The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fake news that haunted George Washington

Letters attributed — falsely — to George Washington said the Americans had “grasped at things beyond our reach” by revolting against Britain. (PRNewsFoto/Dallas Auction Gallery)

The Revolutionary War was at a crucial point in 1777 when a remarkable set of documents surfaced in London that cast doubt on Yankee resolve.

With France not yet helping the struggling rebels, a packet of letters said to have been intercepted from Gen. George Washington showed that the American leader was far from committed to the cause. In eloquent, plaintive language, he told his closest family that he was miserable and that the war was a mistake.

“But we have overshot our mark,” read a letter to Lund Washington, a cousin who managed Mount Vernon, “we have grasped at things beyond our reach: it is impossible we should succeed; and, I cannot with truth, say that I am sorry for it; because I am far from being sure that we deserve to succeed.”

Oh, George, say it ain’t so!

It wasn’t. The letters were forgeries. It took a long time for that to be widely known, though, and the letters dogged Washington for the rest of his life. They resurfaced two decades later, during his presidency, when critics were slamming him for being too accommodating to the former British overlords.

Turns out that fake news — that most disorienting symptom of modern political dysfunction — isn’t so modern after all. People were making stuff up and foisting it on the public back when it was spelled publick. Ye olde fake news, you might say.

The seven missives — known to scholars as the “spurious letters” — are a particularly sophisticated example of the craft. Written with a close ear for Washington’s style, full of intimate personal details, they go just a few shrewd steps beyond statements the great man actually made when bemoaning his plight. Their origin remains a mystery, though Washington spent years trying to track down the author.

Somebody put serious effort into the way they were presented, complete with a preface from an unnamed “editor” who used the salesman’s trick of seeming to side with a doubtful audience.

“The public will naturally be inquisitive as to the authenticity of the following letters,” the trickster wrote in a pamphlet that was widely distributed on both sides of the Atlantic. “For everything else they will speak for themselves: and, for their genuineness, the editor conceives himself concerned to give only such vouchers as he himself has received.”

From there the editor laid out the tale: A Loyalist friend serving under British Brig. Gen. Oliver De Lancey of New York had come across a familiar-looking prisoner after the Yankees fled Fort Lee, N.J. — a “mulatto fellow” named Billy whom he recognized as a slave owned by Washington. Apparently, Billy had gotten separated from the general in the confusion of the retreat and was left holding a small trunk belonging to Washington.

In the trunk, the British soldier found some stockings and shirts — and a packet of letters. “I read these with avidity,” the editor quoted the soldier as saying, “and being highly entertained with them, have shewn them to several of my friends, who all agree with me, that he is a very different character from what they had supposed him. I never knew a man so much to be pitied.”

By now the Colonial-era reader could not help but be intrigued. The basic elements are true — Washington fled Fort Lee in haste, and he had a personal slave named William. And the letters were being presented with due skepticism and with sympathy for their supposed author.

After all, poor George comes across as noble — he tells his stepson that he is married to both his sword and to Martha, and “death alone shall divorce me from either” — but also henpecked. He opens a letter to Martha by declaring how wounded he is that she suspects him of being less concerned about her.

“The suspicion is most unjust,” he writes, “may I not add, it is most unkind?” Yes, he confesses, he hasn’t written as often lately. But, um, he’s a little distracted with this whole war thing: “But think of my situation, and then ask your heart, if I be without excuse.”

Then, with all the smoothness of somebody who fathered a whole country, he proclaims that his heart “must cease to beat, ere it can cease to wish for your happiness, above any thing on earth.” Plus, he urges her to get inoculated against smallpox.

All pretty charming so far, right? So you’re off guard when you get to the part where he pines for reconciliation with Britain and avows that “I love my King.”

The letters are so well crafted that Washington himself was impressed. “These letters are written with a great deal of art,” he (actually) wrote to his friend Richard Henry Lee. But Washington lamented the “villainy” that produced them and urged his friends to track down the author.

He came to believe that they had been written by John Randolph of Virginia, a Loyalist who fled to England during the war and died there. Looking back at the evidence in the late 1800s, Library of Congress scholar Worthington Chauncey Ford felt the case for Randolph being the author was compelling.

Ford also pointed out that there were several errors in the letters that undermine their authenticity, starting with the fact that Washington’s slave William Lee was never captured by the British.

For his part, Washington appealed to friends and acquaintances over the years to consider that the letters did not reflect his character. But with a restraint that seems very foreign today, he appears not to have responded in any newspapers or gazettes, and to have let his reputation stand on its own.

Until the very end. In the final days of his presidency, he put a statement into the public record disavowing each of the seven letters: “I have thought it a duty that I owe to myself, my country, and to truth . . . to add my solemn declaration, that the letters herein described are a base forgery, and that I never saw or heard of them until they appeared in print.”

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering sent that letter out to all the newspapers and gazettes that had printed the fakes, and publishers updated the official collection of Washington’s papers. And it’s heartening to realize that Washington’s faith in posterity was well placed — more people today believe that he chopped down a cherry tree than that he doubted the rightness of the Revolution.

Of course, the cherry tree was fake news, too.

Read more on Retropolis:

Dead presidents are mouthing off on Twitter. Nixon won’t shut up. 

The invention of sarin gas was an accident. A German scientist was trying to kill bugs. 

As a vote on entering World War I approached, the only woman in Congress faced an agonizing choice

The U.S. joined the Great War 100 years ago. America and warfare were never the same.