12 Common Myths about George Washington
Post the American Revolution, it was not uncommon for so many mythical stories to swell around important American freedom fighters and revolutionists. Of all those stories, the myths about George Washington rank as some of the most interesting and far-fetched, even for someone revered as the “Father of the Nation”.
This article explores 12 of the most famous myths about George Washington that have stood the test of time.
The Cherry Tree Myth
We begin the mythical stories about George Washington with the very popular story that supposedly happened when Washington was a young Virginia boy living with his parents.
Legend has it that Washington was gifted a hatchet by his father, Augustine Washington. The young and exuberant Washington then used the hatchet to chop down a cherry tree on his father’s plantation.
Not afraid to take responsibility for his actions, Washington confessed to his crime when asked by his father. His father was taken aback by Washington’s desire to own up to his actions. The story goes on to say that, Washington’s father was filled with real pride for his son, telling everyone about how remarkable his son’s trustworthiness far outweighs a thousand cherry trees.
Historians have gone through the length and breadth of the historical annals, and it turns out that there exists no evidence to support the above story. The question is: how did this story gain wide popularity even though it never existed? The answer lies in the biography written by Mason Locke Weems. The Washington biographer, for reasons only known to him, inserted this fictional story in the 1800 book titled: “The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington”. The book centered on the childhood and personal relationships Washington had with his close family members.
Even though it contained some very far-fetched stories and myths about our most eminent Founding Father, Weems’s Washington biography received very good reviews and was very much loved by children all across America.
George Washington’s White Wig Myth
Wigs were quite a fade back in George Washington’s time. So perhaps many people over the years assumed that George Washington wore a wig – a white one for that matter. However, this story is completely false. And if anything at all, the only place it should be filed is in a folder labeled mythology.
George Washington did not wear a white wig. The “Father of the Nation” kept his natural hair long in a ponytail styled. As it was common fashion practice back then, Washington often sprinkled powder over his hair.
Another fun fact is: George Washington was born a natural redhead. Obviously, as he aged, and coupled with the powder, his hair began turn white/grey.
The Potomac River Myth
Did young George Washington actually fling a silver dollar coin across the Potomac River? To answer this question, we must first of all take note of the fact that the Potomac River is actually a mile long.
Maybe if the river were a few meters long, then perhaps Washington could have pulled it off. For a distance in the region of a mile, we can confidently say Washington never did it.
The second question is: Was there even a silver dollar coin at the time? The answer to this is a resounding no. Silver coins were not minted until 1794.
The origin of this particular myth can be traced to a story that was told by George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. In Custis’s story, however, the river was not the Potomac. According to Custis, his step grandfather skipped a slate-like object across the Rappahonnock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Even still, it is quite hard to believe that story, because the Rappahonnock River is about 10 to 50 miles wide.
Washington employed the services of Betsy Ross to sew the first flag of the nation
Betsy Ross was a Philadelphia upholsterer who, for a time, was acclaimed as the person that sewed America’s first flag. Many claimed that George Washington personally paid Betsy a visit and tasked her to perform this sacred duty for the new nation, which is, making the first American flag.
According to the story, General Washington was in the company of two high-profile members of the American Revolution – Robert Morris and George Ross – when Betsy was asked to do this. The general of the Continental Army is said to have gone through a number of possible designs made by Betsy. The story goes on to say that Betsy was the one who suggested having a five-point star for the American flag. Her final iteration was then later accepted as the official flag used by Colonial Army troops on the battle field.
As far as historians are concerned, there isn’t any evidence to support the above story. Regardless of this, the story gained wide popularity due to unverifiable claims made by one of the grandsons of Betsy. Her grandson’s story was even published in 1873 in Harper’s Monthly.
It is true that Betsy Ross did support the Revolution by making flags; however, there isn’t much consensus among historians that the story told by Betsy’s grandson is true. Therefore, we can say, with a shred of doubt thought, that this story borders more on the side of fiction than reality.
- American Flag: History, Significance and Facts
- Biography and Political Accomplishments of Samuel Adams
George Washington had biological children with his wife Martha Washington
Washington fathered 4 children with his wife Martha Washington. But those children weren’t his biological children, they were his stepchildren. Martha Washington was in fact a widow, whose first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis produced four children – Daniel, Frances, John and Patsy.
After George Washington married Martha in 1759, he chose to adopt Martha’s children, making him a stepdad. The family then made their home at Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation.
The exact reason why George and Martha couldn’t have kids together remains unknown to this day. The most possible guess is that George Washington may have been infertile, considering that Martha bore four children early on with her first husband.
The myth about his wooden dentures
For quite a long time, many came to believe that the first president of the United States had wooden teeth.
Washington bravely fought several battles for the our country; however, he was woeful at keeping his teeth from falling off. As at the time that he was taking the presidential oath of office, Washington had just one natural tooth left in his mouth. After serving for 8 years, Washington decided to take off his last remaining tooth in 1796.
The dentures that Washington wore were in no way made out of wood. It is most likely that the dentures were either from animals’ teeth or from ivory.
The dental health back then was not as refined at it is now, but even dentists of the late 1700s knew that wood did not make a good material for dentures. Wooden dentures are more likely to crack and be prone to damages and decay caused by excessive moisture in the mouth.
George Washington’s dentures may have looked like they were made out of wood because they got discolored after years of usage.
He was affiliated to the Republican Party
For starters, the Republican Party was not fully-fledged at the time that George Washington took oath of presidential office. And say there was even a Republican Party, the George Washington that we have come to so much admire would not have been a member of the party, nor any other party for that matter. The general loathed the idea of partisan politics because as the first president of the United States, he had to rise above party politics. He strongly believed that being party-free was the only way through which strong democratic pillars could be established for the new nation.
In-fighting among factions (i.e. the Democratic-Republican versus the Federalists) in his administration did exist alright; however, he made sure that he took an objective view on issues that he came into contact with.
George Washington’s biggest wish for our country was for Federalist and Anti federalist to not get overly blinded by their subjective views of things. He asked the likes of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to put aside their differences and always look at things from an objective lens, i.e. the ultimate good for our nation.
At Valley Fort, Washington went down on the snow and prayed to the Almighty God
The story about Washington taking a knee and praying reportedly stemmed from the narration of Isaac Potts, a renowned Quaker man.
Potts claimed that he chanced upon the Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army praying in the frigid conditions at Valley Fort. Potts then said that he could hear the words Washington voiced to God. According to him, Washington implored God to come to the aid of the Continental Army. Shortly after seeing the general pray, Potts stated that he vowed to commit his entire existence to the cause of the American Revolution.
Potts’ story became very popular to the extent that many artists started painting pictures of Washington praying at Valley Fort. Many of these images made their way on to postage stamps and plaques across the nation.
According to many scholars, this story is anything but far from the truth in the sense that there exist no substantial evidence to support it. The fact that it was seen in Weems’ Washington biography made the story gain some credibility.
Similar to Weems’ account of a young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, this story was most likely made up. Weems’ goal in inserting this story into the biography was to add some sort of spirituality into the struggles of the Colonial Army during the Revolution. The idea that a deeply pacifist Quaker such as Potts could prioritize the cause of the Revolution over his beliefs makes the fight for independence even more sacred or divine.
Up to this day, there exist no records of Potts seeing Washington pray, neither are there any proof of Potts swapping his pacifist ideology for a confrontational type that saw him join the Revolution.
He smoked the hemp that he grew at his Virginia plantation
Many pro-hemp and marijuana users have stated that George Washington even grew hemp on his plantation in Mount Vernon. Yes. They are absolutely right! The real question is: what did George Washington use the hemp produce for?
There are records that show the hemp from Washington’s farm were solely used by industries of the time in producing oil (from hemp seeds), rope, paper, thread (from the hemp fiber), and other materials for a ship’s sail. Virtually all the parts of the industrial hemp plant were used by Washington for some purpose or the other. But he never smoked hemp.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was a prolific battle winner
No one embodied the saying: “it is not about winning the battle; it is about winning the war”. Very few people know this: George Washington did not win majority of the battles that he engaged in.
For example, Washington lost: the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776; the Battle of Kip’s Bay on September15, 1776; Battle of White Plains on October 28, 1776; etc.
However, the battles that Washington won proved absolutely crucial in securing victory for America during the Revolution. Examples of those battles were: the Siege of Boston on March 17, 1776; Battle of Princeton on January 23, 1777; the Siege of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, and a few others.
It was the end that justified the means. In spite of his relatively poor loss-to-win battle ratio, Washington emerged out of the Revolution victorious. This just goes to show the never-give-up attitude that he had while commanding the Continental Army.
Learn More: 15 Great Achievements of George Washington
He resided at the White House during his presidency
The White House has been the hub of the executive arm in America for so many years that many assume that it was the same residence that housed America’s first president and his family.
Unfortunately, making such assertion is completely false. The truth of the matter is that, after the birth of America, majority of the executive functions were conducted in New York City. From the day (April, 1789) that George Washington was inaugurated to February 1790, the official residence of the United States president was at Samuel Osgood House at 3 Cherry Street, New York City.
Between February 1790 and August 1790, George Washington stayed at a different executive mansion in New York – the Alexander Macomb House at 39-41 Broadway.
After the passage of the Residence Act of 1790 – an act that made Philadelphia the temporary capital of the U.S. for 10 years – Washington would go on to reside and perform his executive duties at Robert Morris’s city house at 190 High Street, Philadelphia (now 524-30 Market Street). Therefore, the first president of the United States lived at that Philadelphia presidential residence for the remainder of his tenure.
Clearly, the above shows that George Washington and the first family never resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington D.C. He could not have resided there because the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., was not yet complete at the time.
Even John Adams, America’s 2nd President, would spend the first year or so (from March 1797 to May 1800) of his presidential tenure at the Market Street mansion, Philadelphia. It was only when the White House got ready on November 1, 1800 that President Adams and his family moved in.
In conclusion, George Washington was indeed the person behind the establishment of Washington D.C. as the nation’s permanent capital. He was also the one who gave the go-ahead for the construction of the executive mansion (the White House) that would house future U.S. presidents. However, the one thing that George Washington didn’t (or couldn’t) do was live in the White House. Instead, John Adams was the first U.S. president to reside in the White House.
Was George Washington really buried in a crypt below the U.S. Capitol?
Say he was buried there, that would be a complete violation of his last wishes. George Washington categorically stated that he desired nothing than to be laid to rest at his Mount Vernon home in Virginia. The place is where all the president’s family members were buried, including his wife and stepchildren.
You could say that this myth was fueled by plans made by some politicians on Capitol Hill to bury the first president of the United States. However, none of that materialized. We can confidently say that George Washington’s body is nowhere near Washington D.C., not to talk of it being in a crypt beneath the Capitol building. So any story of his body being anywhere other than in his hometown in Virginia, is completely made up and belongs in the myth folder.
Looking for something other than myths about George Washington? Then you might want to explore real facts about some of the things that took place in George Washington’s life and presidency: 22 Facts about George Washington
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