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The B List: Seven foibles of our Founding Fathers (and Mother)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2013 - Bad enough that textbooks often fail to put a human face on the men – and women – who helped create the United States of America.

If more Americans boned up on the facts and foibles of the nation’s early leaders, such knowledge might help counter the misinformation that crops up repeatedly when the current crowd of politicians often spout off inaccuracies about the Founding Fathers’ actions, beliefs or motives.

As a journalist, I’ve often been just as guilty – but in recent years, I’ve tried to confront my shortcomings and collect more knowledge about our nation’s beginnings.

Here are a few little discussed, but helpful, facts that offer a look at the human beings behind some of the legends:

1. During those eight years overseeing the Revolutionary War, George Washington found time in the heat of battle to fire off detailed notes to his overseers at Mount Vernon about what color to paint the walls, what molding to frame the doors, and even the style of drapes. Poor Martha couldn’t even hang wallpaper, much less buy new silverware, without getting his OK.

2. Thomas Jefferson kept detailed daily lists of his expenditures but never added them up – one reason he died with so much debt. He preferred not to know the totals, those close to him said, because budgets would infringe on his spending, which included buying books and undertaking massive building projects.

3. Jefferson started each day by plunging his feet in a bowl of icy cold water brought by a slave. He believed the cold improved circulation and fought off illness. Since he lived to be 83, very old for the time, he may have been on to something.

4. Jefferson’s shopaholic nature – and his penchant for secret backroom negotiations -- played to the nation’s benefit in 1803, when he snagged the Louisiana Purchase at a bargain price of $15 million because Napoleon – who had gotten the territory from Spain less than two years earlier – was cash-strapped.

5. Martha Washington (5 foot tall) is reported to have chased Jefferson (6 foot, 2 inches) out of Mount Vernon when he showed up in early 1800, just months after Washington’s death, seeking her endorsement in his nasty presidential contest with John Adams. (The battle was tossed to the U.S. House, which elected Jefferson on the 36th ballot.)

6. Alexander Hamilton, by far the youngest of the Founding Fathers (25 years younger than Washington) was barely out of his teens when his skill as a crack shot and militia officer resulted in him becoming Washington’s chief of staff during most of the Revolutionary War. He was the closest to Washington throughout the latter's life, and set up some of the presidential practices -- including state dinners and an early version of news conferences -- that continue today.

7. As Treasury secretary, from 1789-1795, Hamilton produced the first sex scandal of the new government when he had a three-year affair with a woman while paying off her husband to keep it secret. Congress investigated to verify that Hamilton hadn’t misused public funds; he was cleared. (Nobody cared about the affair, which was kept secret.) Later, in a failed attempt to resurrect his political career, Hamilton detailed the affair in an embarrassing public document almost 100 pages long. Washington wrote that “a paragraph’’ would have sufficed.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.