The “flawed” Founding Fathers

The Founding Fathers, an ambiguous term encompassing those individuals most associated with the formative documents and efforts behind the creation of the United States of America, were an unlikely array of political radicals, professionals, intellectuals, and pamphleteers. Together, they are celebrated as a heroic and selfless amalgam of persons, who collectively ushered into being a nation that would, two hundred years later, lead the world. However, behind the myths and legends, were simply people. Products of their time, flawed, at times incompetent, and prone to all manner of absurdities, it is only right and proper that these individuals are remembered accurately and truthfully rather than reduced to spurious deities as commonly occurs in American schoolhouses across the very country they fashioned.

16. Patrick Henry, the first Governor of post-colonial Virginia, imprisoned his mentally ill wife in the cellar until she eventually took her own life.

Patrick Henry, best known for declaring “give me liberty or give me death”, served as the first post-colonial Governor of Virginia. Elected for five consecutive terms, in addition to a further two in the 1780s, Henry was one of the leading advocates of independence during the buildup to the Revolutionary War. However, despite retaining laudatory attributes, less commonly taught is that Henry tormented and abused his first wife, Sarah Shelton, to an inconceivably cruel degree. After the birth of her sixth and last child in 1771, Sarah began suffering from postpartum depression, a fact noted by Henry’s mother who wrote him stating “we feel Sarah is losing her mind after the birth of little Neddy”.

As was common at the time, doctors recommended institutionalizing Sarah at the Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia. Aware of the facility’s conditions, Henry, in a supposed act of kindness, instead of elected to imprison the mother of his children in the cellar. “Bound in a straitjacket” and “confined in a cellar room“, Sarah was attended by a female slave who attempted, without adequate training, to care for her. In 1775, after four years of imprisonment, Sarah died in captivity; it is believed she took her own life. Rather than acknowledge the effects of his actions, Henry secretly buried his wife in the cellar and remarried in 1777.

15. Judge George Wythe was poisoned by his grand-nephew with arsenic after he threatened to disinherit the 17-year-old for stealing from his house.

George Wythe, the first of seven Virginian signatories to the Declaration of Independence, served as a judge and law professor in addition to mentoring prominent figures including Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and Henry Clay. Amassing a considerable fortune after a successful legal career, in 1805 Wythe’s grand-nephew, the then-seventeen-year-old George Wythe Sweeney, was caught having stolen books from the library to repay gambling debts. In response, the Wythe patriarch revised his will in early 1806 and threatened to disinherit his light-fingered relative entirely unless he change his immoral lifestyle. On May 25, 1806, Wythe, along with his maid Lydia Broadnax and house servant Michael Brown, fell ill.

Initially suspected to be cholera, rumors of foul play circulated after Sweeney attempted to cash a $100 check from Wythe’s account on May 27. Discovering multiple previous fraudulent checks, Sweeney was arrested. Wythe, clinging to life, refused to post bail and altered his will to remove reference to Sweeney after Brown passed on June 1. Succumbing to the illness himself on June 8, Sweeney was subsequently charged with poisoning the trio with arsenic. Despite evidence from the surviving Broadnax, who claimed she had seen Sweeney put powder in their morning coffees, as non-whites were prohibited from testifying in Virginian courts Sweeney was acquitted.

14. Gouverneur Morris unintentionally killed himself after inserting a whalebone into his penis in an attempt to relieve a urinary tract blockage.

Gouverneur Morris, the author of the Preamble to the United States Constitution and the United States Senator for New York, remains among the best known of the Founding Fathers. A wealthy landowner from New York City, Morris served in the Continental Congress before representing Pennsylvania at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 wherein he advocated for a strong centralized federal government. Sporting a peg leg, necessitated by the loss of his left in 1780 after a carriage accident, Morris was among the few vocal opponents of slavery during the crafting of America’s body politic calling the practice “a nefarious institution” and a “curse” on the new nation.

In a bizarre turn of events, in late-1816 Morris grew tired of suffering from a blocked urinary tract that was causing him significant discomfort. Rather than seeking professional medical attention, Morris decided to tend to his intimate problem himself. During an attempt to use a piece of whalebone as a makeshift catheter, the insertion of the object into his penis inadvertently caused critical internal injuries. Developing a lethal infection, Morris would die on November 6, 1816, as the first, and indeed perhaps the only victim of penile-related self-inflicted whalebone injuries in the United States.

13. Thomas Paine, one of the most influential political writers of the late-18th century, had his bones stolen after death and sold off to the highest bidders.

Thomas Paine, author of Rights of Man and Common Sense – the best-selling book in American history relative to population size – remains one of the most influential of the Founding Fathers. One of the core instigators behind widespread popular support for radical politics during the 18th century, with John Adams claiming that without Common Sense the American Revolution would have stood no chance, in later life Paine became increasingly ostracized due to his unrepentant deism and opposition to organized Christianity. Dying on June 8, 1809, in New York City, the Englishman-in-exile’s funeral was attended by just six people.

Despite the absence of grief on the level that was garnered by the passing of, for example, Benjamin Franklin, Paine remained a figure of interest. Refused burial at New Rochelle by the Quakers for his attacks on organized religion, Paine was instead interred under a walnut tree on his modest farm. In 1819, journalist William Cobbett dug up his bones with the intent of providing a proper burial in Paine’s native England. Dying twenty years later with the bones still in his possession, they were subsequently auctioned off by Cobbett’s relatives. In the years since, various claims have been made concerning the location and ownership of the remains, including that Paine’s head resides somewhere in Australia.

12. Upholding the key provisions of slavery during his administration, George Washington, despite considering himself a delightful master, was among the cruelest Virginian slave-owners of his day.

Although evidence exists that Washington retained reservations about the institution of slavery, a less recognized fact is that the first American President did not hesitate to ruthlessly exploit the practice throughout his life. A slave owner from age eleven, by the time of his death the estate at Mount Vernon would encompass 317 slaves, of which 123 were personally owned by Washington. As was typical for Virginian slaves, these unfortunate persons were compelled to work from dawn until dusk under penalty of corporal punishment. However, Washington is believed to have been considerably harsher than other slave owners, with one visitor remarking in 1798 that Washington acted “with more severity” than his neighbors.

Considering himself a kind master, Washington nevertheless demanded constant work from his property. Slaves suffering from injuries, including on one occasion an 83-year-old slave named Gunner, were punished for not working sufficiently. Washington repeatedly shipped slaves to the West Indies should they irk him, wherein, as the slaves knew, they faced harsh conditions and a limited life expectancy. In the notably bitter winter of 1788, Washington kept his slaves digging through nine inches of snow on his behalf whilst he himself, “finding the cold disagreeable”, returned indoors. Overall, a picture is generated of an immensely harsh taskmaster who treated non-whites with the same contempt as an inanimate object.

11. The Founding Fathers of the United States of America, in contrast to common perceptions of supposed puritanism, lived much of their lives in a state of quasi-drunkenness.

Popular among American schoolbooks are lurid examples of acts of courage performed by the Founding Fathers. From Paul Revere’s “Midnight Ride” to Washington crossing the Delaware, these stories found a bedrock of belief in a brave and selfless group of people who risked everything for their country. Notwithstanding an undeniable degree of valor, it must also be recognized that this fearlessness was unquestionably aided by the frankly absurd amounts of alcohol consumed by the inhabitants of colonial America. To place the level of alcohol consumption into context, the average American today consumes a little over two gallons per year; during the late-colonial period, this figure was closer to seven gallons of alcohol.

By lunchtime, it was not atypical for colonial residents to already be onto their third beer of the day, with additions of strong ciders, wine, in particular Madeira among the well-to-do, and rum included as the day progressed. Several factors played into the heavy consumption of alcohol during this time in the Americas, including not only the scarcity of clean water but also a cultural aversion to water. Colonial Americans believed that drinking water, in addition to reflecting a low social status, was actually less healthy for a person than alcohol, which was concurrently regarded as a curative for a wide host of ailments.

10. James Wilson, one of the original six Supreme Court Justices, was twice imprisoned during his time on the bench and once attacked by an angry mob in Philadelphia.

James Wilson, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original six Justices appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, enjoyed a notably turbulent life. Representing Pennsylvania at the Continental Congress, Wilson’s political leanings sharply shifted from radical republicanism towards the preservation of an aristocratic conservative social order leading to his departure from the Congress. After the relief of Philadelphia in 1779, Wilson defended 23 people who had collaborated with the British from property seizures. In response, with the city suffering from food shortages and believing the elite were hoarding, a mob marched on Wilson’s home to demand justice.

Barricading himself inside with 35 of his colleagues “Fort Wilson” held off the mob, killing at least six and wounding 17 before the cavalry arrived and dispersed the crowd. Responsible for the infamous three-fifths clause in the Constitution, Wilson, previously enjoying substantial profits via land speculation, would suffer financial ruin during the Panic of 1796-97. The only Supreme Court Justice to languish behind bars, Wilson was briefly imprisoned due to his debts before fleeing to North Carolina in an attempt to escape his creditors. Nonetheless, he was imprisoned again, before dying of a stroke at the age of just 55.

9. “Honest” John Hart was forced to flee into the wilderness and survive the New Jersey winter at the age of 65 after the British sought his capture in 1776.

A political radical who entered colonial public office in 1750, “Honest” John Hart developed a reputation for fairness and politeness throughout his career. Supporting the revolutionary cause, voting for and acting as a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Hart was elected Speaker to the newly created New Jersey General Assembly in August 1776. In this capacity, Hart became a marked man, wanted by the British for treason, and forced to flee from his home in early December 1776 as the British advanced into New Jersey. With his thirteen children in toe, the sixty-five-year-old sent his younger offspring to stay with relatives as he retreated into the wilderness to evade capture.

Discovering his estate empty, it was occupied by the British. Looting valuables, slaughtering livestock, and damaging the buildings, their raucous stay was only terminated with the Continental victory at Trenton on December 26. After more than a month living in open fields and in the mountains during the harsh winter, Hart was finally able to return to what remained of his home. Repaying the favor to the Continental Army, Hart offered a comfortable respite between June 22-24 1778, the days prior to the Battle of Monmouth, to more than 12,000 men under Washington’s command. He would not live to see ultimate victory, dying from kidney stones in 1779.

8. George Washington’s dentures were not made from wood, as often taught in American schools, but rather from the teeth of enslaved Africans.

As every child in America should be able to tell you, George Washington, as was common in colonial times, had false teeth. However, in contrast to the perpetuated belief that these teeth were made of wood, a falsehood for any person of Washington’s social stature, strong evidence suggests his dentures were actually crafted, in addition to other valuable articles including gold and ivory, from teeth acquired from African slaves. The Mount Vernon Ledgers provide the foundational evidence for this contention, with “Ledger Book B” recording a brief notation dated May 1784 intimating such an action.

Dr. Jean Le Mayuer, George Washington’s dentist, was known to place newspaper advertisements for “persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth”. The standard rate was two guineas for each good tooth, but Washington’s records denote the price paid as being less than seven guineas for nine. In fact, the ledger specifically states “Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth”. Combining this historical documentation with a surviving pair of Washington’s dentures, which do indeed include human teeth, the evidence strongly appears to suggest that Washington acquired his famously false teeth from enslaved Africans who were paid significantly below market rate and possibly had little choice.

7. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphian physician and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, believed that being black was a disease and that bloodletting could cure yellow fever.

A leading figure of the American Enlightenment, Dr. Benjamin Rush enthusiastically supported the revolutionary cause and served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army. Despite many laudatory contributions to his discipline, Rush was a notorious proponent of “heroic medicine”: the belief in bloodletting and other bodily purges to cure illness. Of particular note, during the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Rush, as one of the leading physicians of the city, treated as many as one hundred patients per day. However, due to his archaic and unscientific methods, few of these unfortunates survived his methods and instead died.

Although successful in defending his reputation in a libel action against William Cobbett, who had accused him of killing more patients than he had saved, Rush’s methods were ultimately blamed for the deaths of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Furthermore, Rush believed that Africans could not contract yellow fever, without evidence supporting this claim, and as such merely intensified the epidemic by declining to treat certain population centers. This apathy might also have stemmed from racialist views of medicine, including that “blackness” was a medical disorder that could, like any “disease”, be cured.

6. Benjamin Franklin’s London home hid the skeletal remains of at least 10 individuals buried there during his residence at the property.

Benjamin Franklin, affectionately referred to as “The First American” for his lifelong efforts to unite the colonies, was responsible, among countless accomplishments, for the vital alliance with France during the Revolutionary War. Only one residence inhabited by Franklin prior to his death in 1790 has survived to the modern day, that being 36 Craven Street in London. During restoration work in 1998, workmen uncovered more than 1,200 pieces of human bones buried beneath the property. As The Times reported, “initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house”.

Some of the bones, belonging to an estimated six children and four adults, displayed clear signs of having undergone dissection, with cuts, saw marks, and drill holes in the skulls. Whilst the lack of evidence compelled the Westminster Coroner to announce “I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime”, it is not widely suggested Franklin was personally responsible for the bodies. Instead, Franklin’s housemate for two years, William Hewson, a surgeon and anatomist, most likely procured the bodies for scientific study. Strict laws governed the use of bodies for medical research, demanding secrecy, with Franklin most likely merely offering sanctuary for a fellow scientist.

Another frequent inclusion in American schools is the story of a young George Washington confessing his guilt regarding a damaged cherry tree, claiming that “I cannot tell a lie”. Not only an untrue myth, the apocryphal quote contrasts comically with Washington’s habitual deceits for personal profit. Starting with his signing of the surrender at Fort Necessity in 1754, the only formal surrender of Washington’s military career, he later blamed his translator for his confession of war crimes and feigned ignorance. Washington’s admission that he had murdered Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, despite his subsequent denials, served as the motivation behind the French-Indian War.

Similarly, with the onset of war in the Americas between Britain and France, the Governor of Virginia offered common soldiers a bounty of land in exchange for enlistment. Officers were explicitly excluded, with their service expected as part of their civic duty as gentlemen. With the end of the war and the installation of a new governor, Washington led a consortium of officers into deceiving the naive politician that it was, in fact, the officers who were due the land. Consequently, Washington appropriated more than 20,000 acres of land that had been originally set aside for the common soldiers who had fought under his command.

4. Thomas Jefferson compelled, under false promises, a teenage female slave to serve as his concubine after the death of his wife.

Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most influential of the Founding Fathers, acting as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the inaugural Secretary of State, Third President of the United States, and responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. Less respectably, after the death of his wife, Martha, in 1782, Jefferson initiated a sexual relationship with teenage African slave Sally Hemings. Summoning his slave to France in 1787, Hemings, aged approximately 16, was impregnated during her 26-month residence in Paris. Offered the choice to petition for her freedom under French law, Jefferson manipulated Hemings with the promise of freedom for her children should she return to Virginia and slavery.

Although the child produced in Paris did not long survive, Jefferson is believed to have produced at least six further children by Hemings over a period of more than a decade. Whilst historically their relationship has been portrayed in a romantic light, recent examinations have shed a darker picture on Jefferson’s actions. Hemings, a teenager, could not possibly have refused the advances of her 40-year-old master and categorically was unable to refuse consent. Coerced through unfulfilled promises for her children, Hemings was repeatedly raped by the American legend, even if social norms at the time did not perceive it as such.

3. John Adams, the second American president, was denied a second term of office due to his terrifyingly authoritarian and monarchical political leanings.

Throughout his life, John Adams never shied away from courting controversy. From defending the accused British soldiers after the Boston Massacre to his opposition to racial slavery, the Second President of the United States arguably absorbed the most flak for his surprisingly authoritarian and monarchical tendencies. Suggesting that “hereditary monarchy or aristocracy” were the “only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people”, Adams sought instead to induce “ordered liberty” under a conservative social hierarchy. During his two-term tenure as Vice-President to George Washington, Adams garnered negative attention for proposing the president be referred to as “His Highness”.

Elected in his own right to succeed Washington in 1796, Adams’ actions in the capacity as the nation’s chief executive failed to abate concerns regarding his political ambitions or designs. Of particular note, the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) – granting, among other powers, the president the right to imprison or deport non-citizens at will in addition to criminalizing criticism of the federal government – was seen as an ominous confirmation of authoritarian objectives. These acts underpinned the Anti-Federalist victory in the election of 1800, which saw Jefferson become President, and condemned Adams to be just one of just 7 commanders-in-chief to fail to acquire a second term of office after prior election.

2. Richard Stockton, a humble lawyer, endured torturous conditions in British captivity for refusing to accept a conditional pardon demanding his acquiescence during the Revolutionary War.

Richard Stockton was an American lawyer elected to the Second Continental Congress, whereupon, in this capacity, he acted as the first signatory to the Declaration of Independence from the New Jersey delegation. During efforts to evacuate the family of John Covenhoven, on November 30, 1776, Stockton was captured along with his friend. Dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and transported to Perth Amboy by Loyalist bounty hunters, Stockton refused to accept the conditional pardon offered by General Howe and was instead imprisoned. Incarcerated at Provost Prison in New York, Stockton was subjected to brutal and intolerable conditions causing lasting health problems.

Suffering from starvation and exposure, Stockton endured the additional indignity of having much of his property, including furniture and livestock, seized or destroyed. His library, among the most extensive in the Americas, was burned by the British in an act of deliberate malice. In total, 4,435 soldiers died in battle in New York during the Revolutionary War, in contrast to more than 12,000 in prisons. After weeks in captivity, Washington himself petitioned Howe for the release of political prisoners including Stockton. Offered freedom on condition he would abstain from further involvement in the rebellion, Stockton, in immeasurably poor health, was eventually freed to return to what remained of his estate.

After the ratification of the United States Constitution, whilst a new city was built to serve as the capital of the fledgling nation – Washington, D.C. – the city of Philadelphia was selected to serve as the temporary capital. Remaining the seat of government for the duration of Washington’s two terms as president, the commander-in-chief was forced to relocate to Philadelphia, bringing with him a number of enslaved persons to serve in his household. In 1780, Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Abolition Act, stipulating that slaves were freed after they reached the age of 28 along with those who had lived in the state for more than six months.

In order to avoid surrendering his property, Washington would transport his slaves back to Mount Vernon, or on some occasions literally to the state lines, every six months. Through this method, kept deliberately secret to avoid scandal, Washington was able to perpetually reset the clock on his slave’s freedom and circumvent the clear intended purpose of the 1780 emancipation legislation. Reflecting his sustained desire to retain his Negro possessions, Washington also signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 in addition to launching a three-year search for an escaped female slave who fled to New Hampshire after learning she was to be given as a wedding present.

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