Letters from Readers – April 2009 American History

The Whole Truth
I’m curious as to why Bruce Chadwick, in “The Mysterious Death of Judge George Wythe” (February 2009), didn’t mention the widespread rumor that Wythe’s protégé and fellow murder victim, Michael Brown, was his son with his maid and former slave, Lydia Broadnax.

Michael Brown was a mulatto, which means that his father was almost certainly white. Wythe left his house and other property to Lydia, and half his bank stock to Michael. He also asked Thomas Jefferson to attend to Michael’s “maintenance, education & other benefit,” at the same time as Jefferson was arranging for his own children with Sally Hemings to learn professions by which they could support themselves outside of slavery.

The issue of the magazine even includes an interview with historian Annette Gordon-Reed about the family life of Thomas Jefferson and the Hemingses of Monticello. It seems like a glaring omission not to mention the rumor about Brown being Wythe’s son, even if you believe the rumor is false.
Woody Woodruff
New York, N.Y.

Bruce Chadwick replies: Rumors have been repeated over the years that Michael Brown was Wythe’s son, but I left them out of the article because they have no basis in fact. Investigations conducted by Wythe biographer Imogene Brown and two researchers from Colonial Williamsburg’s Rockefeller Library have concluded that Wythe and Brown were not related.

Wythe had no children with either of his wives, and the speculation was that he was sterile. Michael Brown was born around 1790, just after the death of Wythe’s second wife, Elizabeth. Broadnax was given her freedom by Wythe in 1787, which meant that Michael would have been born free if he was her child. Yet Wythe referred to the teenage Michael as his “freed boy,” meaning that he had been born a slave and later freed. According to both the Williamsburg and Richmond population records of that era, Lydia Broadnax had no children. Childless slave owners or those who lived with freedmen in Virginia often provided for them in their wills, as Wythe did. In addition, cor­respondence from people who knew Wythe never mentioned a relationship between him and Broadnax, other than that of employer and worker.

Just because Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with a slave woman does not mean that George Wythe did too.

No Comparison
I read Tom Huntington’s review of Forgotten Patriots (February 2009) and was supremely disappointed by his comparison of how the British treated prisoners in the Revolutionary War to Abu Ghraib and Guántanamo Bay. What a completely ridiculous comparison. Does Huntington realize how well prisoners are treated at Guántanamo? And harsh interrogation tactics, necessary in my opinion, hardly compare to the disgusting contempt British soldiers had for their American prisoners. Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident by a bunch of miscreant soldiers that hardly defines the great work so many in the military did in keeping watch over some very dangerous terrorists.
Mike D’Virgilio
Bolingbrook, Ill.

The editors reply: Tom Huntington’s review quoted the book’s author, Edwin Burrows, as saying, “I have refrained from drawing parallels to contemporary events, but I will not be sorry if readers find themselves thinking about Abu Ghraib and Guántanamo Bay.”

The Natives Are Restless
I have been a reader and subscriber for several years. However, your February 2009 issue had an error that is “offensive” to Alaskan natives. In “Why You Should Know More About Maine,” you claim that Maine has 3,478 miles of coastline, the longest of any state. In fact, Alaska has 6,660 miles of general coastline and 33,904 miles of tidal coastline. Maine has some wonderful features, as well as some curious footnotes. Don’t overreach.
Dale Richesin
Togiak, Alaska

The editors reply: No offense intended. Sometimes we in the Lower 48 (sorry, 49, including Hawaii) need reminding to look beyond our contiguous border.

Wagons, Ho!
Great job in Deconstructed in the February issue (“Pennsylvania’s Conestoga Wagon”). I spent many years as a middle school history teacher and much effort during that time trying to counter textbook claims that the Western settlers’ wagons were Conestogas. If I were still in the classroom, I would use your detailed explanation to differentiate the Conestoga from the prairie schooner. How about a similar feature on the schooner?
Bruce E. MacDonald
Seattle, Wash.

On the Fence
Growing up in Chicago in the late ’40s, I remember hearing another definition of “mugwump” (Lexicon, February 2009). A mugwump was an individual who wouldn’t take a position on an issue. He had his “mug” on one side of the fence and his “wump” on the other.
Tom Coyne
via e-mail

Fair and Balanced
The review of “Grant and Lee” (February 2009) calls Robert E. Lee “an unapologetic slave owner.” Lee’s greatest motivation in supporting the Confederacy was the preservation of states’ rights, not slavery.
Amanda Lawler
Fishers, Ind.


2 Responses

  1. Herbert Barger

    Just as one of the posters mentioned that Wythe was innocent of this charge Thomas Jefferson also is innocent of that Jefferson/Hemings charge. I worked with Dr Foster, DNA Study, and NOTHING proves TJ guilty, it is just a large agenda to be politiocally correct and the revise history.

    Dr Foster tested a KNOWN carrier of Jefferson DNA as always believed by Eston Hemings (a Jefferson uncle or nephew), and YES, there would automatically be a match, and there was, but it was not THOMAS. Dr Fostyer did not inmform Nature of this as I had suggested. Dr Foster started the ball rolling, continued by Nature who nothing of other Jeffersons and finally Monticello had a biased and one sided study that further implicated Thomas.

    Folks……….YOU ARE BEING CONNED from several quarters. See http://www.tjheritage.org and http://www.jeffersondna.com for full details.

    Herb Barger
    Jefferson Family Historian
    Founder, Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society

  2. Paul Troyer

    Mr. Chadwick: With all respect, as a thinking, educated person and student of history, I must disagree with your conclusion that the persistent rumors that Lydia was Mr. Wythe’s concubine and Michael his son “have no basis in fact.” In your statement, you set forth that former/slaveholders often left bequests to their slaves. This simply is not so. Bequests were rare, and when done, fell far short of a stately home in the heart of exclusive Williamsburg and a promise of a first-rate education that Mr.Wythe left to these individuals. Moreover, it is a fact that Wythe made then President of the United States Thomas Jefferson executor of his will so that his wishes could be exectued. If this is not breathtaking confirmation of the veracity of these “rumors” I simply don’t know what is. Also, to point to omissions in “correspondence from people who knew Whythe” as dispositive of the issue is laughable given 1.) Mr. Wythe’s gilded standing in the community, 2.)the prevalence of these intimate relationships, and 3.) perhaps most importantly, the time-honored tradition of keeping such relationships private. After all, white men could have been sued for slander and slaves could have beaten or killed for speaking of such things. (Even today, there is a reluctance to do so.) Lastly, with regard to Michael’s freedom, have you not considered that Virginia law would have required that Michael be expressly freed, despite being born to a free mother, since his mother resided and he was born in a slave-holding state? To not address these “rumors” in your text was a glaring omission. In so doing, you have denied the reading public a more robust understanding and discussion of colonial life and, in particular, a better understanding of why Mr. Sweeny felt that he had to resort to murder to claim the entire estate.


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