Scorpion Tongues: Gossip Through the Ages
Gail Collins explores the serious effects of gossip, noting that it can be unpredictable -- flattening one person's reputation while passing over another's with hardly a rustle.
The Founding Fathers
"Allowances must be made for occasional effeervescenes"
George Washington was a hero of almost godlike proportions to his countrymen. 'I could
fall down on my knees before him," cried a young woman in the crowd on his first
Inauguration Day. In an age before photography, Washington was the only major politician
whose features were familiar to the average citizen-cheap copies of his portrait hung in
almost every American home, his face decorated porcelain pitchers and bowls on every
table. Unfortunately, since most of the reproductions were terrible, his admirers probably
weren't sure of much beyond a large nose and receding hairline. But for average
Americans, his face was still as critical a unifying symbol as the flag.
Some of the other heroes of the Revolution, like John Adams, couldn't understand why a
man so ordinary, with no real intellect, charm, or even all that much military talent, got such
adoration. They had done just as much to build the new nation, but their pictures weren't
hanging in every American hut or mansion. Unsurprisingly, they enjoyed gossiping about
his shortcomings. Washington, they sniped, was practically illiterate. He had been seen
making a purchase in a shop, and was unable to count the change. He was so cheap he
was practically a miser, and he had cheated a friend out of a piece of land. The last story
upset Washington so much that he published a challenge daring his accusers to come
forward and prove their charge.
Like human beings throughout history, Revolutionary-era Americans enjoyed hashing over
the private failings of their acquaintances. But the Founding Fathers would not have
connected that kind of talk with political gossip. (They wouldn't have thought of themselves
as politicians, either.) The moral code they were concerned with was the one requiring that
government be conducted at the highest ethical levels. The code was broken all the time,
and that was shameful behavior a public man would want to keep hidden behind closed
doors. So when Thomas Jefferson, that great cataloger, kept records of the political gossip
of his era, he wrote about men acting out of selfish motives, going back on a bargain, lying
about their intentions, or holding a secret sympathy for monarchism. In Jefferson's time,
calling someone a self-interested politician was likely to lead to a challenge to a duel. No
one regarded running the government as an amoral game of favor-trading. These people
knew they were building a new nation, and they expected history to judge them on the basis
of their public honor.
Even when they did dip into what we would think of as gossipy talk, it tended to reflect public
concerns. Stories about John Adams often stressed his fondness for things British -- a
reflection of the on-going dispute over whether the nation should side with Britain or France
in international affairs. Perhaps the most inventive tale had him sending General Charles
Pinckney to England to procure four beautiful mistresses for them to share. "I do declare on
my honor, if this be true Gen. Pinckney has cheated me out of my two," retorted Adams.
Imperious behavior was a favorite theme, reflecting the national fear of kings or dictators.
Adams, who was naturally pompous, was always being accused of acting as if he had
inherited the country, more abused by the press than any man in history. (A remarkable
number of his successors would lay claim to the same distinction.) "Allowances must be
made for occasional effervescences," he wrote a friend gamely. But the assaults almost
broke his faithful and unimaginative heart. He retired after his second term and was left
mercifully alone until his death from pneumonia. The neighbors immediately speculated
that the ex-president had caught the chill visiting a mistress on a rainy night.
Copyright 1998 by Gail Collins
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