Showing posts with label History Mystery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label History Mystery. Show all posts

John Quincy Adams's Pet Alligator Was A Crock

My hunt for the truth behind Gatorgate.
There are three “facts” about John Quincy Adams that I see repeated on the internet more than anything else about the sixth president:
  1. While he was skinny dipping in the Potomac, female reporter Anne Royall sat on his clothes until he agreed to grant her an interview.
  2. He said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
  3. He kept a pet alligator in the White House, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, and he loved terrifying his guests with it.
All three, it seems, are bogus.

The Skinny on John Quincy Adams's Skinny Dipping Interview

The naked truth about JQA and reporter Anne Royall.

John Quincy Adams died 169 years ago, but one legend about him and writer Anne Royall lives on. And it's time for it to die.

Can You Spot James Monroe in These 3 Famous Paintings?

James Monroe is the Waldo of historic masterpieces.
James Monroe played a role in several major world events before becoming America's fifth president, but he doesn’t get the same love his fellow founders do. History, and art, tend to put him in the background.

I want to take him out of the background of three famous historical paintings by sharing some background on how he got there.

Thomas Jefferson's Head, Heart, and Wrist

The dangerous liaison that broke Thomas Jefferson's heart 
– and wrist.
Detail of Thomas Jefferson, circa 1786 by Mather Brown
America was a fledgling nation in the autumn of 1786, post-Revolution but pre-Constitution, and plagued by the revolt known as Shays' Rebellion. 3500 miles away, serving as the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson was getting busy with his own rebellion.

Jefferson's rebellion was not ignited by a band of angry citizens, but by a single woman: Maria Cosway. The battleground was his own head and heart, and the casualties numbered two broken hearts and one broken wrist.

Maria Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield Cosway was such a total package of sexiness and brilliance that she needed six names. With eyes as blue as violets, curly golden hair, a slim figure, and (according to biographer Dumas Malone) "kissable" pouting lips, Maria Cosway was the perfect femme fatale.

She spoke several languages, played and composed music, and was raised in Florence as a real-life Catholic school girl. When she was young, an insane nursemaid murdered four of her siblings but was caught before she could get to Maria. I’m pretty sure God stepped in and said, “Not that one! I want to watch her sexy life play out. Go forth, hot Maria, and drive men crazy.”

Just how hot was Maria Cosway? This is a painting of her:
that she painted herself. On top of her other talents, she was also an accomplished artist. And judging by her pose, she is not amused by the way you're objectifying her.

Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha had died four years earlier, and he grieved inconsolably for months before accepting an appointment to France to remove himself from the pain. He was sightseeing in Paris when his friend John Trumbull (painter of the famous fantasy version of the signing of the Declaration of Independence) changed his life forever by introducing him to Maria Cosway.

There were instant sparks. The 43-year-old widower called the sight of the 26-year-old bombshell "the most superb thing on earth." The electricity was mutual. Plans were canceled on both sides so Jefferson could spend the rest of the day with Maria...and her husband.

Unfortunately, Maria was married, to the famous miniature artist Richard Cosway. But you shouldn't waste any pity on him, because no one else ever did. Contemporaries describe Richard as an absurd, ridiculous little man who cheated on Maria with other women (and men) and looked "very like a monkey in the face."

Richard Cosway probably toned down his monkeyness in this self-portrait, but the resemblance is clear.
After their meeting, Thomas and Maria spent nearly every day together (without Richard) taking in all that France had to offer. And, quite possibly, making sweet Parisian love. Several biographers insist their romance was never consummated, but that old stalwart Dumas Malone wrote, “Illicit love-making was generally condoned in that society…if he as a widower ever engaged in it, this was the time.” Malone seems to yell back though time, “Now’s your chance, TJ!

Their frolicking came to a sudden, painful end around September 8, 1786 when Jefferson somehow broke his right wrist. We know very little about the cause of the injury due to Jefferson's mysterious secrecy, but he was almost certainly with Maria at the time.

When a friend asked him how it happened, Jefferson wrote back with his left hand:
How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell. It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may. As yet I have no use of that hand, and as the other is an awkward scribe, I must be sententious and not waste words.
What a long-winded way of saying “It’s none of your business.” I wouldn’t accept a non-answer like that. I’d write back saying, “Listen, Tommy. I didn’t ask you to waste words, and I didn’t ask you to wax poetic either. I asked how you broke your damn wrist. Could your left hand maybe string together three or four words into a complete thought? ‘Fell off skateboard’ or ‘Texting, didn’t see manhole.’"

But that's the only explanation we have in Jefferson's words about what happened, and it's worse than no explanation because he's so damn coy about it, practically teasing that it's a really great story he's not telling.

So what’s the truth behind this wrist mystery, or wristery, if you will? (I understand if you won’t.) There are a few possibilities.

William Franklin (Ben’s son) wrote that Jefferson “dislocated his right wrist when attempting to jump over a fence in the Petit Cours.” This led historians to believe Jefferson may have been jumping a fence to greet Maria or impress her. An odd mistranslation in a subsequent letter changed the fence into both a fountain and a “large kettle,” so some sources believe Jefferson broke his wrist trying to jump over a tea pot. Unless Jefferson was tea-bagging the fence when he broke his wrist, I’m not sure how you could confuse a fence with a kettle. Something is awry.

The Merchant-Ivory film Jefferson in Paris had another theory. The filmmakers must have thought fences and kettles were too…iron or something, so they imagined Jefferson broke his wrist while trying to impress Maria in another way. By jumping over a pile of logs.

Maybe they forgot to add the special effect of a raging bonfire or something, or maybe I just don't understand what it takes to impress 18th century women. I'd love to imagine Maria and Thomas strolling through the French countryside and her saying, "So you regurgitated John Locke and wrote the Declaration of Independence? That don't impress me much. How 'bout jumpin' them logs?"

Jefferson logging out.
In spite of his failure to complete whatever folly no good could come from, Maria still loved him. When her monkey finished his painting gig and made her go back to England, it was heartbreaking for both her and the injured Jefferson to part. “We shall go I believe this morning,” she wrote him. “Nothing seems ready, but Mr. Cosway seems more dispos’d than I have seen him all this time…It will be with infinite pleasure I shall remember the charming days we have past together, and shall long for next spring.”

Jefferson’s heartbreak inspired him to write an epic love letter to Maria – his famous Dialogue of the Head and the Heart. Writing “slowly & awkwardly” with his left hand, he cranked out 12 pages of a playful, passionate chat between his head and his heart. His head was upset with his heart for letting them get too involved with Maria, but his heart reveled in the memory of the experiences while they lasted. He said in 4000 words what Alfred, Lord Tennyson said in 14 words sixty years later, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

He should have just kept his best quotes and sent her a PowerPoint deck instead.

Jefferson told Maria he was no connoisseur of art, just "a son of nature, loving what I see and feel."
For this reason I believe he would have loved Clip Art. Loved it.
Jefferson asked Maria to read his magnum opus in at least six sittings, each morning “at toilette.” I was excited at first, thinking that’s exactly how I read my mail, but then I realized he was actually referring to her daily hairdressing.

She didn’t take his advice. “I could not resist the desire to read it at once,” she wrote, “even at the cost of committing an act of disobedience. Forgive me, the crime merits it... I honestly think my heart is…full or ready to burst with all the variety of sentiments… Oh, Sir, if my correspondence equaled yours how perfect it would be!”

Other men pale in comparison to Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s head is supposed to represent logic and reason, but it comes off as melodramatic and grumpy. His heart swerves from savoring every moment to wanting to throw itself off a bridge. So basically, Thomas Jefferson was human.

This letter gives us a glimpse into a humanity and self-awareness of his own contradictions we don’t see anywhere else. Jefferson is famous and fascinating for his contradictions – fighting for states’ rights vs. expanding federal power, writing about abolishing slavery vs. living off of it, appearing above the political fray while being deeply entrenched in it. His life was a battle between what he thought ideal and what he thought necessary.

Unlike his letters with the late Martha which he burned, Jefferson carefully saved his copy of this letter for posterity. The always-calculating man who cared so much about his image wanted us to see both sides of him – his intelligence and his passion – and the mad literary skills it took to poetically pit these contradictory parts of himself against each other.

Or maybe he just wanted to show off how well he could write with his left hand.

Thomas Jefferson's left-handed writing is clearly superior to my own.
Jefferson set a very high standard with the Dialogue of the Head and the Heart, one even he couldn't live up to. Upset with the comparable shortness of Jefferson’s subsequent letters, Maria scolded him, “Are you to be painted in future ages sitting solitary and sad, on the beautiful Monticello tormented by the shadow of a woman who will present you a deformed rod, twisted and broken…” He may have been tormented by her and his wrist may have been a deformed rod, but he was not "solitary" when he returned to Monticello. In fact, it was just a few months later that Jefferson’s 8-year-old daughter Polly arrived in France with her maid, the 14-year-old slave known as Sally Hemings.

The following year, Jefferson wrote Maria a letter that may have alluded to his scandalous liaison with the young Sally. He described a beautiful painting he saw called "Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham" where a nude slave woman is presented to Abraham to birth his children. He called the painting "delicious" and said he would have gladly taken Abraham's place.

Detail of Adriaen van der Werff's Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham
He wrote this after the start of his relationship with Hemings, the slave woman who would go on to bear several of his children and serve him for the rest of his life. If Jefferson already found the idea of being with a slave "delicious," he may have found Sally even more tempting, as it's likely she resembled Jefferson's late wife, Martha. Because (are you sitting down?) Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings had the same father.

Excuse me a moment, I have to write a letter back in time.
Dear Pulitzer-Prize winning Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone,
When you referred to Maria Cosway and said if Jefferson ever engaged in illicit love-making “this was the time,” I think you were a little off. I know the compelling DNA evidence that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings’s children didn’t come out until 1998, and you yourself passed away in 1986, but I wanted to send this letter back in time to tell you the good news about Thomas Jefferson.

It turns out his only chance at illicit love-making was not just in the fall of 1786 with Maria Cosway! That is, of course, if you consider “illicit love-making” to include intercourse with your 15-year-old slave who also happens to be your dead wife’s half-sister. If you do, then there were actually many, many more times over 40 years. If you don’t consider that to be illicit love-making (and instead consider it, say, rape), then yes, Maria was probably his best opportunity for naughty intercourse.

Your most humble servant,
Nobody ever painted Sally Hemings's portrait. She wasn’t an accomplished artist or a celebrated member of high society, and she may not have known how to read or write. But she was a product of Jefferson’s beloved home and reminded him of his late wife.

The relationship or at least its formation is as inexcusable as the institution of slavery itself, but the choice makes sense for the man who said life was about avoiding pain and he couldn't bear parting with those he loved. Maria could never be his and her departure left him “overwhelmed with grief.” That pain could be avoided with Sally, who was his and his alone.

His relationship with Sally Hemings didn’t stop Jefferson from thinking about Maria. Just before his departure from Europe, he wrote to her, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”

In 1789 Jefferson returned to America to serve as the first Secretary of State under George Washington. Back in Europe, Maria’s marriage to Richard Cosway was annulled. How and why is unclear, but things went downhill for our monkey friend after that. He went insane and spent most of his time in institutions after he lost the use of his right hand. His right hand.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that two men who were intimate with Maria ended up with similar grave injuries, but I don’t want to rule anything out so I’ll add it to the list.

After leaving a trail of limp-wristed men in her wake, Maria went on to found a convent in Italy. She lived there for the rest of her life and served as its director. She and Jefferson continued corresponding sporadically until his death.

Each kept these images of the other in their homes.

The engraving of Maria Cosway (by her husband Richard) still hangs in Monticello today. The miniature of Jefferson now resides in the White House, a gift to the American people from the Italian government.

Jefferson soon regained the use of his right hand for writing, but not much else. French surgeons botched the setting of the bone, and the injury never completely healed. The pain served as a lifelong reminder of Maria Cosway, the breaker of hearts and wrists whom he loved with his head and his heart – a woman who could not be owned.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, Jefferson and the Rights of Man by Dumas Malone, Jefferson: A Revealing Biography by Page Smith, John Adams by David McCullough, Head and Heart Letter on,, Richard Cosway, "The Macaroni Miniature Painter" from The Art Amateur, Vol. 8, No. 2 (January 1883), The Franklin Papers

Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!

The Earthquake That Drowned Thomas Jefferson's Sister

The mysterious death of Elizabeth Jefferson
The Rivanna River ©Scott Clark
On the afternoon of February 21, 1774, Virginia was rocked by the first earthquake in its recorded history. Somewhere between a 6.5 and 7.5 magnitude, it was strong enough to rip buildings from their foundations. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it “shook the houses so sensibly that every body run out of doors.”

We don’t know how much the shaking may have startled Jefferson’s little sister Elizabeth, who disappeared after the quake. What we do know, according to Jefferson’s account book, is that she was found three days later and buried eleven days after that.

After reading about her death in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, I wanted to know everything I could about this story that had all the makings of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style family mystery – a bizarre disaster, a missing sister, even a body of water!

What I found was that only a few scant details survived. What surprised me even more was how that didn’t stop two biographers – one a Pulitzer Prize winner – from sensationalizing the facts with their own scintillating details. These authors also jumped to some egregiously shaky conclusions about Elizabeth Jefferson's life and death.


One tantalizing piece of evidence we have about 30-year-old Elizabeth indicates she was “feeble minded.” Most of what we know about her comes from a single letter written almost a hundred years after her death.

Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Sarah Randolph was writing a book about him based on letters and family memories, and she wrote to family friend Wilson Miles Cary about Elizabeth’s death. He responded, “I have always understood that she was very feeble minded if not an idiot – that she and her maid drowned together while attempting to cross the Rivanna in a skiff.”

Jefferson's Monticello is located just across the Rivanna River from Shadwell, his birthplace and the home of his sister in 1774.
Randolph didn’t speculate on whether an earthquake or a boating accident killed her great-great aunt. Her book’s only mention of Elizabeth was that she was “rather deficient in intellect.” That sounds positively flattering compared to the way later biographers reveled in playing up her mental limitations.

This includes Page Smith, author of Thomas Jefferson: A Revealing Biography. Smith plugged Cary’s “very feeble minded if not an idiot” quote into his tawdry thesaurus and decided the best possible way to describe Elizabeth was by saying she was “perilously close to being mentally retarded.”

Is it just me, or does that sound way worse than plain old retarded? Smith’s book came out in 1976, so perhaps he was too perilously close to missing his Bicentennial deadline to rein in the adverbs.

A more famous Jefferson biographer, Dumas Malone, also danced ineptly around Elizabeth’s intelligence in his Pulitzer Prize winning six-volume “Jefferson and His Time.”
Whether [Jefferson’s mother Jane] exhausted herself in bearing Thomas, or there was some mishap in the delivery, the child she bore just after him was subnormal. The later story of this unfortunate girl can wait, but at least it can be said here that Elizabeth Jefferson afforded little companionship to her well-endowed brother.
Jefferson was so damn brilliant, you see, that his mother was simply exhausted after pushing out his giant well-endowed brain. So exhausted that the “unfortunate girl” who fell from her loins a year later couldn’t possibly provide any companionship to the extraordinary Thomas Jefferson, by far the best thing that ever came out of Jane Jefferson’s tired vagina.

Years later as president, Jefferson had a pet mockingbird named Dick who would follow him around the house, eat from his mouth, and make music with him. Dick was his “constant companion." Just to be clear, Malone couldn't imagine Thomas finding any companionship with his subnormal sister, but Dick the Bird was just the ticket.

The irony of a brainiac future president having a mentally challenged sister was just too great for these writers to resist. The problem is the evidence is so miniscule – a letter written a century after her death, and the fact that Jefferson handled his sister’s finances. His account books show he had to check with the executors of their father’s estate to approve purchases ensuring she “should be well dressed.” This would be an unusual arrangement for a typical adult woman, but it surely doesn’t mean she was bad company.

What these exaggerations from Smith and Malone insinuate but never directly ask is the question that makes this story so compelling. Did Elizabeth Jefferson’s intellectual disability have something to do with her death? Maybe that's what Smith meant by “perilously close” – she didn’t fully qualify for the R word, but she was impaired enough to be a walking time bomb.

But even if Elizabeth’s limitations somehow led to her death, it doesn’t explain how her maid (presumably of typical intelligence) also managed to drown in an earthquake. The maid’s odd presence solely in Cary’s letter makes me wonder if she ever existed at all. Jefferson never mentioned finding and burying anyone but his sister. If Elizabeth was disabled, it might seem neglectful to leave her unattended. If she ran off by herself and ended up dead, rumors of neglect could be avoided by saying her trusty maid was with her the whole time. With the fictional caretaker off the map, no one could refute the story.


Another mystery in this family drama is what exactly Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote in his account book, “My sister Elizabeth was found last Thursday being Feb. 24.” Page Smith was one of the first biographers to connect the earthquake to Elizabeth’s death, and he gleefully filled in his own details about Elizabeth’s state:
On February 21, 1774, Monticello was shaken by a strong earthquake, which drove everyone from the house. In the excitement Jefferson’s afflicted sister, Elizabeth, then in her thirtieth year, disappeared. It was two days before she was found, more dead than alive. She died a few days later and was buried in the family plot near Dabney Carr.
I have to admire Smith's style. He knows history can only be recounted with the action-packed language of Lifetime TV movie titles like Shaken, Disappeared, and Buried or awesome band names like "Afflicted Sister."

But Smith’s most outrageous phrase, and the literary darling he should have killed, is "more dead than alive." Because it’s completely pulled out of his ass. It can only be a guess based on the ambiguity of Jefferson’s notes – was Elizabeth dead or alive when she was “found” on February 24th? Smith didn't know, so he hedged his bets on some quasi-state of being that's more bullshit that fact.

One problem with the killer earthquake story is that we can't even be sure Elizabeth's death happened after the quake. An entry in the family prayer book believed to have been written by Jefferson himself listed the date of her death as January 1, 1773 – 14 months earlier than his account book. If he couldn't nail that down, what hope do we have of piecing together a few disparate notes?

Jon Meacham, also a Pulitzer-winner, had the same source material as Malone and Smith, but wisely chose not to embellish the supposed facts. He wrote:
In the furor, Elizabeth Jefferson, Thomas’s reputedly mentally disabled sister, disappeared from Shadwell. She was found, dead, three days later, after apparently drowning in the Rivanna.
If the cause of death choices were a) earthquake or b) drowning, Meacham chose c) all of the above. But with qualifying words like “reputedly” and “apparently” he's really saying "seriously though, who the hell knows?"

I'd like to imagine a scenario where everything fits together, but I have trouble with an earthquake strong enough to shake someone out of a boat later that day. Throw in the slave maid and it's even more implausible, like an all-female version of Huckleberry Finn with the ending from Thelma and Louise. As titillating as it sounds, the earthquake to drowning sequence is just too hard to swallow as anything but a possible coincidence.


I used to think biographers were bound by facts, but using facts as a springboard to jump to conclusions sounds way more fun. I want in on this game.

Let me take a look at one of the primary sources for this story – Thomas Jefferson’s account book for March 1774. Like my biographer friends above, I'll do my best to take a closer look at the facts and then distort them.
From Dumas Malone's "Jefferson the Virginian."
From these entries we know when Elizabeth was found, when she was buried, and that the Rivanna River was flooding.

But take another look at the top two notes:
I don’t know how much Elizabeth Jefferson weighed, but I’m guessing it was perilously close to 118 pounds.

Clearly, Elizabeth Jefferson – the feeble-minded girl who Dumas Malone felt had less value to her family than a bird – ended life as a grisly (and gristly) gift from Thomas Jefferson to his unsuspecting mother.

So there you have it. I found two pieces of evidence and connected them to come up with a salacious theory. I’m not sure what happens next. Do I have to reach out to the people at Pulitzer, or will they just leave my award in the comments?

Unfortunately, the only undisputed fact here is that we’ll never know exactly what happened to Elizabeth Jefferson. The truth is likely buried along with her in the Monticello cemetery, and that might be how her family wanted it. Maybe it was too painful for them to write about, or maybe they felt some need to cover up whatever tragedy occurred that winter. Every family has secrets, and this was the South, where they have to use armoires because their closets are so full of skeletons.

Questions like this are part of what makes history so thrilling to me. Even though I’m hopelessly addicted to having instant access to answers at my fingertips, I also love a good unsolved mystery. Especially one I can really sink my teeth into.

Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!

Did George Washington’s Colossal Incompetence Start the French and Indian War?

Spoiler Alert: Yes. Yes it did.
Before starting this presidential biography project, one of the only pre-Revolution facts I knew about Washington was that he became famous in the French and Indian War. What I didn’t realize is how much of that fame was due to his own incompetence and inexperience, and how he turned a cold war into a hot, bloody catastrophe.

It's remarkable such an astonishing career and legacy began with such missteps. And it's a damn shame George Washington didn't know French.

Let's take a look at the ways the Father of His Country started a war with France when he was 22 years old.

1.  He was totally unqualified for his post.

Just 20 years old and an imposing six-foot-two (which is like 7 feet with inflation), George was an experienced surveyor who wanted nothing more than to be part of the British Army. He had no formal education beyond elementary school, but he had friends in high places. By schmoozing the right people, he became a major in his local militia company, which was more like a drinking club. He had zero military training, but he knew the woods like nobody's business.

It turns out Ohio has always been a battleground state, well before it was a state. Back in 1753, the British and French both said they owned it, and the Indians just wanted to be on the winning side. The royal governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, heard the French were encroaching on the fledgling Ohio Company (which he owned stock in), and he needed someone to tell them to back off. The problem was the 500 miles of wintery mountains, rivers, and forests full of Indians in between. He needed someone with the skills to make the journey who was also respectable enough to represent the British Empire. Enter young, unqualified Major Washington.

All the “major” had to do was find where the French were camped and ask them to politely back off. This first mission went surprisingly well. Washington teamed up with the Mongo Indian chief Tanacharison, known by the British as the Half-King. Together they journeyed through dangerous terrain to Mordor Fort LaBoeuf, the French camp. Washington successfully delivered his “please back off” message from King George II to the old Frenchman Legardeur St. Pierre who replied, “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.”
Ultimately Washington's alliance
with the Half-King was a bust.

That's where everything went to hell. Dunwiddie wanted Washington to lead an army of 300 to oversee the building of a fort at the forks of the Ohio River to keep the French out. Washington insisted he wasn't qualified and requested to be second in command instead. Dinwiddie agreed. But then the first in command didn't show up and Washington had to take over. What was the worst that could happen?

2.  He assassinated a Canadian diplomat.

Washington's instructions were to act on the defensive – keep the French out of the British territory, take them prisoner if they resist, and attack if they aggress. Word reached him that a group of French-Canadians were approaching. His trusty ally the Half-King took Washington and about 50 men to the Canadian camp. Standing outside the camp with no military training, no business leading such a mission, and no knowledge of the language the other side spoke, what would he decide?

He decided to kill the shit out of the Canadians. Washington's men shot at least ten to death and took the rest prisoner in a bloody 15-minute battle. If he knew French, he might have understood their cries that they were on a peaceful mission to ask the British to back off, essentially the same purpose as Washington's earlier journey.

Among the slaughtered was the Canadian ambassador, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Reports vary, but one reliable second-hand not-at-all-racist account claims the Half-King himself tomahawked Jumonville's head, washed his hands with his brains, and scalped him. Other accounts claim it was British musket fire that killed the ambassador.

The fact remains that young George Washington, unprovoked, attacked and killed a French ambassador who was on his way to deliver a message. Biographer James Thomas Flexner referred to it as "a clumsy entrance to the world stage."

Clumsy? A clumsy entrance would be if Washington lost his footing mid-curtsy at his debutante ball. The man launched a preemptive strike on some sleeping Canadians and let the Half-King chop into their leader, and he expressed no remorse when he found out what he had done. He insisted the Canadians' intentions were hostile and said of his first battle, "I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound."

National Park Service painting of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, where young George Washington learned to love a good bullet whistle.
It was young George's first battle and first taste of victory, though victory is a strong word considering it was a surprise attack on a group who didn't know they were at war. All he knew of war at this point was winning, but his haphazard actions were about to get the undefeated Washington into a real battle for which he was woefully unprepared.

3.  He positioned his army in the worst fort ever.

The French got word of this little unprovoked massacre and felt rather provoked about it. Washington and his crew of 300 prepared for battle. In the worst fort ever. It was actually built as a storage shed to keep supplies from being stolen by Washington's own men — it was never intended to withstand an oncoming French army 700-strong.

At least he'd have his trusty homicidal Indian friend and his tribesman to assist though, right? Actually, after helping him get into this mess in the first place, the Half-King decided he didn’t like the looks of Washington's shoddy fort (or his odds) and he got his Mongos out of there.

The Half-King was right about the fort. "Fort Necessity" was too small to hold the men, it was completely exposed to attacks from higher ground, and it was quickly filling with water as rain poured down. These were the conditions when 600 Frenchmen and 100 of their Indian allies came for Washington's army. To put a nice personal touch on the battle, the French were led by Louis Coulon de Villiers, the dead diplomat's brother. That's what the French call being merde out of luck.

Model from the Fort Necessity Learning Center
It was a long and drawn out battle not because Washington’s men stood much of a chance, but because even sitting ducks take a while to hit with muskets. With his gunpowder stash ruined by the rain, one third of his men dead and the rest standing in bloody water, what did the brilliant military leader and future father of his country do? He broke out the rum and got his surviving men good and drunk. This actually says a lot about why he was a popular leader.

4.  He signed a confession he couldn't read.

As the battle raged on and the French's ennui set in, they offered to accept an American surrender and agreed to let Washington’s men go if he signed a paper. If only he knew French, he might have realized he was signing a confession stating he assassinated Jumonville. It ended the bloody battle, but it made him look like an embarrassing backwoods fool in the mother country.

His attack on the Canadians led to France declaring war on Britain, and his loss at Fort Necessity led to the Indians en masse switching sides to support the French. A clumsy entrance to the world stage, indeed.

Somehow, still a hero.

Assassinating an ambassador and getting your ass handed to you by the French might look like a failure to some, but not to Virginia. Washington was victorious for his win in the opening ambush, and he was a hero for surviving and bringing home (some of) his men after facing such a superior enemy. Thus began Washington’s legend as a bulletproof leader whose amazingly good luck must be divine.

In a nutshell, George Washington set off a chain of events that started the French and Indian War, which hurt England’s economy so much it decided to raise the American colonies' taxes, which led to the Revolutionary War, which was followed by America’s independent new government electing none other than George Washington as its leader. And he did it all without ever learning French. 

Well played, George. Well. Played.

Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner
Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!

Dog Unidentified

Sometimes the smallest mysteries are the most intriguing.

I've decided to read a biography of every US president in chronological order. To make this less daunting, I've also decided there will be no time limit. I'm not the first to do this (or even the first to blog about it) but maybe I can be the slowest! A few friends asked me to write reviews of each book I read, but I'm more interested in sharing random thoughts along the way.

Since this is my first post, I'll share a little background. I didn't want to start this blog until I knew the project would stick. So far I've read biographies of Washington and Adams, so I'm 5% of the way there. My entries about Washington and Adams will be retrospective, but my reactions to Jefferson and beyond will be more raw.

My process in choosing which biography to read (in case you were wondering) involves reading lots of Amazon reviews and considering the length and focus of the book and its general availability, with a slant toward newer biographies because they're just more fun and maybe the author's been on The Daily Show.

But I didn't choose which Washington bio to read myself. Last Christmas, my lovely wife (then fiancee) Jess decided to start me on my journey through the presidents by giving me James Thomas Flexner's Washington: The Indispensable Man.

Flexner had written an enormous four-volume tome on Washington, and later released a condensed single version because he wanted people like me to read it.

What struck me first was the inside front cover, the painting "View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza" by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

In the caption, Flexner lists the characters in the painting and adds, "dog unidentified." It occurred to me he could have just said "and dog" or left the animal out entirely, but that's not how Flexner rolls. Clearly he wished he could tell us who that dog was, because of course the beloved creature had a name, an identity, and probably a crucial role in Washington's second term...but the truth eluded him.

It was clear in Flexner's book that Washington and his contemporaries knew they were living in a historically significant time and the details of their lives would be preserved. The simple phrase "dog unidentified" stuck with me as a reminder that some of the simpler things just can't be known.

Mount Vernon's website listed the painting in its collection (it's now at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History), and their description read: "Nelly's dog, Frisk, plays on the lawn with a child, possibly belonging to Washington's aide, Tobias Lear."

What. The. Hell. Nelly was Washington's step-granddaughter, and according to, the dog unidentified isn't unidentified at all, it's Frisk, her pet spaniel. (No one seems to care who the child was. No one.)

James Thomas Flexner died in 2003, or else I would try to contact him and ask him if Frisk's identity was only recently discovered, or if he was well aware of this whole "Frisk" theory but wasn't having it. Or maybe Flexner found some evidence, some conspiracy, some...Friskgate that produced a shadow of a doubt shadowy enough that he couldn't in good conscience identify the dog.

Whatever the case, it makes me think my wife made a good choice by choosing an author whose attention to detail meant I was in good hands. In a world where so much information is available instantly, it gives me hope that some things still remain a mystery.