Letters from Readers – April 2009 American History

2/5/2009 • AH Issues, Thomas Jefferson

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.