Archives For George Washington

Click bait headlines, such as the one above, may not have been “liked” instantaneously around the 13 original American colonies, but the spreading of fake news and misinformation was still a factor in the news cycle of 1776.  A close look at American history reveals that fake news has been around since the country’s inception, and even the honorable George Washington had to confront the repercussions of intentional misinformation.

There are forgeries at the New York Historical Society known as The Letters from General Washington to Several of His Friends, written by a British sympathizer who planted the letters to create doubts about Washington’s commitment to the cause of the American Revolution. One of the circulated letters, included the following statement:

“Thus circumstanced, can you point out a way in which it is possible for me to resign, just now, as it were on the eve of action, without the imputation of cowardice ? I think not.”

The discovery and then release of this misinformation in these documents would have certainly delighted the hearts of British loyalists. In fact, the timing of this faked correspondence as news in November of 1776, soon after the disastrous military decisions Washington made in New York, was meant to encourage Tories in America and in Britain.

A Forgery: "Contemporary Letter from George Washington to Martha

A forgery: “Contemporary Letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 24, 1776” on exhibit at the NY Historical Society.

These forgeries, reported to be in Washington’s hand, were supposedly found in a large trunk, a portmanteau, that had been left behind while during the General’s hasty retreat to Fort Lee, New Jersey. The crafted propaganda pieces were intended to question the integrity of that upstart who was leading the American revolution.

Circulation of this fake news and misinformation was furthered when a London bookseller published the contents of the handwritten fakes in a pamphlet titled Letters from General Washington to Several of His Friends in the Year 1776. According to Edward G Lengelmarch  (

“British reviewers panned the clumsy fraud, but it sold moderately well, and a year later the letters reappeared in newspapers in British-occupied New York City.”

These letters portray Washington very different from how he is viewed today. While historians acknowledge that Washington was keenly aware of the many obstacles the faced in opposing the British, they are unanimous in saying that he was unwavering in his commitment to the American Revolution. In contrast, the forged letters suggest Washington was a man plagued with doubt. One fake letter states:

“At length, however, when a Continental army came to be voted for, my fears returned with redoubled force; for then, for the fifth time, I clearly saw our aims reached farther than we cared to avow. It was carried with an unanimity that really astonished me; because I knew, many who voted for it were as adverse to the independency of America as I was.”

The forgeries also impugn Washington as an individual who secretly remained loyal to King George:

“I love my King; you know I do: a soldier, a good man cannot but love him. How peculiarly hard then is our fortune to be deemed traitors to so good a King! But, I am not without hopes, that even he will yet see cause to do me justice: posterity, I am sure, will.”

The letters may not have had the desired effect at their release, but they caused considerable problems when they resurfaced again twenty years later in 1795. In that summer, Washington was in his second term as president when the Jay Treaty, which sought to normalize the new government’s relationship with Britain, turned into a political hot topic. Federalists Alexander Hamilton and the architect of the treaty, John Jay, supported the treaty. They were fiercely opposed by leading Republicans Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who believed the treaty was betrayal of America’s relationship with France, who was at war with Great Britain.

According to Lengelmarch,  Republicans wanted to “humiliate the president” and in a move that was calculated to “shatter the air of noble authority”:

“…they reprinted the fake letters from 1776 and cited them as proof that Washington had always been a British sympathizer. What had been a half-forgotten old joke now became a dangerously real slander.”

In his retelling, Lengelmarch suggests that Washington initially underestimated the power of such misinformation. Even though there were Federalists who decried the letters’ authenticity, the letters were repeatedly reproduced in Republican sympathizing newspapers. Washington finally broke his silence and repudiated the letters on March 3, 1797, his last day in office.

In 1799, Congress posthumously decreed that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” We also know that he was the first American president who had to confront fake news and misinformation.

Other American presidents have had to deal with fake news. During his Presidential reelection campaign in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln was challenged by the news circulated by  The New York World that claimed Lincoln and his Republicans advocated intermarriage between the white working class and blacks. Later that year, the Journal of Commerce ran a story that Lincoln was going to conscript a number of men. The origin of the fake news was a Brooklyn speculator who was trying to move the money markets, and a frustrated Lincoln had to shut down the Journal of Commerce for a couple of days.

The difference today is that the fake news and misinformation that Washington and Lincoln had to confront in their lifetimes was somewhat limited to the platforms of print media. They did not have to compete against a 24 hour news cycle fed by an increasing number of platforms that disseminate a crush of raw or unvetted information daily.

What is the same, however, is the challenge any American president faces in countering the efforts of a single individual, who with a handwritten letter, a text, or a tweet, can create fake news. Whether it be the pen or the keyboard, such misinformation can undermine the processes of democracy.

We should know that fake news and misinformation in American history is not a recent phenomenon. Therefore, we need to train ourselves -and our students- to be more skeptical. We need to consider who may benefit from a salacious headline or tempting tagline. When the clickbait seems too promising to resist, we must be ready to stop and ask who is promoting that information… and why? Without healthy skepticism, we may be just like those British sympathizers who were duped by tools of propaganda.

Washington reportedly never told a lie, but as for the charge of being a coward? History has the evidence to prove that charge was most definitely fake news.

George Washington… poet.


Yes, I know.

The descriptor that follows George Washington is usually something like:

….father of our country.

While poet is not a word usually used to describe Washington, a visit to an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, suggests Washington was gifted in expressing his romantic sentiments through verse.

The exhibit titled Sound & Sense: Poetic Musings in American Art (November 14, 2015 – April 17, 2016). The installation

“…explores the connections between American poetry and painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The exhibition presents a diverse landscape of masterpieces from the museum’s collection that incorporate poetic inscriptions in their composition or have direct relationships to America’s rich poetic traditions….”

In the exhibition, a painting by Rockwell Kent and sculpture by Daniel Chester French are paired (predictably) with verses by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. The walls are painted a soft grey with generous space allotted between each object and its curated verse. The space allows the viewer to appreciate each new composition of word and art.

On one wall, the portraits of Martha (left) and George Washington (right) are placed so they appear to be gazing at each other. Moreover, at first glance, the poem appears to be a a expression of George’s love for Martha. However, the note above Washington’s verse explains the sentiment was taken from a personal letter 1749-50, nine years before he married Martha. IMG_0028


The verse placed on the wall reads:

From your sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays you have, more powerful than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day
None can you equal in your bright array

The text next to the portraits -painted by James Sharples (1798)- explains that at the time the letter was written, Washington was a “lovesick teenager” who “penned a passionate sentimental verse to an unknown maiden” before he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Historians suggest that young Washington had crushed on several young women including Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. Regardless, the evidence that Washington had dabbled in romantic poetry in addition to the genres of letter-writing and speeches, speaks to his early comfort with expressing himself with the written word.

Granted, the comparison of the maiden in question with the sun is not terribly original. Shakespeare used the comparison in a more surprising manner when he began Sonnet 130 with the line

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

But Washington’s conceit, or extended metaphor, does reveal his sophistication in convincing the maiden the depth and sincerity of his affections.


Pastels on paper; James Sharples (1798) bequest of Daniel Wadsworth; property of Wadsworth Atheneum

On January 6, 1759, Washington, age 27, married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, age 28 years old. According to historians, their marriage was successful, and the union increased Washington’s property holdings and social standing. He acquired a portion of the Custis estate upon his marriage, worth about $100,000 at the time. Although he and Martha never had children of their own, he cared for Martha’s two children from her previous marriage.

On this extended weekend (2/13-2/15/16) , one that combines Valentine’s Day with President’s Day, we have yet one more reason to celebrate George Washington, our first President, and our first Poet-in-Chief.

During a pop-in visit with the 8th grade social studies teachers last week, the discussion turned to the growing number of interruptions to the school calendar because of the snow cancellations and delays we are experiencing here in Connecticut this winter. The teachers were grumbling, frustrated that they were not able to cover the content in the curriculum units.

“There are some advantages to ice and snow this winter,” I suggested.
They looked at me skeptically.
“Our students are feeling the same conditions that the Continental Army felt that winter at Valley Forge,” they paused.
I continued, “I can’t imagine how teachers in San Diego get students to understand what it was like to be a soldier in that winter in 1778.”

Of course, imagine is the key word here. Students taking classes in sunny 75 degree weather would have to imagine the conditions penned by George Washington to then New York Governor George Clinton from his headquarters in a chilly farmhouse at Valley Forge. Our first Commander-in-Chief’s desperation to keep his troops fed and clothed in frigid conditions is clearly evident in this letter, written while the well-stocked British troops camped comfortably nearby in Philadelphia. During that encampment at Valley Forge beginning on December 19, 1777, nearly 2,500 American soldiers, a quarter of the Continental Army, succumbed to disease and exposure by the end of February 1778. A modified version of Washington’s letter for students (Created through the TAH Making History Grant)  appears below:

To Governor George Clinton

Head Quarters, Valley Forge, February 16, 1778

Dear Sir:

It is with great reluctance, I trouble you … For some days…, there has been…a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been [led]…by their sufferings, to a general mutiny…

…I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent…fatal consequences…. I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upon so important an occasion; … I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit….

Valley Forge was not Washington’s first test of endurance in harsh winter conditions. Two years previous to this encampment, Washington had successfully crossed the Delaware River in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. Taking advantage of the Hessian’s late night holiday celebration, Washington crossed the icy waters on December 25, and attacked on the following morning.

Washington’s trip across the icy waters was immortalized in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, (Metropolitan Museum of Art-NYC, 1851).


Washington Crossing the Delaware is also the name and subject of a sonnet by David Shulman (1936).  This sonnet is entirely composed of anagrams, or verses of word play, where the letters of a word or phrase are used (once) to produce a new words or in Shulman’s case, verses:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

The nation’s tribute to George Washington, combined his birthday (2/22) with Lincoln’s birthday (2/12) to make President’s Day, a National Holiday celebrated from the frigid shores of the Delaware River, across those same fields of Valley Forge, and all the way to the warm sunny beaches of the San Diego coastline.

The combination of Washington’s letter to George Clinton, the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, and the sonnet by David Shulman can help students everywhere in the United States to imagine the severe weather conditions of these most famous exploits of Washington, but the students here in the Mid-Atlantic and in New England have the historical advantage to experience that same weather first-hand every year.

Here in Connecticut, in the winter of 2015, our students’ empathy lies with George.

There are several reasons the short discourse between Hamlet and a captain from Fortinbras’s army at the end of Act Four has become my favorite scene in the play Hamlet. There are 22 lines spoken between the Captain and Hamlet, but they contain questions about military service that reverberate today. Shakespeare’s fascination with the role of the soldier in society is evident in many of his plays, but rarely does he spotlight such blunt conversation between a character from the military and a member of the royal class.

In the following quick analysis of the scene, Hamlet is being packaged off to England accompanied by the hapless duo Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even though he is Prince of Denmark, Hamlet can do nothing but witness what is happening; his Uncle Claudius is in charge of the kingdom.


Act IV. scene iv from Branagh’s “Hamlet”

Hamlet opens the exchange by asking the Captain what army is marching across Denmark.

Good sir, whose powers are these?
They are of Norway, sir.
How purposed, sir, I pray you?
Against some part of Poland.

To all observers, Fortinbras’s march through Denmark to Poland with an army is a potential threat to Denmark. Hamlet’s father had killed Fortinbras’s father in battle, and Fortinbras is one of the three sons looking to avenge a father in this tragedy.

Who commands them, sir?
The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.
Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?

Hamlet is able to gather information as to Fortinbras’s intent, or at least the Captain’s orders. When the Captain speaks “truly,” he is unaware he is addressing royalty:

Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

Here then, the Captain explains the soldier’s paradox. He has enlisted in the military, and in the military, he follows orders. The Captain knows the  “little patch of ground” is worthless to him personally, “To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it…” That same land, however, has value to those who command the army, to those who engage in kingdom building, and to those who care for, “no profit but the name.” All land is valuable to those who desire to expand their holdings. Yet  that same land is as valuable to those who own it, and Hamlet learns from the Captain that the Poles have dug in, preparing for Fortinbras’s coming attack:

Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
Yes, it is already garrison’d.

Shakespeare uses Fortinbras’s “man of action” to contrast Hamlet’s “man of thought” throughout the play. While Hamlet spends almost four acts fuming over his Uncle Claudius, Fortinbras amasses an army to claim or to regain land lost by his father. Of course the Poles will be defending their homeland, an understandable reason to risk their lives, but the Norwegian soldiers are not being attacked; they are the attackers. Hamlet’s last words to the Captain shows him considering an unnecessary war that will cost many soldiers lives:

Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
God be wi’ you, sir.

In the soliloquy that follows, Hamlet wonders why soldiers would enlist in such a venture when they risk their lives for an unknown cause:

“…for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?”

In offering this soliloquy, Shakespeare poses a universal question: Why does anyone become a soldier?

As the mother of two active duty Marine Corps officers, I think about this same question. I think about this question knowing that only .5% of Americans serve in today’s military as compared to 12% in World War II.

Shakespeare asks what “a fantasy and trick of fame” drives men and women to enlist and follow orders. Certainly full employment is a draw to the profession, but a military that enlists only for money is akin to a military of mercenaries. A report by the US Department of Defense issued by the American Forces Press Service points to another reason, that military service is a family tradition. In a 2011 survey, “79% percent of veterans surveyed reported that an immediate family member is serving or has served in the military. That compares to 61 percent among the civilian respondents.”

New York Times editorial (5/26/2013) Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart by Karl W. Eikenberry and David Kennedy, also points out the growing disconnect between the general population and those who serve. Eikenberry is a retired Lieutenant General and former United States commander in Afghanistan (2009-2001); Kennedy is an emeritus professor of history at Stanford. They discuss family legacy as the reason young men and women enlist:

“So many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a “family business.” Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged.”

I often hear praise heaped upon my sons because sometimes they are the only direct connection to the military for friends and associates. My extended family includes brothers, nephews, and brothers-in-laws who have also served in some branch of service. We could be part of the military caste that understands the concerns of Eikenberry and Kennedy who recount a maxim of George Washington:

“The  [US Military] all-volunteer force may be the most lethal and professional force in history, but it makes a mockery of George Washington’s maxim: When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen. Somehow, soldier and citizen must once again be brought to stand side by side.”

Shakespeare presents the plight of the soldier to an audience of citizens by having the Captain speak to the “citizen” Hamlet. As the Captain bluntly assesses the coming attack, Shakespeare creates empathy for the soldier from the citizens who hear him speak. They hear Hamlet “humbled” in his thanks. In this short scene, Shakespeare illustrates the importance of Washington’s maxim: the citizen must stand with the soldier.

There is, however, another reason this scene from Hamlet has a special significance for me. My older son served his first tour (of three) in Afghanistan in 2011. In our mail one day was a small cardboard box top from an MRE box that he had used as a postcard. He indicated he was doing well, healthy and well-fed, and he asked us to thank those who had sent packages to him. He had carefully printed as much as he could on the box top, as if his writing would be sufficient to assure us of his safety. He signed off with his scrawly signature, but at the bottom of the card in a tiny line of postscript he had penned the quote:

“We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.”