw comparisons between Indian monuments and Egyptian pyramids?  Remember his lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the one that was so riddled with mangled statements—mixing up the DSS with something about Constantine building an army and placing them in the wrong century—that listening to it was embarrassing to the point of physical pain?

Can’t I oppose leftist politics and at the same time maintain that, when it comes to history, Glenn Beck is an uninformed buffoon? Do I have to agree with everything the man says in order to oppose liberalism, even when he’s saying things that have nothing to do with modern politics?

Anyway, I agree that it’s very important that we find some answers to our problems.  But since this is a history blog, I tend to spend more time discussing past events here than current ones.  This, alas, is pretty unavoidable. Most history involves the past—practically all of it, in fact.

Perhaps we can compromise on this.  At least let me finish this post, and then I might take a crack at the AIDS crisis in Africa.  Then I’ll look into the national debt; I’m pretty sure I can make some headway there.

At least drop the snobbish know-it-all attitude…!

Well, no promises on that one.  But I’m actually glad he brought that up. Coincidentally, I was hammering out some remarks on that very subject when I got this comment.  So in the next post we’ll look at my snobbish know-it-all attitude and I’ll try to explain my belief that not all ideas are created equal.

But first, duty calls—I’m off to find some answers to our problems, beyond the scope of community organizing.  History blogger, awaaaaaaayyyyyyyy!


Filed under History and Memory

Better living through willful ignorance

One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity.  You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.

Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target.  Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties.  Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England.  Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build.  Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period.  If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe.  For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived.  By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.

Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for.  How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly?  I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological.  During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war.  But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong.  How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence?  The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.

If this story sounds a little familiar, it should.  This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe.  Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it.  But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself.  They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation.  Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.

It’s a richly ironic situation.  By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant.  And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.


Filed under American Revolution

Evaluating presidents across the pond

The Jacksonian America blog directs our attention to a British ranking of American presidents, which is well worth a look.  Washington stands at number three, so apparently there are no hard feelings.

I find it interesting that Jackson made it into the top ten.  I would’ve assumed that Old Hickory would represent the stereotypical America imagined and feared by Europeans—a product of the frontier, brash, violent, rough around the edges.  (Plus there’s that whole New Orleans business.)  Perhaps a commitment to populism, like charity, shall cover the multitude of sins.

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Filed under History and Memory

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

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Filed under Historiography

Everything I need to know about American history, I learned from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE TRUTH AT LAST!

Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, was an assassin in the employ of the nefarious Jesuit Order who poisoned the Father of our Country, and Thomas Jefferson was probably in on it!

As President, Jefferson used his office to promote Jesuit infiltration of the United States!

George III was a Jesuit puppet, and his invasion of the colonies to suppress the rebellion was in reality the result of a scheme to eradicate Protestantism!

Those countless hours I spent as a grad student, trying to learn what made the Revolution tick…and it was all for naught.  All for naught.


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

New light on the flag’s origins

…courtesy of America’s Finest News Source.  The Washington quote is the high point.

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Filed under American Revolution