Channelling George Washington: A Presidential Summit


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."


The voice was shrill, almost hysterical. I said goodbye to sleep and replied: “I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Jefferson.”

A softer, much calmer voice broke in. “I agree with Mr. Jefferson. Not without regret. I think President Washington is being too severe. I hasten to add it’s not like him to be so judgmental.”

I took a deep breath and guessed: “Is that you, President Madison?”

“Mr. Jefferson has sought my advice on this unfortunate matter.”

“Unfortunate, hell!” Tom shouted. “It’s malicious. Sheer malicious ENVY. George tells you all about my problems with those berserk Haitians and he never even mentions the Louisiana Purchase! The greatest peaceful acquisition of territory in the history of the world!”

“Mr. Jefferson has a point, I think,” Madison said.

“We were discussing how President Lincoln might have solved the problem of the freed slaves if he’d lived into his second term—”

“That was just an excuse to get in another swipe at me. Hasn’t my reputation taken enough of a beating in the last twenty or thirty years? Books, films, television shows, portraying me as the seducer of Sally Hemings? A romance lasting thirty-seven years? Into the days when I was so crippled with rheumatism I could barely walk?”

“President Washington has made it clear he doesn’t think that story is true.”

“You had to extract the admission from him—virtually by force. Why hasn’t he devoted an entire session to this….this atrocious slander? A founding father whose monument stands in the center of our capital, on a par with his own and Lincoln’s, has had his reputation shredded by pseudo-biographers and filmmakers. The latest version of this outrage was on the History Channel on August 24. They only proved they’ve learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the previous slanders. Did they consult a single historian who might have defended me? No!”

“Do you have an explanation for it, Mr. Jefferson?”

“Of course I do. Part of it is theexaggerated claims for my role in America’s founding. When my nineteenth-century biographer, James Parton, wrote: ‘If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong, if Jefferson is right, America is right,” he did me more damage than the combined efforts of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and all my other enemies and critics that you care to add to the list. When people began to think America was wrong in Vietnam and elsewhere, they were ready to believe the worst about Thomas Jefferson.”

“I think Mr. Jefferson had made a very salient point,” James Madison said.

“Let me ask you a question, Mr. Madison,” I said. “Those who believe Mr. Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children include you and Mrs. Madison as witnesses. They claim that Mrs. Madison promised Sally a gift for naming one of her sons Madison—and never gave it. Is that true?”

“It is a fantasy, pure and simple.”

“Why don’t you ask Tom why he gave upwards of $150 to James Thomson Callender, a man who slandered me and President Adams?”

It was President Washington. “Can you answer that, Mr. Jefferson?” I asked.

“I gave it to him because he was sentenced to jail under a law signed by President Adams, making it a crime to criticize a president. A law I considered unconstitutional. I pardoned him when I became president.”

“That’s a gross distortion of the Sedition Law. It was a step forward, not back. For the first time a man could be challenged when he attacked a head of state. The slanderer had to prove his case. If he failed, he was found guilty of libel and sentenced accordingly!”

“Perhaps we should remember that Mr. Callender’s gratitude to President Jefferson was short-lived,” President Madison said. “When Mr. Jefferson refused to make him postmaster of Richmond, he publicly accused the president of the liaison with Sally Hemings. The motive speaks for itself. It was nothing but a vicious rumor, similar to the ones my enemies flung at me when I was president—that I arranged liaisons with Mrs. Madison to get the votes of certain congressmen.”

“Another aspect has to be considered,” I said. “Many people have been influenced by a statement that Madison Hemings made many years later, in an Ohio newspaper. He said Mr. Jefferson was his mother’s concubine.”

“She may have told him that,” Mr. Jefferson said. “There was a black man named Robert who was born in Charlestown, Virginia in 1803. He devoutly believed I was his father, because his mother told him so. I never set foot in the vicinity of Charlestown, Virginia in 1803, as numerous documents will attest. After the Civil War Robert moved to Ohio, took Jefferson for his last name, and told people he was my son until his dying day. He’s one of many examples I could cite. I don’t blame African-Americans for this….this custom. Slavery was such a terribly degrading institution, how can you blame a slave mother who wants to give her son some shred of dignity by concocting such a story? I said again and again that slavery was a moral disgrace and we ought to end it—if we could find a way to avoid a race war. Alas, Virginia—and the rest of the South—never did.”

“I sadly concur in these sentiments,” James Madison said. “Lately, I too have been accused, on the basis of a female slave’s testimony, that I fathered a child by her at Montpelier.”

“So many people wonder why you Southerners didn’t take the risk and abolish slavery,” I said.

“To understand why requires a sense of history,” Mr. Jefferson said. “My eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was my devoted spiritual heir. Ten years after my death, he won election to the Virginia legislature, and introduced a proposal to begin a policy of gradual abolition. Every black child born beyond a certain date would be freed when he or she reached the age of twenty-one. It caused a political firestorm. The proposal won some supporters but it was ultimately rejected. The citizens of Albermarle County, our home district, reelected Mr. Randolph in a close contest with a proslavery man. He again introduced the proposal and found even more support. It looked like the beginning of a movement that could have come to fruition in ten years or so. But something fatal intervened.”

“What was that?”

“The abolition movement. In the 1830s, the self-righteous Yankees of New England thought they could browbeat the South into instant unconditional abolition by abusing southern white men with the vilest insults you can possibly imagine. In a few years, everyone in Virginia and southward was so enraged, they began to justify slavery with specious arguments about it being “a positive good” for blacks as well as whites. Meanwhile, madmen in South Carolina began to claim I favored secession. We were on the road to the Civil War.”

“Did other people agree with this idea?”
“After the cataclysm, a sadder, wiser Thomas Jefferson Randolph wrote a mournful letter attributing the war to the abolitionists’ ‘morbid hatred of the southern white man which devours with obscene malignity every calumny or absurdity which can blacken or degrade his character.’ It is a heartbreaking summary of what transpired.”

“May I suggest,” James Madison said in his soft, now also mournful voice, “those words are not a bad explanation for the myth of Thomas Jefferson as the lover of Sally Hemings?”

“You gentlemen may be somewhat startled to hear this—but I am in complete agreement with Mr. Madison’s suggestion.”

“Thank you, President Washington,” I said.

We also thank you, Mr. President, for allowing us to intrude on your channel,” Thomas Jefferson said.

“Will someone tell me how I’m supposed to get some sleep?” I asked.

“History and insomnia are close cousins,” President Madison said.

“Take a pill.

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