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Monday, January 14, 2013


Being the father of our country and a national icon, we tend to minimize his image as a real person. Of course he has deserved and received our adulation, but he had his idiosyncrasies and whims just like everyone else.

There are some myths about George Washington that have never been believed. He never threw a coin across the Potomac River. The river, south of present day D.C., is anywhere from a several hundred yards to a several miles across. Many of the myths about him came from the writings of Mason Weems, author of “The Life of George Washington,” including his chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Weems later confessed that he made up parts of his book.

So what aspects of his real life are true? George Washington was a big man. He was at least six feet tall and weighed over 200 lbs. He was what we call “big-boned” with large hands. He is usually depicted wearing a white powdered wig but his hair was actually reddish-brown. His eyes were blue.

Then there is the story of his false teeth. Many believe they were made of wood. Not true. They were actually carved of ivory by dentist John Greenwood, and were implanted with several animal teeth to aid the chewing.

He had a complex personality, warm and friendly at some times and aloof and stubborn at others. We have all been there. But Washington was a social person. He enjoyed dancing and even flirting with the women who gathered around him at social events. He loved to play cards, go fox hunting, and fish. George was a social drinker, preferring wine and beer to hard liquor. He had his own whiskey still, wine cellar, and brewed his own beer. There were no quickie marts in colonial Virginia.

His birthday is February 11th of 1732, not February 22nd as usually believed because the Julian calendar was still in use at the time. He grew up on a farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia, the son of Augustus and Mary Washington. Augustus died when George was eleven years old. His mother was a demanding and contentious person. Unable to get along with her George, at sixteen, went to live with his half-brother Lawrence. He travelled with Lawrence to the Caribbean where he contracted smallpox. This left George’s face scarred for the rest of his life.

In 1752, Lawrence Washington died and left Mount Vernon to George who was only twenty years old. It was Lawrence who built Mount Vernon but George repaired and expanded it over the years. Against his mother’s wishes, he enlisted in the Virginia Militia the following year. During the French and Indian War, while heading his own command in the Ohio wilderness, George Washington was defeated and surrendered Fort Necessity in his first major battle.

After that conflict, he was obsessed with expanding his Mount Vernon holdings; eventually reaching 110,000 acres. He primarily raised tobacco (with the effort of slaves), and his stables produced the finest racehorses in Virginia.

At 29, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a very wealthy widow. They had no children of their own, but Martha had two children from her prior marriage (she also had an illegitimate step sister who was a slave).

George was politically active in Virginia but was defeated in his attempt to win a seat in the House of Burgesses (legislature) largely because he spoke against separation with Great Britain. When the war for independence was inevitable, George fully supported the cause, of course. 

The rest is history. George Washington should be remembered as a gracious and charming person; but also firm and unyielding when the situation required it. Our many thanks go to you George.

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