Even as American values change and history is continually revised by new discoveries, George Washington remains one of the most venerated figures in human history. A highly esteemed soldier and general who became a pioneer politician, he appeals both to the intellectual types and those who liked to prove their worth through combat. Unfortunately, for all his acclaim, the casual reader only gets a vague impression of what he was like as a human. It’s unfortunate, because it leaves out a number of very interesting aspects of the life of a fascinating (if deeply flawed) man. Unfortunate for the average person, that is, not for George Washington. His legacy has literally been set in stone. So, let’s get to learning more about America’s most prominent Founding Father.
10. Started the First Worldwide War
Although he’s a central figure in the American Revolutionary War, Washington had an even more significant role in a larger scale conflict that is often overlooked in American history. In 1754, Washington was a Lieutenant Colonel in command of forty troops that had been dispatched to intercept a column of French troops in Southwestern Pennsylvania. While this was technically still peace time, tensions were high, as the year before Washington had led a retinue to the French Fort Duquesne to demand they leave the territory, and it had been only through a mighty show of force that the French had surrendered the fort without a fight. So it was that on May 28, Washington’s small command found the French column, and despite having been ordered not to engage the enemy, Washington ordered a sneak attack. He was, after all, only about 22 years old and eager to prove himself, even if it meant defying orders. They killed a small number of French soldiers, wounded a few others, and took 21 prisoners.
According to History.com, his small engagement was the flashpoint that led to the rival nations of France and Great Britain enlarging their armed forces in the colonies, and in time the war spilled over into Europe. It became known as the Seven Years’ War, and it was the deadliest conflict of the Eighteenth Century. Necrometrics.com puts the number of dead from that conflict at 853,000, far exceeding the total combined forces engaged in the American Revolution, let alone the number of casualties. Makes the “Shot Heard Round the World” seem almost quaint.
9. Signed a Murder Confession
Well before it escalated to the Seven Years War, in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s unauthorized sneak attack it became clear it was a British/Colonial boondoggle. It turned out the French column was actually on a diplomatic mission, and Smithsonian Magazine states they had the documentation to prove it. The diplomat in question was an Ensign Joseph Jumonville, and according to Washington, he was killed in the immediate aftermath of the attack when a Native American, who went by the nickname Half King, put a tomahawk in his brain. A larger French force was dispatched to deal with the treacherous British and Washington responded by falling back to an improvised log defense dubbed Fort Necessity. Even after being reinforced by more than a hundred extra soldiers, Washington decided to surrender without another shot being fired. During the process Washington was made to sign a document, wherein he confessed to having murdered Jumonville.
In Washington’s defense, he signed the document under extreme duress and it was written in French, a language he was not familiar with. Rather than being court-martialed for disobeying orders and ignominiously surrendering, not to mention literally signing a confession, the British propaganda machine took Washington’s side. The British were determined to have North America for themselves and they needed to rally support for their cause instead of admitting defeat, and heaping scorn on the impulsive lieutenant colonel would do nothing to help achieve that goal. It took seven years of fighting, but eventually the British won and greatly expanded their American colonies, which as we now know would ultimately prove their undoing on that continent.
8. Did Not Have Wooden Teeth: Had Something Almost Worse
These days the historical trivia note that Washington had wooden teeth is so widely debunked that it’s probably harder to find someone who does believe it. This is not to say he had good teeth: he was having them taken out as young as 24. By 1789, the year he was elected president, he was down to one tooth still in his gums. The rest were his own refitted into dentures, nine were possibly form black people, and others were from whalebone. Even by the standards of the time they were unsightly, and the misconception they were wooden was likely due to their discolored appearance.
Although the dental problems so embarrassed Washington that he tried to keep them secret, they ultimately proved hugely advantageous in their own way. In 1781, a correspondence with a French dentist named Dr. Jean-Pierre Le Mayeur included notes that indicated Washington planned to stay in New York City. One of his letters was intercepted by the British, and they believed the letter indicated that it would be safe for a large contingent of British troops to move to a community called Yorktown. As it happened, Washington had changed his mind and moved to trap the British in the most decisive American victory of the war.
7. Signed the Most Slavery-Friendly Law
As with many of the Founding Fathers, slavery was an unerasable stain on Washington’s legacy and a fixture of his life. The New York Times said he was an owner of ten slaves when he was only 11 years old, after his father’s death. By the time of his marriage in 1759, the number had grown to 80, and by 1776 it was 150. By the time of his death, between he and his wife Martha Custis Washington, he had 317.
Certain historical notes may seem to slightly redeem or at least complicate his feelings. In 1778 he wrote about wanting to get out of the business of owning slaves. When he died in 1799, his will stipulated that he wanted all the slaves owned by his family freed (this amounted to about half of them). But all this is overshadowed by a particularly nasty piece of legislation he urged to be pushed through congress in 1793. Known as the Fugitive Slave Act, it stipulated that slaveowners could cross any state boundaries in pursuit of escapees. It put a fine of $500 on anyone who sheltered a runaway slave or even aided them, an amount History.org tells us is more than eight years’ salary for a teacher in Virginia at the time.
6. Spent Final Years Pursuing a Single Escaped Slave
The most remembered person ever forced into servitude under Washington was Ona “Oney” Judge, one of the slaves Washington and his wife had with him in Philadelphia, whose main duty was attending to Martha’s personal needs. In May 1796, she slipped out of the Washington home. She had no shortage of help, as Philadelphia was so anti-slavery at the time that any slave that lived there for six months was automatically freed (Washington had gotten around this by merely regularly rotating his staff).
An article about Ona Judge on ushistory.org reports that Martha, for her part, seemed personally offended that a slave she felt she’d treated well would want to leave, refusing to believe Judge would ever want to leave of her own free will. Meanwhile, George initially tried to keep the incident under wraps while in abolitionist territory. Eventually he relented, had notices posted offering a $10 reward for aid in recapturing her, and asked the Secretary of the Treasury for help in bringing her back.
After being smuggled to New York City, for a time the president was able to get back in touch with her. Naturally, George was unable to persuade her to return to bondage without threat of physical force, and was worried using physical force would have caused “a riot on the docks.” Eventually she made her way to the community of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She married a local freeborn black sailor and spent the final 50 years of her life a fugitive and favorite of abolitionist papers. Even when George Washington died three years later, he still had agents on the hunt for her.
5. Massive Moonshine Distiller
A popular misconception is that, since George Washington and other Founding Fathers grew hemp on their plantations, they must have been smoking it. That’s extremely unlikely, as they grew a species of hemp with little THC in it, which would have been nearly worthless for getting a buzz. Besides, Washington had a much more viable source of inebriation at Mount Vernon in the form of a huge whiskey distillery.
How huge was it? Big enough that it yielded more than 11,000 gallons a year, according to CBS, making it one of the nation’s largest. Of course, Washington couldn’t go through all that even if he threw lavish house parties, so he sold most of it off at a tidy profit. It’s enough to make you wonder if Sam Adams should really be the Founding Father whose name we most associate with alcohol.
4. HATED Becoming the President
An ambitious go-getter on the battlefield and a math enthusiast, you would think the highest office in the country of his birth would be a plum position for Washington. It should have seemed all the sweeter when the results came in from Congress on February 4 and said that of the sixty-nine votes, he’d won all of them. He was the only American president to be elected by unanimous vote. As History.org tells us, Washington was aware that in 1789 he had the support of the public as well as the landed gentry.
Nevertheless, Washington hated assuming the position. He’d spent months trying to get around being appointed to the position, or flat out refusing it prior to his unanimous election. In private, he removed any sense of ambiguity about his feelings, such as when he wrote to his friend Edward Rutledge that accepting the office meant “giving up all expectations of private happiness.”
3. Presidency Massively Criticized by Other Founding Fathers
Despite initial overwhelming support for Washington in Congress, the press, and the public, by the start of Washington’s second term it was a very different story. One of the milder critics was John Adams, who said the president was “too illiterate, unread, and unlearned for his station.”
Thomas Jefferson took a much harsher attitude in 1795 after Washington signed the controversial Jay Treaty, which gave favorable trading deals to Great Britain in exchange for moving British troops out of forts in territory outside the United States. He accused Washington of treason over that. Just before Washington left the office, Thomas Paine went to the press to accuse him of monopolizing for his own profit and his favorites, and depriving veterans. Amidst all this, many other newspapers criticized Washington too, of their own volition, and it was a large contributor to his decision to retire.
2. Invented Farming Equipment and Designs
After leaving the presidency, Washington devoted his twilight years to what had been his true passion all along: Farming. But being the sort of man he was, he of course needed to be in some way exceptional at it. He created an object called a “drill plow,” which was a huge time saver in that it planted seeds at the same time it tilled the soil.
But more significant was his 1797 innovation, the Threshing Barn. Essentially, it was a 15-sided brick building that was two stories tall, and the top floor was used to beat the wheat against the floor until the chaff was sorted out and the seeds fell to the bottom floor. Of course, it should be mentioned that working in it was something Washington delegated to the slaves.
1. Experimental Blood Transfusion Proposal
On December 14, 1799, at age 67, Washington passed away from an obstructive epiglottis, having only noticed the symptoms of it the day before. It must be said, though, that his condition was very likely not helped at all by the team of doctors dispatched to help him, and who concluded that bleeding was Washington’s best hope. Over 12 hours, they drained a staggering 40 percent of his blood. After he expired, in part because so much blood had been removed, a very odd proposal came up: Putting blood from another creature in. Yes, you read that right. Not another person’s blood. Another creature’s.
One of those present at Washington’s death was a William Thornton, a student from Edinburgh in Scotland. Since blood transfusions were relatively new to the field of medicine, some had claimed they could work medical miracles, including reviving the dead. Despite those outlandish claims, when he offered to give the corpse a transfusion of lamb’s blood, the family understandably declined.
Dustin Koski’s historical legacy can be followed on Facebook.