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. 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.** 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 …

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. 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. 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. 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.) 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 …