On July 3, in honor of American Independence Day, Raizy posted the above picture of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Aren’t they adorable? Franklin with his kite, Washington in his dapper cutaway uniform, and Jefferson’s ginger hair.
And yet for me they’re not quite so cute.
There was a time when I would have accepted without thinking that these were indeed three of the great luminaries of the American Revolution. However, I have done a considerable amount of reading in American history in the past ten years, and I’m more critical of our patriots than I used to be. Reading about Benjamin Franklin’s tenure in Paris during the revolution, his debauchery, his—shall we say—”relaxed” style of diplomacy (i.e. partying with the French aristocracy for weeks with nary a day’s work in between), and his near failure to accomplish the goals for which he was sent there in the first place (to corral money and, if possible, military assistance for the Americans) make me less comfortable with him as a model of public service. And the more I read of Thomas Jefferson, the more infuriated I get with him. A man of intelligence with skill and interests in many areas, Jefferson was nonetheless a disturbingly hypocritical character. His Declaration of Independence was a masterpiece, and his thoughts on the separation of church and state have my highest admiration. But on the other hand, he preached thrift but opposed the creation of a national bank to pay the country’s war debts, and himself had extremely expensive taste in liquor and books, was constantly remodeling his house, and couldn’t manage his own finances, dying woefully in debt. He wrote that the American colonists were of “one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves” without extending that thought to those he owned. He wrote, “Lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties and increase your worth,” then spent his own private funds smearing the reputation of his old friend John Adams in order to get himself elected president. Without having ever fired a shot in defense of his country, he claimed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” By championing states’ rights over the creation of a strong union, supporting the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which asserted the “right” of states to nullify any federal law that didn’t suit them, and defense of the continued institution of slavery after the foundation of the United States, he helped to set the country on a course which led ultimately to civil war.
Of these three, Washington is the only one for whom I still feel admiration. His selfless service to his country, his ability to prosecute a successful war on a shoestring (despite losing most of the battles he fought), his bearing and dignity in dealing with the British who insisted on calling him “Mr. Washington,” his statesmanship, his foresight of the problems partisanship and disunity would cause in the future, his belief that people of all backgrounds (even the Jews) had a part to play in the new democracy he had helped to create, as well as the provision he put in his will that his slaves should be freed after his wife’s death (which she executed soon after his, to remove any motivation they might have to murder her in her bed), give me an impression of a man of integrity, honesty, and true patriotism.
Incidentally, there has circulated around the Internet an article entitled “The Price They Paid” describing the fates of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence. I read this years ago, and didn’t question its veracity. But in writing this post, I Googled the subject again, and was lucky enough to find it analyzed on Snopes. For those who would like to know how things turned out for those men (sans embellishments and fictionalizations), here is the link.