While legends quote founding father George Washington as saying “I cannot tell a lie,” the University of Texas has obtained a historical artifact that shows Washington might not have been as truthful as originally thought.
UT’s Briscoe Center for American History recently acquired a 1769 letter sent by Washington to John Armstrong, then a justice of the peace who later served as a general during the American Revolution. In the letter, Washington condemns the killing of three Mingo tribesmen by colonists, while at the same time suggesting that the event be covered up or spun in a more positive light. Scholars have known about the letter for a while now, but the University announced last week it is now in possession of it.
History professor H.W. Brands said the letter is significant because it sheds light on Washington’s opinions regarding Native American-colonial relations.
“His views were not unusual; they were shared by Benjamin Franklin, among others,” Brands said. “Both men, and many others, wished the Indians to be treated fairly and were distressed when Indians were abused, as the three Mingos described in this letter were.”
In the letter, Washington expressed he believed the colonists responsible for the unprovoked killing on the south bank of the Potomac River should be punished for their crime. At the same time, he said he did not wish the truth of the crime to be widely known.
“It is lucky however that there were no more than three in as much as none escaped to carry the Intelligence,” Washington wrote. “And we, in consequence, may represent it in as favourable a light, as the thing will admit of, having the knowledge of it confined to our selves.”
Brands said this was an effort to avoid further conflict.
“Washington didn’t want the news to get out because he didn’t want a broad war with the Indians,” Brands said. “He regretted the murder, but he didn’t want the situation to get worse. This wasn’t peculiar to Washington, it was simply common sense.”
The letter was donated to the Briscoe Center by the Kidd family, who originally acquired it during the 1970s. Barron U. Kidd graduated from UT’s Plan II Honors Program in 1958, and said the letter is a way to express his appreciation to the University.
“I look forward to the fact that students, faculty and everyone may view the letter and see what Washington’s writing looked like, how he phrased sentences and how our language has evolved over time,” Kidd said in a statement.