Channelling George Washington (and Thomas Jefferson)
Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."
“This is Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and founder of the University of Virginia. Notice I don’t even mention the fact that I was governor of Virginia, secretary of state, vice president of the United States and president for two terms. I was never an office seeker. The trappings of power meant nothing to me. I only sought to increase the happiness of the American people!”
The voice was thin, rather reedy. A striking contrast to George Washington’s throaty growl. Before I could say a word, the General’s voice intervened.
“THIS IS MY CHANNEL, TOM. GO TALK TO ONE OF YOUR LIBERAL FRIENDS. THEY’LL GIVE YOU A FAIR HEARING, HA HA HA. TELL THEM YOU NEVER LAID A HAND ON SALLY HEMINGS, OR TRIED NOW AND THEN TO GET RID OF SLAVERY.”
“Mr. Fleming is not one of your conservative yes men, General. He’s a historian. He’s open to a wide variety of opinions. Jemmy Madison told me you’ve been filling his head with all sorts of terrible stories about me. You have seniority here in Elysium. But that doesn’t make you an absolute monarch! Which I’ve long suspected you always wanted to become!”
“YOU CAN SPOUT YOUR PROPAGANDA TO LITTLE JEMMY MADISON AND OTHERS WHO’VE FALLEN UNDER YOUR SPELL. BUT NOT ON MY CHANNEL! THE NEXT THING WE’RE GOING TO HEAR IS ‘THE EARTH BELONGS TO THE LIVING.’ WHERE WOULD YOU HAVE BEEN WITHOUT JEMMY TO TALK YOU OUT OF IDIOTIC IDEAS LIKE THAT ONE?”
“I still have a warm spot in my heart for that idea. I think we should have tried it. We could have sold it to the American people. I may try to get President Obama to think seriously about it. He’s canceling contracts with rich bondholders all over the place. Why not go all out?”
“JEMMY SHOWED ME THE LETTER HE WROTE TO YOU, PROVING SIX WAYS FROM SUNDAY THE IDEA WAS IDIOCY. HE EXCUSED YOU BY CLAIMING ‘MR. JEFFERSON HAD A HABIT OF EXPRESSING IN STRONG AND ROUND TERMS THE IMPRESSIONS OF THE MOMENT.’ I TOLD HIM THAT WAS A NICE WAY OF SAYING BALDERDASH!”
President Jefferson increased his volume, but he still fell short of Mr. Washington’s rumbling roar.
“GENERAL, YOU KNOW HOW OFTEN I’VE SAID I HATE QUARRELS ABOUT POLITICS. I GET THE FEELING YOU’VE NEVER FORGIVEN ME FOR WINNING THE PRESIDENCY IN 1800. EVERYONE KNEW YOU WERE THE ONE I WAS RUNNING AGAINST, NOT POOR LITTLE JOHNNYADAMS. I RAN AGAINST YOUR NOTION OF A PRESIDENT ONLY ONE STEP SHORT OF A CROWNED MONARCH RIDING IN A GILDED COACH PULLED BY SIX HORSES, MAKING TRIUMPHAL TOURS AROUND THE COUNTRY IN SEARCH OF INCENSE!
“I NEVER HAD THE SLIGHTEST DOUBT YOU WERE RUNNING AGAINST ME EVEN THOUGH I WAS DEAD. YOUR SYCOPHANTIC FOLLOWERS MADE THAT CLEAR WHEN YOU LUCKED INTO THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE. THEY PLASTERED WASHINGTON DC WITH POSTERS ANNOUNCING YOU’D DOUBLED THE SIZE OF THE COUNTRY WITHOUT SPILLING A DROP Of BLOOD – OR RAISING TAXES. ANYONE WITH A BRAIN KNEW THEY WERE COMPARING YOU TO ME.”
“Those posters were a moment of excess. I willingly admit the error. I repudiate it. But I RESENT your assertion that I ‘lucked into the Louisiana Purchase.’ It was a triumph of statecraft. If you or your friend Hamilton had been in charge, we would have had an army shooting people in New Orleans and a war with France that lasted a decade.”
“BUNK AND YOU KNOW IT. NAPOLEON WAS BROKE AND NEEDED MONEY FAST. IT WAS THAT SIMPLE. THE LITTLE FROG DIDN’T HAVE ENOUGH CASH TO FIGHT TEN DAYS MUCH LESS TEN YEARS. AS FOR FIGHTING, LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR PERFORMANCE AS GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA. IS THAT WHERE YOU GOT THE IDEA YOU’D RATHER TALK INSTEAD OF FIGHT?”
“I freely admit I was never a military man, General. As governor in 1780 and 1781 I wrote you letter after letter begging you to bring your army to Virginia. You ignored me.”
“Didn’t it occur to you that I was face to face with the main British army in New York City? Did it make any sense to rescue Virginia and let them grab New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the rest of New York? A governor—or a president—doesn’t have to be a military man. He just needs the brains and guts to get the people to fight. You had fifty thousand men on the rolls of the militia in Virginia in 1781. You couldn’t get ten men to turn out to stop seven thousand worn-out shot-up redcoats.”
Mr. Jefferson grew shrill. “Was it my fault that Virginia had such a weak militia law?”
“IT WAS YOUR SECOND TERM AS GOVERNOR. YOU SAT THERE FOR A YEAR, KNOWING THE LAW WAS WORTHLESS AND NEVER TRIED TO IMPROVE IT.”
“My wife was mortally ill. I suffered from excruciating headaches–-“
“MY TEETH WERE FALLING OUT BUT I DIDN’T CURL UP AND FEEL SORRY FOR MYSELF. THE ULTIMATE EMBARASSMENT WAS THAT CAVALRY RAID ON CHARLOTTESVILLE. ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY BRITISH DRAGOONS RODE INTO THE HEART OF THE STATE, SENT THE LEGISLATURE FLEEING AND DITTO GOVERNOR JEFFERSON – WITHOUT ANYONE SO MUCH AS FIRING A SHOT AT THEM. IT MADE ME ASHAMED TO BE A VIRGINIAN!”
“If your opinion of me was that low, why did you ask me to be secretary of state?”
“That was your friend Jemmy Madison’s idea. He sold me on the idea that your experience in France as ambassador made you qualified for the job. It didn’t take me long to realize it made you UNQUALIFIED. You were more French than American. Always bleating about the poor disenfranchised peasants and quoting those half-baked double-domes you called the philosophes. You were into the worst idea that birdbrain Rousseau propagated, the Popular Will. That entitled the Jacobins to guillotine twenty or thirty thousand innocent Parisians.”
“I regretted – genuinely regretted, the excesses of their Revolution.”
“Did you or did you not say that even if the French Revolution depopulated the entire earth, but left two people free, you’d still support it?”
“I may have voiced that sentiment in a passionate moment.”
“Where does that leave your regrets?”
“I didn’t come here to argue, General. I want to set Mr. Fleming straight on the history that you’ve been distorting!”
Mr. Jefferson was getting shriller by the moment.
“How’s your pal Tom Paine? Still slugging down the ambrosia? Can I remind Mr. Fleming of what he said about me in his famous open letter, after I got him out of that French jail in 1795? ‘The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.’ And you entertained the drunken slob at Monticello when he came back to the United States!”
“He was a forlorn figure, General, without a friend anywhere. He deeply regretted that angry letter to you.”
“Tell me about it. Pretty soon he was rooting publicly for Napoleon’s plan to invade England and set up a guillotine in Mayfair. And cheering on your attempt to transform the Supreme Court into a branch of Congress.”
“That is surely an exaggeration, General.”
“I got my information straight from John Marshall. In 1805 you had your yes men in Congress trying to impeach loudmouth Justice Sam Chase—and you were telling everyone that Congress should be able to remove any justice by a majority vote. The Popular Will disease again! But your former pal Vice President Aaron Burr derailed the scheme. That was a neat way of getting even for the way your newspapers destroyed Aaron when he ran for governor of New York.”
“Are you defending HIM General? A man who tried to destroy my presidency by luring the western states out of the union?”
“No, just sympathizing with Aaron for his bad luck in getting involved with you in the first place. Meanwhile, your luck stayed good. Burr went into a funk after he lost the governorship and challenged Hamilton. Poor Ham couldn’t resist another flirtation with fame. If Burr had missed, Ham might have become president in 1812, instead of giving Jemmy another four years to almost wreck the country. I can’t figure out why you’ve been so lucky! All that underserved fame for the next two hundred and fifty years. But now --"
To my amazement, the General burst into song:
“Of all the damsels on the green
On mountain or in valley
A lass so luscious ne’er was seen
As Monticellian Sally
When pressed by load of state affairs
I seek to sport and dally
The sweetest solace of my cares
Is in the lap of Sally.” (1)
“IT ISN’T TRUE, GENERAL! YOU KNOW IT ISN’T TRUE!”
“TELL THAT TO YOUR LEFT-WING DEMOCRATIC FANS!”
Silence. I finally found the strength to ask: “Do you believe that, General—about Sally Hemings and Mr. Jefferson?”
“Of course not.  But it’s a great way to puncture Tom’s pompous, totally phony piety!”
(1) Richmond Recorder, Nov. 17. 1802. There are several more verses.
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Jonathan Dresner - 5/17/2010
is that Mr. Fleming appears to be a more honest polemicist than Stephen Ambrose.
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