George Washington & The Disinformation Troll: A President’s Week Story

During President’s Day—and week—we hear many a story about the glory of George Washington. Today, historians are taking a holistic approach to viewing historical figures—observing all aspects of their life, in as much as the available record allows.

One such interesting aspect was that the first President was the victim of an aggressive media troll. Propelled almost single-handedly by an individual acting as the tool of others, the attacks on the first President actually encouraged readers to go to the presidential mansion in Philadelphia to shout epithets and threats.

The troll was Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson and apprentice of the more famous Ben Franklin. Bache published the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper and used it to print accusations largely based on information sent to him by those who opposed Washington’s policies.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin Bache

Back then, before the brief heyday of objective journalism some centuries later, there was nothing to stop Bache from excerpting material—or even lying—to create the story he wanted to tell. Without independent editorial oversight, his paper functioned very much like that of some modern-day “news” outlets: unchecked, heavy on opinion and bombast.*

Yet Washington kept his own counsel—confidant that Bache’s unfounded fury would eventually fade in the light of the truth. Although, for more than a year after Washington retired, Bache continued his libelous attacks until his own death of Yellow Fever in 1798 at age 29.**

Benjamin Franklin Bache

Why was Bache so against George Washington? In part, because of Bache’s own self-importance—Bache was enraged that Washington refused to grant him (and others like him) fame and position in deference to the achievements of their famous forebears. But Washington was staunchly opposed to patronage—believing that just because things usually went someone’s way didn’t mean they always had to.

Another reason for Bache’s pseudo-journalistic assaults was that he considered Washington an “outsider.” He did not believe Washington, a Virginian, to be “one of them”. To Bache, Washington was an interloper who was not a “real” Philadelphian. To Bache’s mind, Washington’s work on behalf of the republic paled because the first president simply didn’t “know his place.”

Today, the “us” vs. “them” of that era is portrayed clearly: “us” equals patriots and “them” equal the British. Yet, truthfully, only one-third of the nation supported Revolution, while another third opposed it and the remaining didn’t care either way.

For Washington whose father’s untimely death cost him opportunities in status and education, “them” specifically comprised people whom he believed had more chances than he did and, later, his political rivals. In larger American society, “them” equaled native people, enslaved Africans, other people of color and women.

Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation

For Bache, “us” equaled those other supercilious persons who, like him, believed in their own exalted significance. “Them” were all who failed to be cowed by the malevolent bludgeon of his publication. Bache’s 18th century the language of othering people into “us” and “them” took the same predictable forms as today: “not one of us”; “not really from here” and “who does that person think they are?” All were used by Bache in some form.

First page of the Jay Treaty

Ultimately, Benjamin Franklin Bache was most skillful at tapping into his readers’ fear of change, couching personal attacks on Washington within social questions guaranteed to trigger outrage. When Washington decided America should remain neutral during the French Revolution, Bache accused him of disloyalty to a trusted ally. It was an observation that didn’t explore the other side: America’s potential reputational damage supporting a frenzied, blood-thirsty revolt.

And again, in 1795, Washington felt he had no choice but to sign the Jay Treaty to avert another war with Britain, Bache obtained a copy of the Treaty and pre-published it to tap residual anti-British sentiment—ignoring the legitimate financial reasons that necessitated agreement. Later, Bache went so far as to publish forged documents implying Washington’s motives in the Revolutionary War were entirely self-serving.

Yet, the truth was that Washington was making hard, unpopular, decisions to protect the infant United States from chaos and financial ruin. In so doing, it’s easy to imagine he was following an admonition he wrote to himself as a teenager in a small diary he entitled Rules of Civility–and continued to follow in his life as a military commander, politician and Free Mason:

labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience

Join us to learn more interesting and unusual facts about President Washington at our Ale to the Chief Washington Beer Bash on his birthday, this Saturday, February 22.

* Kohn, George C. The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal, Benjamin Franklin Bache: Vengeance Through Journalism p20 Facts on File, 2000.

** Benjamin Franklin Bache,

Are Things Always As They Appear?

In 1992, the Museum (then Westport Historical Society) received the gift of an invitation date December 13th 1798 from President George Washington to a Mr. Sprague. Precious as it was, this gift was carefully locked away in the Museum vault and only its facsimile made public appearances.

It was, arguably, the most important holding in the Museum’s collection.

And it was also a fake.

George Washington engraving

The original intake paperwork for the gift clearly indicated that the invitation was authentic but that the signature was most likely not Washington’s. Still, lore among volunteers, staff and visitors nonetheless quickly spread that the Museum owned an authentic Washington autograph.

George Washington engraving c. 1876, Courtesy Library of Congress

The truth wasn’t discovered until almost 30 years later when a Museum staff member with an expertise in Washingtonia quickly recognized that the signature did not belong to the first president. After being taken out of its frame, the deception would prove to go even further. The signature was on the back of an invitation to a presidential dinner dated December 13th, 1798—almost two years after Washington left office.

Portrait of John Adams

Even though the fake was obvious, we nonetheless sent it to our colleagues at Mount Vernon for authentication. In the museum world–as in other fields such as journalism and the law–multiple sources to prove or disprove the appearance of fact are considered best practice. However, as expected, Mount Vernon quickly confirmed what we already knew (that the signature was a fraud) and what we suspected (that the invite itself wasn’t even real.)

Portrait of John Adams, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Ultimately, it turned out that the printed invitation was one often used by the Adams administration—as confirmed by the John Adams Papers Project experts at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

So, who was the invited guest—this Mr. Sprague? There was a Representative called Peleg Sprague serving his last year in Congress at the time of this invite. The dinner in question was held on a Thursday—which was in fact the customary day of the week for official Congress dinners first held by Washington and later, Adams.

Presidential dining table fully set

More intriguing, Washington was in Philadelphia (then the nation’s capital) as was President John Adams December 13th 1798. Washington was there to raise an army for what the government believed might be an impending invasion by France. Washington’s diaries indicate, however, that he dined alone in his rooms on the day in question.

Presidential dining as depicted in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum, Courtesy

Grains of truth (the date; that it was a real invite of the Adams era; the presence of all parties in the capital city on that date) lent veracity to what was, essentially, a false representation of facts. No doubt Peleg Sprague was invited to official dinners on Thursdays by President Adams but he certainly wasn’t invited to one on this day by George Washington.

Coincidentally, another Sprague– William B.– was a known autograph collector and the first person to gather the signatures of all the signers of the Declaration Of Independence. At the time of his death, he had amassed over 10,000 signatures including those written upon an impressive array of presidential pamphlets, papers and invitations.

But in 1798, the date of our invitation, William B. Sprague was only 3 years old.

Is it possible that our document was a humorous conceit on the part of the later autograph aficionado Sprague? Or was it something more nefarious—someone’s carefully, curated document presenting a limited perspective because there was little fear that it would be picked apart and the fraud discovered?

Indeed, the trickery might not ever have been made plain had someone not come along to question what was presented and taken for fact.

Now, the value of our “Washington signature” centers not on its veracity but in the success of its deception. It is proof of how a lie, well told, can become the truth—at least in the minds (and sadly pocketbooks) of some.

Despite the corroboration of experts, there are still those who hold dearly to the idea that the signature we own is an authentic Washington. We can understand why—it’s hard to relinquish carefully held ideas built around our own fervent beliefs but, in the end, facts will out.

In honor of President’s Day visitors can see for themselves this and other scams at our next Tuesday Treasures—Counterfeit History: Fun With Fakes & Phonies, Tuesday, February 4th at 6:30pm.