When you think of George Washington, do images of a cherry tree, wooden teeth, and a heavily powdered wig come to mind? Myths and legends have surrounded our former president for years and it can be difficult to wade through the stories to find the truth.
In honor of our first president’s birthday, here are some facts and debunked myths about President Washington:
Fact: He was unanimously elected. Washington is the only president to be unanimously elected when he received all 69 electoral votes (1789). At that time, there was no popular vote for president, only the votes of the Electoral College, which was made up of representatives from each state.
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Fiction: He had wooden teeth. Washington did have false teeth, but they were not made of wood. As a matter of fact, the materials used in his false teeth were probably more uncomfortable than wood. In one set of teeth, his dentist, Dr. John Greenwood, used a cow’s tooth, one of Washington’s teeth, hippopotamus ivory, metal and springs. They fit poorly and distorted the shape of his mouth.
Fact: He had impressive stature. Washington was one of the tallest and largest presidents in our countries history at 6’3” and more than 200 lbs.
Fiction: George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. Probably not. The story was invented by Parson Mason Weems who wrote a biography of George Washington shortly after Washington’s death. Since so little is known about Washington’s childhood, Weems invented several anecdotes about Washington’s early life to illustrate the origins of the heroic qualities Washington exhibited as an adult. Introduced to countless schoolchildren as a moral tale in the McGuffey Reader textbook, the parable has become a persistent part of American mythology.
Fact: He was a farmer. Washington, who believed that America should become a “granary to the world,” sought to improve many aspects of farming. His advanced crop rotations, use of fertilizers, experimentation with crops, and innovative farm equipment made him one of the “pioneers” of modern agriculture.
Fiction: Washington wore a wig. Although it appears that Washington was wearing a wig in pictures of him, Washington powdered his own red-brown hair.
Fact: He freed his slaves. Washington’s attitude toward slavery gradually changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for liberty in the American Revolution. In his will, he freed those slaves belonging to him (about 124) and his estate paid for the care of former Mount Vernon slaves for decades after his death. At least nine early presidents owned slaves, but only one - Washington - freed all of his slaves.
Fiction: He threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. This myth is often told to demonstrate his strength. The Potomac River is over a mile wide and even George Washington was not that good an athlete! Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man. His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, reported in his memoirs that Washington once threw a piece of slate “about the size and shape of a dollar” across the Rappahanock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Rappahannock River at the site of the Washington family homestead today measures only 250 feet across, a substantial but perhaps not impossible distance to throw.
Fact: Washington had no children. He had no children of his own, although he did help raise two of Martha’s children from her first marriage and two of her grandchildren at Mount Vernon.
Fiction: He lived in the White House. George Washington was the only U.S. President who did not live in the White House, which was not completed until after his death. During his two terms as president, the capital of the United States was located first in New York and then in Philadelphia. George Washington played a large role, however, in the development of the new Federal City named after him, and in overseeing the design of both the Capitol Building and the White House.
Fact: He delivered the shortest inaugural address of all the presidents. Washington’s second inaugural address was impressively short. He had only one tooth at the time and his dentures often gave him pain when he wore them. It was only 133 words long and took a mere 90 seconds to deliver.
Fiction: Washington is buried under the Capitol. Although Congress built a vault under the Capitol building for this purpose, he is not buried there. In his will, Washington specified that he wished to be buried at Mount Vernon and that a new tomb should be constructed. His heirs honored his wish, and the vault at the U.S. Capitol remains empty to this day.
Fact: He never went to college. It is believed that Washington’s formal education ended around the age of 15, at the death of his father. Young Washington showed a strong aptitude for mathematics and may have been educated by a tutor or in a private school, as was customary for prosperous families like his. He believed strongly in formal education and left money and/or stocks in his will to support three educational institutions.
Fiction: Washington visited England after winning the Revolutionary War. He only visited one foreign country, Barbados in the West Indies, which he traveled to at the age of 19 with his older half-brother, Lawrence. They made the trip hoping that the warm climate would help improve Lawrence’s failing health. Unfortunately, Lawrence died within a year.
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