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Sunday, April 01, 2007

George Washington: Be Skeptical of Silly Rumors

Recently an anonymous commenter on my post, " The War on Terror and America's Moral Decline," raised my eyebrows with a comment on George Washington. He quoted some source on the Internet about George Washington having written "smutty" letters. His sourced stated that "in the late 1920s, multi-millionaire J. P. Morgan bought some [surviving letters of George and Martha Washington], but he burned them saying they were 'smutty.'" The commenter then said, "aw,apparently, even george washington, the person we could rely on for moral interigdy [sic] liked dirty jokes."

While our Founding Fathers had moral flaws, as have all prophets and all humans other than Jesus Christ, I am surprised at the eager gullibility of so many in accepting some of the rumors of moral weakness in great men whose integrity and moral strength transformed this land for good. George Washington in particular was a man of incredible integrity, honor, and virtue that should be celebrated, regardless of some flaws. And certainly we must not dismiss his morality on the basis of silly rumors.

The Washingtons destroyed nearly all of the letters between George and Martha. A few authentic letters did survive. See, for example, two letters in the University of Virginia's collection of George Washington's Papers. Nothing unsavory there! Note that footnote 1 indicates that no previous letters (prior to 1775) have been found.

However, in past decades there were plenty of fakes created to sell to the gullible rich. That is likely what happened, if there is any truth to the rumor about J.P. Morgan (or rather, about the son of J.P. Morgan) buying and burning the alleged letters. I would suggest that the rumor from the son of J.P. Morgan probably says more about his gullibility than it does about George Washington. Here is some relevant information from The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1988, in Michael Kammen's review of the book George Washington Slept Here by Karal Ann Marling:
One of the most persistent problems the author traces, and which she must deal with as a transformational phenomenon in American lore, is that for so long George Washington seemed too good to be true. That explains why, eventually, iconoclasts would find it irresistible either to sensationalize or else trivialize him. . . . In 1925, Ms. Marling writes, the son of J. P. Morgan "bought up a number of autograph Washington letters of a 'smutty' nature in order to suppress them forever. 'Could we afford to pay the price and destroy our investment? We could and did,' said the millionaire's private librarian, who had probably burned some of the many forgeries in circulation in a period that craved sensational keepsakes a more innocent age would have recognized for fakes." (emphasis mine)
I've noticed a number of articles on the Web repeating the story of Washington's smutty letters. So we're supposed to question the morality of George Washington because of the purported content of letters that J.P. Morgan or his son bought and destroyed, letters that no other historian has seen (as far as I know)?

We live in an era where the truly noble and virtuous souls of the past are an embarrassment to the lowlifes that seem to dominate the circles of power and influence in our society. They will continue tearing down the character of great people, while dismissing the abominations of their own heroes and icons.

(P.S. - Some interesting background reading is the review of "The Letters of John and Abigail Adams." Yes, there are some warts there among the Founding Fathers, but there are valuable perspectives to be learned. And the story of John and Abigail is quite touching.)

5 comments:

Drew said...

Amen. The trend that exists among many historians to tear down historical heros by presenting lopsided negative information (and sometimes inaccurate or false as you have pointed out) about them sickens me. I believe it is important to present the truth, but it must be presented in a balanced and nonbias way.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so he may not have writen smutty letters. But he was a human being who owned slaves, experienced pride, etc. He did good things. he did bad things. Just as it is unfair to tear historical figures down by presenting imbalanced evidence, so it is also unfair to deify them knowing full well they had their weaknesses. Balance, rather than crucifixion or deification, is called for in writing history.

Pedernal said...

We all do good things. We all do bad things. We all need to repent. we all need forgiveness. Tearing at a man for his humanity is a very human thing to do. Accepting a man (or women) for the good he (or she) does while overlooking his faults is divine. This is the example Christ set for us (i.e. the adulteress). Of course, the Lord's aim wasn't to write history... that too is a human pursuit. As is the re-writing of history to fit ones own agenda or world view.

To me, the message here is simple... 1) always check your sources and 2) be careful who/what you trust.

nathanielmacrae said...

I don't understand your motivations for this post Jeff. You are telling us to be skeptical of silly rumors?

I don't get it. You know that we know thet you know that none of us live perfect lives. Even if Mr. Washington lived a good and upright public life does not make him immune from the same sin-ful world that we are all exposed to. Even the great Biblical greats (yes, apart from Jesus who was crucified because He effectively declared that He was God Himself, with the ability to forgive sins etc.) were all sinful...Noah: drunkard; David: adulterous; Apostle Paul: murderer...the list goes on!

Thank God that despite so much failure and downright rebellion, He is gracious and has made a way for His chosen to be made holy, pure and righteous through the death and resurection of His begotten Son - Jesus.

Were your motivations to get people thinking about God's grace?

;)

Mormanity said...

Sorry about the previous post. I had an anti-spam reaction to what I considered to be an off-topic link that has been promoted several times already by the author. I removed the link and reposted the comment to preserve the content, but regretted the change afterwards and no longer had the original to restore. Oh well.

But no, the purpse of the comment was not to pretend that humans don't have flaws, but to oppose the popular trend of focusing on the flaws of those who stand for that which is good while ignoring or celebrating the often much worse flaws of those who lack basic standards. Some people really have shown moral greatness - all vastly inadequate without Christ, of course - but it is helpful to have some human role models that we can respect. George Washington was one of those, in my opinion - a truly great founding father who should be held in esteem. Has any other political leader in the past century come close?