By Hardy Jackson
Notice how folks who want to make other folks stand up and take notice will insist that whatever point they are trying to make was first made by one of this nation’s founding fathers? Seems like everyone with a cause feels that the endorsement by a Jefferson or Adams, Hancock or Henry, is all they need to give their cause credibility.
Makes you wonder if there’s not a book out there with founding fathers listed and cross-referenced by category and cause. A sample entry might be:
“Dumb Baby Names: See Button Gwinnett, Georgia signer of the Declaration of Independence.”
Maybe I oughta compile one.
The best of all the founding fathers, the one whose endorsement tops the rest, is George Washington.
If Washington said it, or did it or just considered it, surely it is something all of us should say, do or consider. We have elevated him to secular sainthood, made shrines of the places he slept, holy relics from the bits and pieces of his life. Abe Lincoln wore a ring containing a sliver of wood from the great man’s coffin. William McKinley did Lincoln one better and carried about a lock of Washington’s hair.
Remember, back in the ‘60s when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman organized the Youth International Party – “Yippies” – a bunch that made self-respecting hippies reconsider their career choice? Among the many things Jerry and Abby advocated was the legalization of marijuana. And when good and decent folks suggested that was a bad idea, the “Yippies” announced that they only wanted to smoke a little grass like George Washington did. What was good enough for the father of our country was surely good enough for his descendants.
You see, someone had discovered that Washington, like so many colonial planters, grew hemp to make bagging and rope, and the hemp he grew was good old American cannabis. So the “Yippies” assumed that if he grew it, he smoked it. The fact that there was no evidence to suggest that Washington or any other founding father was doing dope mattered little to Ruben, Hoffman and company. They had their “endorsement” and they waved it like a flag.
I thought of this when I heard that the Distilled Spirits Council had recreated the whiskey that George Washington made at Mount Vernon. Yep, the foundingest of our founding fathers ran off “shine.”
Like so many of our way-back ancestors, Washington supplemented his income with the profits from distilling, and when he died the business was bringing in over $100,000 a year in today’s money. Run with slave labor, the operation produced a product which, recreated, was declared to be “spicy and aromatic” – words not usually associated with whiskey, but what the heck, the guys doing the recreating were pros, so they should know.
And for these pros, who are spending over $1 million to excavate the site and rebuild the distillery, being at that spot was something akin to a religious experience. “For me, it’s like standing on hallowed ground,” was how Jerry Dalton, Jim Beam’s master distiller put it. And being so moved Dalton and his buddies have vowed to make a couple of barrels of the brew, age it, bottle it and sell it to raise money to help protect and preserve Mount Vernon.
To their credit, the group has not made more of what they are doing than what it is – an exercise in historical restoration.
The fact that Washington made, sold and probably drank whiskey is relevant today only in that it helps us understand the economy and culture of early America. It gives us the same insight into life in the late 18th century as does the fact that our founding father made his whiskey with the labor of enslaved African Americans. That Washington did both – distilled whiskey and owned slaves – should not be taken as an endorsement of either practice today.
You can get into a lot of trouble trying to make things done and said in a different time and context apply to modern situations. Would our founding fathers do and say today what they did and said back then?
We don’t know. And neither do all those folks who say they do. And if anyone asks, that should be our answer.
Harvey H. Jackson, professor emeritus of history at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.