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“First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
From Washington’s eulogy by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee
There’s a lot of lore surrounding the Father of Our Country and first President of the United States of America. For example, he never chopped down a cherry tree. At least that anyone knows of. He also never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. And those wooden teeth? Well, we’ll get to that. While the larger-than-life man (literally, at 6-foot, 2-inches, he wasn’t small) doesn’t live up to every legend surrounding his life and presidency, there are still plenty of interesting facts about George Washington.
- He never received a college education From throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River to chopping down a cherry tree, there has been a lot of myth and lore surrounding the first President of the United States, George WashingtonWashington was always bothered by his lack of what he thought was a proper education. His older half-brothers attended their father’s alma mater, the Appleby School in England, but their father’s sudden death in April 1743 left his mother unable to send young Washington abroad. At age fifteen Washington was finished with his formal education.
If it wasn’t for his mother, Washington would have joined the British navy. Instead, he became a surveyor due to his connections with the influential Fairfax family that lived roughly four miles from the Washington family in Virginia. He accompanied George William Fairfax as a surveyor while exploring the Virginia wilderness. At seventeen Washington was appointed surveyor of Culpepper County. While he was never able to go to college, his path nonetheless prepared him for his future military (and presidential) career.
- He was a stepdad A painting of George and Martha Washington with two of their grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, whom the couple raised after the death of Martha’s son JackyJanuary 6, 1759, Washington married a young widow named Martha Dandridge Custis. Along with her wealth and land, Martha brought along her two young children, John “Jacky” Parke Custis and Martha “Patsy” Parke Custis. Before Washington was ever a Founding Father he was a stepfather.
Washington and Martha never had children together, a fact often attributed to all of the illnesses he had contracted over the years, from smallpox to dysentery. But whatever the reason, Washington raised Jacky and Patsy as his own. Patsy died of a violent seizure when she was seventeen, probably related to epilepsy. Jacky served as a civilian aide to Washington in Yorktown, and at twenty-six contracted camp fever (typhus) and died. He left behind four children, two of which Washington and Martha raised at Mount Vernon.
- He was an avid dog-loverWashington was known for his love of canine companions and has been credited as the Father of the American Foxhound (photo by RL Evans)Washington has been credited as another father of sorts—father of the American Foxhound. An avid dog lover, he crossbred his black and tan hounds with large French hounds. The result was a new breed that came to be known as the American Foxhound. Aside from his hounds, Washington had terriers, spaniels, and even a Dalmatian he fondly named Madame Moose. Perhaps a bit of his personality shone when naming dogs, as there was also Tipsy, Sweetlips, Drunkard, and Truelove.
- He fought for and against the BritishMap accompanying Washington’s journey to the Ohio Valley. Washington was a hero in the colonies and abroad after his experience of his trip to the Ohio Valley was published.Now there’s something to wrap your brain around, but really it isn’t odd at all considering the British owned the colonies until the Revolutionary War. Before that time, Washington was unknowingly preparing himself for his future role of Commander of the Continental Army by serving the British. Most know of his leadership role in gaining our independence, but Washington was the talk of the town during the French and Indian War thanks to his actions just months before.
He was a twenty-one-year-old major when Virginia Lt. Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent the young Washington to confront the French in the Ohio Valley. The trip was filled with peril and near-death experiences. He traveled nearly 900 miles in under three months. His journal detailing his experience was published by Dinwiddie and made Washington a hero in the colonies and across the pond.
- No, he didn’t really have wooden teeth Despite the myth that Washington had wooden teeth, his dentures were actually made from bone, hippopotamus ivory, and human teethWashington actually started losing his teeth in his twenties. If anyone should have a fear of the dentist, it was Washington with all his toothy misery. From severe toothaches to teeth falling out, he suffered it all. By the time of his 1789 inauguration, he had one remaining tooth.
While Washington had several sets of dentures over the course of his adult life, none were made from wood. They were typically made from bone, hippopotamus ivory, and human teeth—some of his own that had been removed and some purchased from black slaves. One of his account books notes a payment of 122 shillings for nine teeth.
- He was a world-class distiller In his later years, Mount Vernon was the site of Washington’s whiskey distillery, which produced 11,000 gallons the year of his death (photo courtesy of David Samuel)It was a short-lived venture, albeit a successful one. Washington’s farm manager, James Anderson, was experienced in distilling in Scotland before coming to America. In 1797 he persuaded Washington that it would be worth his while to dive into the world of whiskey. Later that year, from two small stills, the burgeoning distillery produced 600 gallons of whiskey. Washington was convinced.
The following winter, they set up all that was needed for large-scale production in the 75-by-30-foot space. In 1799, they were the largest operating whiskey distillery in the U.S. and produced close to 11,000 gallons. Unfortunately, December 14, 1799, Washington died, never seeing how far his distillery could go.
- He was the only President ever to be unanimously elected Voted for by every member of the newly formed Electoral College, Washington remains the first and only President to be unanimously electedBy the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington was a hero and America’s first choice to run the fledgling country. The newly chosen Electoral College met on February 4, 1789. Only ten states cast their votes, since New York had not chosen electors and North Carolina and Rhode Island had yet to ratify the Constitution, making them unable to participate. The count was approved by Congress on April 6. Washington had been voted unanimously with sixty-nine votes as the first President of the United States of America. John Adams received the second most votes, securing his position as Vice President.
- He gave the shortest inaugural address—ever Washington’s second inaugural address is the shortest inauguration speech ever given by a President. His Farewell Address (pictured here), not so much.On April 30, 1789, the newly elected President Washington took his oath of office in New York City before moving to the Senate chamber to give the first ever inaugural address. It took him around ten minutes, start to finish. His second inaugural address on March 4, 1793, was even shorter, and is still the shortest inaugural address ever given by a President at a mere 135 words.
“Fellow Citizens, I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”
- He freed his slaves upon his death Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon. Washington ordered that all of his slaves be set free upon his wife’s death. Unfortunately, however, the slaves he had received as part of his wife’s dowry were actually divided among their grandchildren when Martha died.Sort of. At the time of his death on December 14, 1799, Washington’s Mount Vernon employed 317 slaves. While the majority of the slaves technically belonged to his wife, Martha, through her first marriage, he put in his final will that their slaves would be freed upon her death. However, the slaves that came under Washington’s holding through marriage, by law, would remain in the Custis family. Because she feared for her life, Martha freed her husband’s slaves in December of 1800. Upon her death in 1802, the remaining Mount Vernon slaves were divided among her grandchildren.
Did this make Washington an early abolitionist? Hardly. He still bought and sold slaves throughout his life, but he was the only slave-holding Founding Father to free them upon his death.
- He remains the highest ranking U.S. officer of all time
Washington crossing the Delaware on December 25, 1776. In 1978, Washington was named the highest ranking U.S. officer past, present, and future—General of the Armies of the United States.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington was the highest ranking officer as a three-star lieutenant general. Since that time, any four or five-star general has outranked him. Until the 1970’s, that is. January 19, 1976, approaching the 200th anniversary of our nation, Congress approved to promote Washington to General of the Armies. The rank is the highest one can achieve in the U.S. Army and has only been achieved twice, the other being John J. Pershing during World War I. Washington was officially promoted as General of the Armies of the United States on March 13, 1978, with the effective date being July 4, 1776. Congress also cleared up any confusion by declaring Washington would outrank any past, present, or future general. Sorry, General Pershing.