In a recent rare news conference, President Trump defended Supreme Court nominee — now justice — Brett M. Kavanaugh by arguing that the Democrats would vote against George Washington if he were nominated. No man is perfect, Trump argued. After all, didn’t even Washington “have a couple things in his past?”
Yes, he did. Although Washington and the other Founding Fathers remain almost sacrosanct in our society today, they, too, were accused of mistreating women. And there is a disturbing consistency in the handling of allegations of sexual impropriety made against elite men from the founding of America to Kavanaugh’s supporters today. Accusations then as now are treated as politically motivated character attacks rather than analyzed as sexual abuses by men possessing the power to protect themselves from consequences.
George Washington was an elite man of his time, a Southern slaveholder and revered gentleman who is not known to have fathered any children. And yet his family structure — notably his wife Martha’s half-sister, Ann Dandridge — exposed the limitations of democracy in the early republic. Dandridge and Martha Washington shared a father, but Dandridge was born to an enslaved woman and was herself enslaved. Her status as a slave was transferred to her four daughters, Martha’s nieces, who were born as property of the Washington family. Through legally permissible sexual assault, namely the raping of slaves by their owners, masters such as Martha Washington’s father were able to ensure a generational expansion of their slave property.
But it was Thomas Jefferson whose alleged sexual impropriety became a national political issue. Jefferson was president during a time of increased polarization, after the two main political parties had solidified. Jefferson, therefore, endured multitudes of character attacks from a press that prided itself on partisanship. During the election of 1800, for example, one newspaper projected that if Jefferson were elected, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
During Jefferson’s first term, a disgruntled journalist, formerly a Jefferson supporter, published an article describing Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. At the time, the accusation of Jefferson’s long-term relationship with “his concubine, one of his own slaves” resulting in “several children” was mostly rumor and could not be confirmed.
Jefferson simply ignored the charge, even as it was reprinted again and again throughout his presidency. And it did little to damage his popularity. While at the time racial miscegenation was strongly condemned by society, slave owners were able to treat their female property in accordance with their own desires, without fear of retribution.
Sexual relationships between masters and slaves epitomized what we recognize today as nonconsensual relationships. It would be impossible for a slave who lacked any freedom of movement or expression to consent to sexual relations with her master, an elite man who could legally torture or even destroy her life. Notably, Hemings, born into slavery, was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, a testament to how common the practice of raping female slaves was.
Jefferson’s defenders were not deterred by the accusations, which they wrote off as attempts at character assassination. Indeed, Jefferson’s reelection in 1804 demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the accusation at denting his popularity.
In 1998, DNA tests revealed Jefferson most likely fathered children with Hemings. Yet even modern science did not faze Jefferson’s defenders. Efforts continue to be made to protect Jefferson’s legacy and rebut the evidence, especially by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, which denounces “the paternity myth.” By contrast, Monticello has openly sought to educate and discuss Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, presenting all the evidence as a continuing debate and allowing people to draw their own conclusions. Americans now have to consider that the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, who espoused a belief that whites and blacks could not live together peaceably, also repeatedly sexually violated one of his female slaves.
The #MeToo movement is forcing a reckoning with our past — as a country and as individuals. The misconception that a person who is exceptionally competent and likable in their professional public capacity must be just as good a person in their private life needs to be permanently rejected. People who choose to enter public life and service should be fully aware that doing so will provide them no protection from their private crimes. The voters have the right to know exactly who they are supporting and whether that person is trustworthy.
Elite men accused of sexual harassment or assault should no longer be able to dismiss accusations as partisan character attacks. To do survivors any justice at all, America must change how it considers character and provide new processes that prioritize the protection of victims and encourage more survivors to step forward, confident that their claims will be heard and carefully weighed, regardless of the status and service of the accused.