(American) Identity Fraud: Jill Lepore’s New Narrative
Men of influence throughout history have endeavored to shape their own identities and public personas, to many effects. America, and its great experiment of democracy, was to foster an equal, equitable, and responsible government and society, one where the leaders were selected on their merits and governed based on the will of the people. Given the disingenuous images of three American icons explored in Jill Lepore’s “The Story of America”, in particular – Thomas Jefferson and his scrupulous exterior, Washington’s firm and resolute visage, and Kit Carson’s larger-than-life action hero bravado – the American identity appears as a morally strong, decisive, stoic, and assertive, all traits that Jefferson, Washington, and Carson had ascribed to them despite not being wholly accurate.
The American identity is an ideal that these men could not measure up to, so they forged an American identity of their own – one of deceit in their public images: “Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia” reads the gravestone of the third President of the United States. These are the deeds by which Thomas Jefferson wanted to be, and indeed is, remembered by. He is seen as a model man of the past who, despite being a controversial slaveholder, could do no wrong. Many misdeeds in Thomas Jefferson’s life were swept under the rug for the sake of his reputation, including a prolonged affair with one of his numerous slaves, Sally Hemings. An alleged affair between Jefferson and Hemings began in 1789, after she was acquired by the Jeffersons from Mr. John Wayles, Thomas’s father-in-law. Thus began the practice of keeping his reputation clean from any speculation. To the public, Thomas Jefferson was loved by the people, trying to keep the government as far away from tyranny as possible. He was a role model in the society of that time, setting an example for those that followed. Due to these being the characteristics and reputation of Jefferson, any thoughts on the affair or “attempting to piece together a plausible view of the matter were… illegitimate speculation, as grave an offense as lying”(Lepore, 202). There was zero tolerance for any kind of slander towards Thomas Jefferson in this regard, ensuring that Jefferson would be precisely remembered how he wanted and for what reflected best on him. In this case, “the real scandal was how far historians…had been willing to go to ignore the evidence right in front of them”(Lepore, 200). Despite there being DNA evidence of a father-Jefferson, the blame was projected onto his nephew Peter Carr, as not to tarnish the disingenuous personality and life of Thomas Jefferson.
Where Jefferson endeavored to hide his significant breaches of morality from the public, Washington was able to hide all but the most lofty parts of his own personality. Washington, as quoted by Lepore, is regarded by biographer Ron Chernow as “the most famously elusive figure in American history”(131). This is because even before he was elected as the first President of the United States, Washington and his contemporaries began shaping his reputation and character toward that of an ideal, humble, seemingly perfect man, smoothing over any other extant kernels of his image. Many stories and claims about Washington helped to form this persona, including Mark Twain saying that Washington could not tell a lie. While it is most likely that George Washington was not a frequent liar, he still specifically chose exactly how he was portrayed and presented to others. He was seen by the people as a man who “embodied the new nation’s vision of itself: virtuous, undaunted, and incorruptible”(Lepore, 134). During this infantile stage of the United States, Washington knew that a strong, respectable leader was needed and that in taking this position he would be put down in history books, causing him to assume the characteristics needed to assure the people. This highly contrasts with the actual George Washington, a hypersensitive, moderately neurotic man. Having been subjected to growing up with a carping mother who was “‘strangely indifferent’ toward her oldest son’s towering ambition”(Lepore, 142), Washington felt a deep need for approval for the rest of his life. This also led to trouble dealing with his emotions, “the genesis of the stoical personality that would later define him so indelibly”(Lepore, 142). While this stoicism presented well in an authority figure, it hid significant insecurities and a fractured man yearning for approval. Having these attributes was not advantageous for a decorated general of the Continental Army and President of the United States, so Washington created a disingenuous public personality to gain and fortify his position in both the people’s hearts and the history books.
Kit Carson, a man well known for his valor, heart, and ability to murder Indians had a persona created for him that was mostly untrue. While he may have killed a few Native Americans in his war days, Carson was not an Indian-Killer as he had been turned into through biographies and dime novels. Through the first biography written about him by DeWitt Clinton Peters, “he wanted to set the record straight. He soon found out he had failed”(Lepore, 211). In this biography, the image by which Carson would be haunted for the rest of his life was formed. Kit was portrayed as a man who killed two Indians at a time, a knife in each hand, saving and wooing women in the process. This is shown to not be the true Carson in the case of Ann White, a woman who had been taken captive by Native Americans. Carson and his team could not get to her in time, and when they found her dead, there was a copy of “Kit Carson”, causing him to realize that he was not the man who he was thought to be through these novels. He claims, “I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundred”(Lepore, 212), but when these are read about, it creates a false advertisement of personality. Carson realized that poor Anne White “had held out hope for a man who never existed”(Lepore, 212). Kit Carson was made to be more of an action movie hero than a real-life soldier, creating a fraudulent and disingenuous reputation for him that he could never live up to. Even on his deathbed being told, “Look ‘ere, you ain’t the kind of Kit Carson I’m looking for” (Lepore, 219).
Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Kit Carson forged their own American identities through erasure, deception, and extravagant glory. These men created or kept up these false public images to bolster their reputations as strong leaders, minds, and soldiers, mainly for the sake of the people. As President, it was vital that Jefferson and Washington were loved and trusted by the people of the United States, so they expunged any scandals or insecurities tied to them, to give the image of a stoic, authoritative, but not corrupt or debauched, leader. In the case of Kit Carson, his false American identity was formed independent of his own wishes. He intended to tell the truth of his tribulations, but as they became more and more like an action movie, people began to latch on, associating it with him no matter what. Throughout the course of their lives, these disingenuous and deceitful personas were placed on these men to help save their reputations, and eventually legacies, from being tarnished and in turn, strengthening them. There are billions of characteristics of Americans, but there is not one exact answer to “What makes an American American?” It is a person’s life, reputation, and legacy that define their identity as one.
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