With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Kavanaughs of the Founding generation

In a recent rare news conference, President Trump defended Supreme Court nominee — now justice — Brett M. Kavanaugh by arguing that the Democrats would vote against George Washington if he were nominated. No man is perfect, Trump argued. After all, didn’t even Washington “have a couple things in his past?”

Yes, he did. Although Washington and the other Founding Fathers remain almost sacrosanct in our society today, they, too, were accused of mistreating women. And there is a disturbing consistency in the handling of allegations of sexual impropriety made against elite men from the founding of America to Kavanaugh’s supporters today. Accusations then as now are treated as politically motivated character attacks rather than analyzed as sexual abuses by men possessing the power to protect themselves from consequences.

George Washington was an elite man of his time, a Southern slaveholder and revered gentleman who is not known to have fathered any children. And yet his family structure — notably his wife Martha’s half-sister, Ann Dandridge — exposed the limitations of democracy in the early republic. Dandridge and Martha Washington shared a father, but Dandridge was born to an enslaved woman and was herself enslaved. Her status as a slave was transferred to her four daughters, Martha’s nieces, who were born as property of the Washington family. Through legally permissible sexual assault, namely the raping of slaves by their owners, masters such as Martha Washington’s father were able to ensure a generational expansion of their slave property.

But it was Thomas Jefferson whose alleged sexual impropriety became a national political issue. Jefferson was president during a time of increased polarization, after the two main political parties had solidified. Jefferson, therefore, endured multitudes of character attacks from a press that prided itself on partisanship. During the election of 1800, for example, one newspaper projected that if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

During Jefferson’s first term, a disgruntled journalist, formerly a Jefferson supporter, published an article describing Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. At the time, the accusation of Jefferson’s long-term relationship with “his concubine, one of his own slaves” resulting in “several children” was mostly rumor and could not be confirmed. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post