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.)