George, Thomas and Those Other Guys

Which of the following founding fathers were gentlemen?
A. Thomas Jefferson
B. George Washington
C. Richard Morris
D. Benjamin Franklin
E. Alexander Hamilton

Thomas Jefferson might be associated with what modern day readers would think of as gentlemanly behavior; he was sophisticated and urbane, savoring literature, architecture, art, and the best of wine and foods, tastes he refined while serving as ambassador to France. But this is only a superficial assessment: in matters of substance, he left much to be desired; he lived and died in debt, always living, often ostentatiously, beyond his means. He fathered children by his slave and housekeeper, and made no effort to acknowledge or educate those children. He made advances to Maria Cosway, a married woman. He pretended to be above the political fray, but secretly orchestrated smear campaigns against his political enemies. He was accused of cowardice, fleeing the Virginia capital of Williamsburg at the first hint of British attack during the war of 1812. In matters of style he was a gentleman, in matters of substance, not so much.

George Washington, on the other hand, most certainly was a gentleman, both in form and substance, and even wrote a book on manners. His demeanor and bearing are of no small import, because without the respect that he inspired, in large part because of his bearing, there would very likely be no America as we know it. He was the one man who all parties respected, and his military leadership during the revolution, and service as the nation’s first president were absolutely critical to keeping America intact during the very early stages of nationhood. Washington was not as brilliant or as well read as Jefferson, Franklin, or Hamilton, but his integrity was unquestioned. He was a physically imposing man, and carried himself regally. He was a somewhat haughty and formal man, who did not encourage, or even tolerate, excessive familiarity, but he was also the man who suffered through the incredibly harsh winters with the troops at Valley Forge, earning their respect and admiration. While no man is perfect, his life was a model of both public and private virtue in service of the nation. His great failing was that he was a slaveowner; however, unlike Jefferson, his Will provided that they be set free at his wife’s death.

Richard Morris is the least known of the founding fathers, but his service as a financier was critical as the nation struggled in its early days to become a financially solvent, real entity. According to author Richard Brookhiser, Morris “alone among the founding fathers, thought that his private life was as important as his public life. Being a gentleman mattered as much as being a great man. His conduct, from his teens on, is marked by courage, courtesy, and warmth – by affection for his friends, sympathy for the afflicted, and disdain for bullies.”

Benjamin Franklin was a truly amazing man; successful publisher and businessman, internationally known scientist and inventor, philanthropist, and, as a diplomat in France, critical to securing French support for the American Revolution. But to say that he was a gentleman might be something of a stretch; he loved his time in France, and seems to have spent much of it flirting with and romancing the French ladies, and saying witty things in salons. All well and good, and such dalliances may have helped his reputation in France, where he was enormously popular. But it is hard to reconcile his advanced years as a Bon Vivant and gallant with the sincerity and moral depth that is characteristic of a gentleman. He was inventive, good, brilliant, useful; many things, but was he a gentleman?

Alexander Hamilton, America’s brilliant Treasury Secretary, might be responsible for laying the groundwork of America’s commercial success, and he fought a duel, in which he died, to prove his adherence to what was accepted at the time as a code of manly behavior. Implicated in a romance that became a source of scandal, and probably ruining his chance to become president, he was, nonetheless, a sincere man who tried to live a good and virtuous life, and honoring his word. In the final analysis, despite the stains on his reputation, he was a gentleman, and, more importantly, a good and great man. He has the learning of Jefferson without the polish, the lust of Franklin without the frivolity, and it says much about his character that he learned at the feet of Washington, who was his mentor and role model, and that Washington trusted him implicitly.

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