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Tag Archives: George Washington
Everything you’ve read about George Washington is probably more or less accurate, and here’s more of it
Among the things for which I can be thankful this season is the release of a book about George Washington by none other than Glenn Beck. Whenever Beck dons his history teacher’s hat it makes for great blogging fodder, and the comments his fans leave are invariably entertaining.
It is thus with a girlish squeal of delight that I share the following ad copy:
Through these stories you’ll not only learn our real history (and how it applies to today), you’ll also see how the media and others have distorted our view of it. It’s ironic that the best-known fact about George Washington—that he chopped down a cherry tree—is a complete lie. It’s even more ironic when you consider that a lie was thought necessary to prove he could not tell one.
For all of his heroism and triumphs, Washington’s single greatest accomplishment was the man he created in the process: courageous and principled, fair and just, respectful to all. But he was also something else: flawed.
For Beck to carp about how “the media and others have distorted our view” of history is an exhibition of either striking disingenuousness or breathtaking chutzpah, since few media personalities can match his track record of erroneous historical statements. This is the same man who insisted that pre-Columbian Indians wrote in Hebrew and built Egyptian-style pyramids, and that the Dead Sea Scrolls had something to do with Constantine.
Note the breathless overselling of common knowledge. Brace yourself, because you’re about to get the Real George Washington At Last—and apparently he was a fallible but genuinely great human being who didn’t cut down a cherry tree. Bet you haven’t heard that one before.
This is standard operating procedure for history written by celebrity pundits and politicians. Rehash general information from secondary sources, add a moral spin, simmer for two minutes, serve.
About two weeks ago we looked at a press release touting an effort to celebrate LGBT history in various publications. I found it striking for the number of unsubstantiated assertions it contained.
Now, from the dark recesses of a Google News feed, comes Victoria Brownworth’s creation of a surprisingly gay-friendly George Washington. Personally, I’m not buying it, because I think she jumps to some unwarranted conclusions, but since it’s an interesting foray into historical matters I thought we might analyze it in some detail.
Washington’s letters state that he was less than thrilled with marital life (“not much fire between the sheets”) and preferred the company of men — particularly the young Alexander Hamilton, who he made his personal secretary — to that of women, as his letters attest. His concern for his male colleagues clearly extended to their personal lives. This was especially true of Hamilton, who he brought with him to Valley Forge, giving Hamilton a cabin to share with his then-lover, John Laurens, to whom Hamilton had written passionate love letters which are still extant.
First of all, if dissatisfaction with married life and a preference for hanging out with the fellas means you’re tolerant of gays, then I think we can safely say that 99.999% of American men are homophobia-free.
As for the stuff about Hamilton and Laurens, it’s hard for me to take it too seriously. It’s true that Hamilton and Laurens were very close, and that Hamilton’s letters to Laurens are incredibly affectionate and emotional. Ron Chernow briefly discussed the intense and intimate nature of their correspondence in his biography of Hamilton. But to state that Hamilton and Laurens were “lovers” is to commit the same historical fallacy that we saw in the article about Baron von Steuben. The writer takes what is at best a dubious bit of theorizing and presents it as an outright fact.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why so many observers are unable to get their heads around the fact that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, intimate friends of the same sex would express intense emotions in their correspondence without having an actual romantic relationship. It goes back to a point I keep laboring over and over—namely, that people who lived a long time ago were different from us. For Hamilton to write Laurens that he wanted “to convince you that I love you,” as he put it on one occasion, didn’t necessarily have the same connotations that it has for us today. In fact, the Marquis de Lafayette referred to Hamilton as a “man whom I love very much and about whom I have occasionally spoken to you” in a letter to his own wife. If these terms of affection denoted a sexual attraction, why in the world were these guys writing to their wives about it? (“Guess what, honey? I’ve got the hots for another man! I knew you’d be happy for me.”)
Even more damning is the indisputable fact that Hamilton was an accomplished skirt-chaser. It was precisely his inability to stay out of the undergarments of other men’s wives that got him into such trouble later in life, when the husband of his mistress blackmailed him and the whole thing blew up in public.
Hamilton also enjoyed an affectionate marriage. Although he slept around behind his wife’s back, the two were close, and he managed to get her knocked up no less than eight times. If Hamilton had a thing for guys, he apparently got over it. (Laurens got married in England and fathered a child, but he sailed for America not long after the wedding and then died in the war without getting the chance to see his daughter.)
Renowned gay historian Randy Shilts makes the case for Washington’s ever-pragmatic as well as compassionate approach to same-sex relationships in Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military.
Shilts details how Washington merely signed the order for discharge of a soldier caught in flagrante with another soldier, and suggests that if Lt. Col. Aaron Burr had not forced the issue, the soldier might have remained at Valley Forge instead of being the first documented case of a discharge for homosexuality in the Continental Army on March 15, 1778 at Valley Forge.
The soldier was court-martialed by Burr, but that was the extent of it. Washington did not flog him, imprison him or as Jefferson had required as part of Virginia law as punishment for sodomy, have him castrated. Washington could also have had the soldier executed. He did none of these things. The soldier just walked away.
He didn’t exactly “just walk away,” though; he got drummed out of camp, which is not at all the same as a simple discharge. This was a humiliating punishment in which the condemned was publicly marched out to music, formally stripped of rank, and exiled from the camp. In an age when gentlemen jealously guarded their honor and reputations, this was no small matter. Brownworth goes on to describe the ritual of drumming out, but doesn’t seem to understand its significance.
Some observers have suggested that Enslin’s sentence is evidence that Washington held a lenient view of homosexuality, since such transgression could have been punishable by imprisonment or even death in the conventions of the day. (Thomas Jefferson demonstrated his liberalism by proposing a year earlier that sodomy be punished by castration instead of death in the new penal code that would replace Virginia’s Colonial charter.) This, however, remains speculation. [Emphasis added.]
Brownworth’s contention that Washington would’ve let the whole thing slide had not Burr “forced the issue” is also rather specious. Signing off on the sentence was about all that Washington, as commanding general of the army, would be expected to do. I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that an officer of Washington’s rank would personally preside over an inquiry into a mere lieutenant’s sexual misconduct. If anything, Washington seems to have enthusiastically supported Enslin’s expulsion. His general orders for March 14, 1778 betray not the slightest hint of reluctance:
His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return; The Drummers and Fifers to attend on the Grand Parade at Guard mounting for that Purpose.
Brownworth also suggests that “Washington signed the order for discharge more because the case involved fraternization below rank.” I wish she’d included some sort of citation for this statement, because I don’t see anything to substantiate it. The court-martial convicted Enslin of sodomy and perjury, not fraternization. The general orders quoted above make no mention of fraternization, and neither did Shilts in Conduct Unbecoming, at least as far as I could find.
Trotting out the rumors of Baron von Steuben’s homosexual dalliances and assuming that they were true, Brownworth then claims that the drillmaster, his assistant, Hamilton, and Laurens all constituted, in her words, “a gay foursome working directly with the leader of the Continental Army.”
Washington obviously considered morale in what was inarguably the most horrific battle station in U.S. military history, the winter at Valley Forge, needed to be upheld. Allowing men their one solace — each other — made sense from a general’s point of view. The less miserable the soldiers, the better they would fight. If keeping each other warm in the bone-crushing cold and abject misery (2,500 soldiers died at Valley Forge from starvation, disease and exposure) made life somewhat more bearable, then Washington had no issue with ignoring homosexuality in his ranks.
I repeat here what I stated with regard to the press release we examined two weeks ago: This whole thing is eerily reminiscent of the sort of historical shenanigans we’ve come to expect from Christian Nationalist writers. We get poorly-substantiated inferences presented as rock-solid facts, quotes taken out of their proper historical contexts, and elaborate reconstructions of prominent figures’ beliefs and attitudes based on the most precarious foundations. Still, I’ve got to admit that the idea of Washington willingly looking the other way while four members of his inner circle shacked up at Valley Forge sounds like an awesome premise for a sitcom.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.