When someone thinks of America, one can't help but think of its first president, George Washington. He is the face of both the American Revolution and the 1-dollar bill. He was the first commander and chief, and the first American celebrity.
People know George Washington as being the "first" of many things however, there are a lot of misconceptions about the founding father. Here are 5 stories to help you better understand one of America's most impactful figures.
5 stories about George Washington:
1. His teeth were not made of wood.
When you were in school you probably heard the popular story that George Washington's dentures were made from wood. However, this myth was debunked. There are four dentures belonging to George Washington preserved in museum collections. The only surviving complete set is on display at Mount Vernon, and a fifth set is believed to have been entombed with Washington’s body. Each of the four known dentures is made differently and of different materials.
Together, these four dentures include: hippopotamus, walrus, and probably elephant ivory; cow, horse, and human teeth; lead, brass, silver, gold, and tiny wood pegs.
Some believe the human teeth used are from slaves, as his financial records document the payment of cash for nine teeth from unidentified “Negroes” in May 1784.
However, the recipient of the teeth was French dentist Le Mayeur who was staying at Mount Vernon at the time. The explicit notation of Le Mayeur being the recipient suggests that the teeth were not for Washington. If Washington had been purchasing the teeth for himself, there would have been no need for this information; the entries would have simply recorded the item and payment, as when Washington purchased poultry, wild game, fish, and garden produce from enslaved individuals.
The story behind Washington's fake teeth points out two things. One, he had a conflicting relationship with enslaved people. He could have simply taken from his slaves, but he decided to pay for their goods. Why did he do this? Who knows but I bet he had some conflicting thoughts and opinions about slavery.
A second point that is worth bringing up is how the appearance of his teeth impacted public opinion. The myth of the wooden teeth remains the only myth associated with a major Founder that highlights an individual's physical weakness and thus reminds people of the genuine struggles Washington experienced as he sacrificed his health in public service.
2. George Washington accidentally started the French and Indian War.
Some say May 28, 1754, marked the first day of the French and Indian War when a group of British soldiers and Mingo warriors approached the encampment of French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. The man leading the British forces was 22-year-old Washington—who, despite being lieutenant colonel of the Virginia Regiment, had never seen combat. In contrast, the leader of the Mingo was Tanacharison, the “Half King,” an experienced warrior and statesman in his mid-50s.
To say that the seasoned Tanacharison provided guidance to young Washington “would be an understatement,” says Colin Gordon Calloway, a history professor at Dartmouth College and author of The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation.
Given that the Ohio Valley was up for grabs not just between Britain and France, but also between multiple Native nations, Tanacharison may have been incentivized for Britain to go to war. “[Tanacharison] understands what’s going on in the Ohio country in a way that Washington doesn’t,” Calloway says. “So he not only provides guidance to Washington, I actually think he manipulates and exploits the situation and maneuvers Washington into a conflict with the French that Washington had no business sparking.” In the end, Washington defeated Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville.
Both sides accused each other of firing the first shot.
To matters worse for Washington, on July 1, 1754, a large combined French and native forces approached Washington and his men. He gathered his troops and retreated into Fort Necessity where on a rainy July 3rd the French began firing on the surrounded English. Realizing defeat, Washington agreed to surrender to the French. The surrender terms, written in French, poorly translated, and soaking wet allowed Washington and his troops to return to Virginia in peace, but one clause in the document had Washington admitting that he had "assassinated" Ensign Jumonville—something that Washington heavily contested despite his signature on the document.
In summary, one can argue that Washington was given a corrupted tour guide and a shotty translation. Nonetheless, people still associate him with starting the French and Indian War, a war that ultimately spreads to places as far away as Europe, Africa, and India.
3. It is impossible to outrank George Washington.
On July 4, 1976, Washington became the highest-ranking military leader America will ever see. President Gerald Ford promoted George Washington to General of the Armies of the United States. In the resolution it reads:
"This act provides for the establishment of the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present, and for the posthumous appointment of George Washington to that grade effective July 4, 1976."
200 years had gone by and still, people felt moved to find another way to honor America's first president.
4. George Washington clarified the title "Commander in Chief".
Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that "[t]he President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States."
The meaning of Commander in Chief was unclear. However, Washington would give context to this very important title.
The Whiskey Rebellion of August 1794 was the product of the growing frustrations of grain farmers who resented a federal tax imposed on their distillery products. (Sound familiar?)
As growers threatened federal tax collectors with physical harm, Washington at first tried to prosecute the resistors in the court system. In 1794, however, 6,000 men angry at the tax gathered at a field near Pittsburgh and, with fake guillotines at the ready, challenged Washington and the federal government to disperse them.
On August 7, Washington issued a proclamation commanding all “insurgents” to “disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes.” He listed the illegal actions of the protestors: destroying property, mistreating tax collectors, robbing officials’ homes, and “other outrages.” Washington cited Wilson’s ruling, the 1792 Militia Act, and his duty to “cause the laws to be duly executed” as support for his command. He set a deadline of September 1—just over three weeks from the date of his proclamation. Washington was not messing around and he wasn't afraid to squash the rebellion.
According to biographer Joseph Ellis in His Excellency, George Washington, the aging president mounted his horse on September 30 to lead a force of 13,000—larger than any American army amassed in one place during the Revolution—to face the uprising. (The act of mounting his war horse was brief and largely symbolic; Washington made most of the journey by carriage.)
This was the first and only time a sitting American president ever led troops into battle. Washington abandoned the procession early, but once the rebels found out Washington and the feds were involved, they largely gave up. No actual battle ensued between the rebels and federal troops.
5. George Washington did not want to die in the Oval Office.
As a leader of a new country, Washington knew that his actions would have ripple effects. One of the biggest fears of the time was the United States turning into a monarchy. To help prevent this, Washington didn't seek a third presidential term, announcing his retirement that would come to be known as his "Farwell Address."
It is very likely he would have won a third term, but he was mindful of the precedent his actions would have on future presidents. Washington feared if he died in office, Americans would view the presidency as a lifetime appointment. His retirement helped provide the standard of a two-term that would later be sealed in the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution.
Everyone knows the man on the front of the 1-dollar bill. However, very few of us know about the decisions he made that put the United States on the right path. There are famous myths about George Washington that seem to still slip through the cracks into American history textbooks. However, hopefully, this article gives you a better understanding of America's first president.
“Teeth.” George Washington's Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/health/teeth/.
How 22-Year-Old George Washington Inadvertently Sparked a World War. https://www.history.com/news/george-washington-french-indian-war-jumonville.
Gerald R Ford Presidential Library & Museum, https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/document/0055/1669598.pdf
“Research Guides: This Month in Business History: The Whiskey Rebellion.” The Whiskey Rebellion - This Month in Business History - Research Guides at Library of Congress, https://guides.loc.gov/this-month-in-business-history/august/whiskey-rebellion.
“George Washington's Farewell Address.” George Washington's Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washington-s-farewell-address/.