Well, this British summer of 2018 continues. Yesterday was yet another scorcher of a day. No one is going to dare assert that this summer has not been an actual summer.
As I write this and think about it now, I cannot recall any rain here in our area where we live – about 30 minutes north of central London – since at least back in the middle of June. That’s now more than a month ago. Incredible. And today is supposed to be even hotter than yesterday.
Yesterday as well, after I decided to tear – politely – into the presumption that authors are supposed to write fictional stories in order to satisfy the demands of academics, publishers, and, worst of all, governments, before the heat got to be too much here in the top floor office – a converted late-1600s loft space – I actually did get some writing done. Did you ever want to meet George Washington? That’s obviously not possible… and that’s why there are novels:
As the first US president (1789-97), Washington began hold regular public “levees.” Organized by his wife Martha at their presidential residences in New York City and in Philadelphia (the White House in the new national capital city was not completed until 1800, after he left office), they included a receiving line: guests would pass the president and he and those guests would share a few pleasantries. Martha would usually join in.
With the Constitution offering so few details of what he was actually supposed to be doing as president, being the first one Washington made a lot of it up as he went along. In this case, he believed that even republican institutions required a degree of formality and reverence, as well as a chance for members of the public to see their president. There was no television in those days, of course.
Over time, though, the growing formality of the events drew criticism from some quarters that they were “too monarchical.” One of those who disliked them was Thomas Jefferson. As is well-known, he and Washington had their differences of policy opinion (most famously, Jefferson thought the US should support the French revolutionaries, while as president Washington wanted the US to remain neutral in the new conflict between France and England), but there had always been a mutual respect.
However, they would fall out once and for all when, shortly before Washington left office, an ugly criticism directed at him from Jefferson in a private 1796 letter that appeared to question Washington’s independence of thought and even patriotism – “…men who were Samsons in the field & Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.” – became public when its Italian recipient had it published in Europe.
Despite any developing political differences, for years Jefferson and Washington had remained regular correspondents, often writing in friendly terms about non-political matters.
But upon learning of Jefferson’s words about him there, Washington never wrote to Jefferson again.
Washington died in late 1799, just under two years after he left office. Living until 1802 – after Jefferson was elected president – Martha Washington survived her husband by two and a half years. To the end reportedly she refused to say Jefferson’s name.
Outliving George Washington by nearly 27 years, that carefully worded broadside (never mentioning Washington by name, but given the context it was obvious to whom he was referring) haunted Thomas Jefferson for the rest of his life. (“He insulted Washington!” was often thrown at him by opponents.) He did try – as we might say today – “to walk it back,” but naturally many never forgot or forgave. (With access now to so many Jefferson letters that contemporaries unsurprisingly never knew about, we find regularly that he loved using hyperbole.) Just a reminder that the devastating impact of a poor choice of private words made public is not new.
Have a good day, wherever you are. If you are here in England, try to stay “cool.” 🙂