This 1857 engraving of George Washington as a young man shows him with red hair. You never see him with red hair because, in the aristocratic fashion of the day, he either powdered his hair or wore a wig. He is only one of three presidents to date who had red hair (the other two were Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren).
(Photo from Discovery News)
But then, I realized, I know hardly anything about the guy. All I know is, he could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree, he toughed it out in the winter with his troops, and he only reluctantly accepted the office of President and didn't want anyone to treat him like a king. Oh, and he had wooden teeth.
Beyond that, pretty much anything I learn or am reminded of would qualify as lesser-known tidbits. So I'll try to get a broader picture of the man.
- First thing, that cherry tree story? Not true. Made up. Some say the story was told to fill out Washington's biography, others say it was published simply as a way to make money.
The story of George Washington and the cherry tree is best depicted in this sappy cartoon fashion, since the story itself is a lie. Never happened.
(Image from the Beer Barrel)
- Also, that thing about the wooden teeth, that's not true either. He did have dentures--several pair of them, in fact--but none were made of wood. They were made from gold, ivory, lead, human, horse, and donkey teeth, or some combination thereof.
- So what is true about this guy?
- Executive director of the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens says of George Washington, "Of all the founding fathers, he was the most athletic, the most adventurous and clearly a man of action."
- George came from a wealthy family and owned lots of land. He also owned slaves. Over 100 of them. He said he didn't like the practice of owning slaves, and he often performed manual labor right along with his workers. But he still kept the slaves.
- His first military experiences were with the British Army against the French.
- In his first campaign, he led a siege which failed, and he was captured by the French. He was released a few days later, embarrassed but pleased to see his name in the papers.
- In his second campaign, the French and their Native American allies ambushed General Braddock's troops and Washington along with them. Washington was "so ill that he had to use a pillow instead of a saddle," but he fought nonetheless. Washington had two horses shot out from under him, and he got four bullet holes in his cloak, and in the end he had to lead his troops in a retreat.
- In his third assignment, he was sent with 700 troops to patrol the frontier, but half of them were drunks so it didn't go very well and it ended with Washington being sent home with dysentery.
- In 1758, Washington quit the military in frustration and got married soon after.
This painting of George Washington was completed in 1772, during the time when he was living and thriving at Mount Vernon as a landowner. But he is wearing the uniform of his military service prior to that time during the French and Indian War, with the rank of colonel.
(Image from Awesome Stories)
- Martha was a widow when George married her. She had two children by her previous marriage, called Jacky and Patsy. Patsy died just before the Revolutionary War started. Jacky died not long after. By then, Jacky had had children of his own. George adopted two of them, making his grandchildren his children.
- He was, before the Revolutionary War, first and foremost a landowner. He owned thousands of acres (the exact amount varies from one biographer to the next) at his home in Mount Vernon. He oversaw its operations six days a week. His holdings included a flour mill, a blacksmith shop, and kilns. He employed carpenters, masons, coopers (barrel makers), and shoemakers on his property. He had a fishery and peach and apple orchards.
- He went visiting among his landowning neighbors and they visited him. He went fox-hunting. He liked to play billiards and cards. He smoked a pipe and took snuff, drank Madeira wine, and punch. He went to concerts and cockfights, circuses and the theatre.
Washington receiving French generals at Mount Vernon. With a home as nice as that, you'd want to get back to it, too.
(Image from the National Archives, sourced from Wikimedia)
- In the run-up to the Revolutionary War, after Washington said he would raise an army of 1,000 men and pay them himself, he became known as a radical rather than a moderate. (Shocking! One of our Founding Fathers a radical!) But though he was against submitting to the will of the British, he was opposed to total independence for several years until the War started.
- During the War, he led his troops in several campaigns, some of which succeeded, some of which failed. But he began to realize that the colonists didn't necessarily need to defeat the British in military battles to win their independence. As long as the resistance was kept alive, and as long as the Continental Congress was able to move from one location and re-form in another, the British would never entirely defeat them.
Here's Washington crossing the Delaware. This is a more grim portrait than the better-known one of Washington with his cloak all flowing, but this is probably a truer picture. It was night time, it was snowing and sleeting, several of the soldiers had no shoes, it was not a fun time. But they sneaked up on the Hessians at Trenton and defeated them. This victory didn't mean a whole lot militarily but it had the effect of greatly boosting the morale of the colonists so that they were able to hold out against the British that much longer.
(Image from the NEH Summer Institute for Teachers)
- So Washington hung on, even though the treasury was empty, the troops hadn't been paid in years and were on the verge of mutiny. The British started too many battles in cities that proved too costly with too few gains and in the end, Cornwallis surrendered.
- After the War, Washington returned to his home in Virgina and set about restoring his plantation. Things were in sorry shape since paper money had dropped in value, they couldn't export anything, and there hadn't been much cash to support the plantation's usual activities. But with a land grant from Congress in payment for his military service, he was able to rebuild. (Another shock! A Founding Father took money from the government to help himself through hard times!)
Washington resigning his position as Commander-in-Chief in 1783. This painting was completed in 1824, so it's probably full of a lot more pomp and personage than was actually present at the time. This is one of 8 paintings by John Trumbull in the Rotunda in the US Capitol building.
(Image sourced from Alex from Selden's My Hero page)
- But the new country was struggling to keep itself organized. Dismayed by various rebellions and upheavals, Washington went back to Massachusetts to get involved in drafting what would become the Constitution.
- He still wanted to go back to his old life at Mount Vernon, but the Electoral College unanimously elected him President. (That's the only time so far that the Electoral College has unanimously elected anyone.)
- He accepted the office, but (here we get the reluctant president part) he was careful not to let anyone treat him like a king or refer to him as royalty, insisting that he be called "Mr. President" rather than "your highness" or the like.
Washington taking the oath of office for the first time, 1789. Said one observer at the Inauguration, "this first of men had read off his address in the plainest manner, without ever taking his eyes from the paper. . . . He was dressed in deep brown, with metal buttons, with an eagle on them, white stockings, a bag, and sword."
(Photo from EyeWitness to History)
- He didn't want to accept the $25,000 salary (that must have been an insane amount of money at that time) because he didn't need the money. But Congress persuaded him to take it to avoid giving the impression that only an independently wealthy man could be president. Would that the same were true today.
- After he put a tax on distilled spirits, which got a lot of people mad, especially people in Pennsylvania, the Whiskey Rebellion happened. Washington personally led troops to put down the rebellion to demonstrate that this new government wouldn't be afraid to enforce the law when necessary. Can you imagine a president marching on the field and leading troops into battle today?
The Whiskey Rebellion, or Whiskey Insurrection. It was a pretty chaotic time in our country's history, and this illustration suggests that Rebellion was rife with chaos, too.
(Image sourced from Salon.com)
- During his presidency, political parties sprang up. He despised political parties, believing that "ideological differences should never become institutionalized. He strongly felt that political leaders should be free to debate important issues without being bound by party loyalty." But he couldn't do anything to stop the formation of the parties.
- He was a two-term president who had his detractors who mainly didn't like his wealthy landowner habits. Some people didn't like that he rented only the best houses, and he rode a coach-and-four (coach pulled by four horses) that were manned by lackeys wearing the finest uniforms. He accepted callers, but after becoming overwhelmed by the number of visitors, he said he would see people by appointment only. He entertained guests at dinner, but by invitation only. Some people thought this was very snooty.
- He was asked to serve a third term, but by this time he was really desperate to get back to his home in Mount Vernon, and he said he was done. Setting a precedent that has been followed by scads of presidents ever since, his last act was to grant an official pardon, in Washington's case, of those who had fought against him in the Whiskey Rebellion.
- In his Farewell Address, published in 1796 in newspapers around the country, he spent a lot of time and effort telling people how destructive political parties could be, pitting some people against each other, often not for the good of the country but for their own pursuit of power.
Washington's Farewell Address. In the first part of it, he talks about how he thinks he's justified in turning down the people's request that he serve for a third term. That's what "On His Declining the Presidency of the United States" means.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
. . . they [citizens of this country] will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.
One of the expedients of [a political] party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations. They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.
[all groups whose real design is to direct, control, or counteract the existing government] serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; . . . However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, . . . serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.
- Let me be clear lest anyone take these words and use them to do that political finger-pointing which is so popular online. He's not saying one party is better than another. He's saying it is in the nature of political parties, whatever their stripe, to pit people against each other, to stir each other up to no purpose except to advance the party's own agenda, or the fortunes of one person in particular. Beware any political party, is what he's saying.
- He also talked about the importance of maintaining the separation of powers, of religion and morality, of getting along with foreign nations without favoring anybody in particular, and above all, of preserving the union, which even then he saw as prone to factions North vs. South, East vs. West.
- He closed with the following:
I am too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
- Upon his return to Mount Vernon, he saw that he had a lot of work to do. In his absence, things had slacked off and his plantation was only marginally profitable.
Washington back in the saddle at Mount Vernon. This painting is from 1851, decades after Washington was actually there.
(Image from Wikipedia)
- Two years later, he was out inspecting his farm during a snow storm. He woke the next day very ill. The day after that, having been back home at Mount Vernon only two years, he died.
- The country mourned his death for months. Even Napoleon was upset. He ordered his French countrymen to mourn Washington's death for ten days.
- P.S. The story about the cherry tree was published in 1800, the year after Washington died. The public was hungry for more about their cherished leader, and this story about the cherry tree seemed to capture the spirit of what people were feeling about him at the time. So it was resoundingly successful and entered the public imagination as fact.
- P.P.S. It's funny that this made-up story, itself a lie, is known best for the statement, "I cannot tell a lie."
You might think that the story about Washington and his cherry tree sprang up from the cherry trees in DC, but that's not so, either. The cherry trees that line the Potomac are not native to the area. The first cherry trees that were planted there were a gift from the Emperor of Japan to Nellie Taft, the wife of President Taft, in 1910.
(Photo from somewhere on Quora)
Biography.com, George Washington
"George Washington's false teeth not wooden," Associated Press, 2005
The White House, George Washington 1789-1797
George Washington's Farewell Address to the People of the United States, originally September 19, 1796
Mary Trotter Kion, Washington's Cherry Tree, American History @ Suite 101, April 14, 2006
The Apotheosis of George Washington, The Moral Washington: Construction of a Legend (1800-1920s)
John Dyer and Eric J. Gislason, John Trumbull's Republicanism: The First Four Rotunda Murals