As we celebrate Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday first declared by George Washington’s presidential proclamation in 1789, it is worth remembering that deception played a pivotal role in America’s birth. Our shining city on the hill owes much to the dark arts. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other Founding Fathers are remembered today as virtuous creators of a bold new democracy. But they were also cunning manipulators of their information environment—a side of the founding story that has often been neglected by history.
George Washington’s inability to tell a lie is a lie. That old cherry-tree fable—in which young George admits to his father that he did, indeed, chop down the tree with his hatchet—was invented by a Washington biographer named Mason Locke Weems in 1806 to boost his book sales. In truth, Washington was an avid spymaster with a talent for deception that would remain unequaled by American presidents for the next 150 years. During the Revolutionary War, Washington was referred to by his own secret code number (711), made ready use of ciphers and invisible ink, developed an extensive network of spies that reported on British troop movements and identified American traitors, and used all sorts of schemes to protect his forces, confuse his adversaries, and gain advantage. His military strategy was to outsmart and outlast the enemy, not outfight him. He used intelligence to avoid more battles than he fought, and to trick the British into standing down when standing up could have meant the end of the Continental Army.