George Washington not only raised, trained, and led a militia against the greatest superpower in the world, he also refused payment for leading the army. (It helps that he was rich.) He surprised the world by giving up power after winning the American Revolution. He set precedents like having a presidential cabinet and only serving two terms.
He could also be petty, as when he took two impoverished girls to court for stealing from his clothes while he swam. He had no biological children, but did have two stepchildren, Jacky and Patsy (who died at age 17 from epilepsy).
He kept his religious views to himself. He was likely a deist, although he attended services of many denominations. He didn’t kneel to pray at Valley Forge, this is a later myth. He liked the circus, the theater, reading, dancing, animals, fishing, horseback riding, hunting, and horticulture. He disliked slapstick humor, idle chatter, sitting for portraits, and political parties.
He innovated/improved a sixteen-sided barn, crop rotation, North American animals and husbandry. His favorite foods included hoecakes swimming in butter and honey (there’s a recipe included in the book), any kind of fish, tea, hot chocolate, and Madeira.
He owned dogs named Sweet Lips, Madame Moose, and True Love. He kept bees to support his honey habit. He spent years trying to acquire bison before finally doing so later in life. Washington visited his dogs every morning and every night. His wife was also fond of dogs. He developed the American Foxhound which he hunted with. He also owned terriers, coach dogs, and Newfoundlands. Cats were also kept for rodent control. He had more than 300 cattle branded with his initials. He raised chickens, geese, turkeys, and ducks. Martha had pet birds as well including a parrot. Hogs ran wild on his estate until it came time for fattening them up for slaughter. According to Jefferson, Washington was the best horseman of the age. He also raced horses. He had nearly sixty mules for plowing fields and pulling wagons, and hundreds of sheep.
He didn’t grow marijuana, he grew hemp, which is a related, but different, plant. He didn’t wear a wig, but instead had his slave gather his hair, fluff it, curl it, and powder it white. Chopping down the cherry tree and not lying about it as a child is a myth. Washington did indeed tell lies.
Washington’s father died when he was 11. He became a surveyor at 17. His half-brother died a couple years later. His mother died in 1789, the same year he was elected president.
He survived numerous diseases and barbaric treatments such as blood letting. He got black canker (diphtheria) at age 15. He got river fever (malaria) at age 17, 21, 30, 39, 52, and 66. One of the remedies he took for this was made of mercury chlorine, which causes inflammation of the gums and loosening of the teeth. He got smallpox at 19 which left permanent scars on his cheeks, consumption (tuberculosis) at 19 and 35, bloody flux (dysentery) at age 23, 33, 35, and 39, cheek erosion from gum abscess at 44, quinsy (tonsillitis) at 47, carbuncle (painful boils under the skin) at 57 and 59, pneumonia at 58, and he died at 67 of epiglottitis. He was likely sterile due to one of his many illnesses.
He had bad teeth throughout his life, getting a tooth pulled when he was 24. He only had one original tooth left by the time he was 57. His dentures were uncomfortable and he often wrote of tooth and gum pain. He didn’t have wooden teeth; this is a myth. Dentists made dentures for him from chunks of ivory taken from hippopotamuses, walruses, and elephants. They filled in gaps with teeth from cows, horses, and some of Washington’s own teeth that had fallen out. He would sometimes get replacement teeth from his slaves, but he paid them less than the fair market price.
In 1753, at 22 years of age, Washington was sent on a mission by the British governor to determine the location of French forts. He had Native American guides, but he didn’t trust them. The Seneca chief Tanacharison, called the Half-King by Europeans, believed the French had eaten his father. Washington exploited this and lied to the Half-King, telling him the French wanted to kill him. Disobeying orders, Washington and his troops sneak-attacked a group of French on a diplomatic mission, most of whom were asleep.
The resulting massacre led to the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War, which was the first world war. Britain’s and France’s allies in Austria, Germany, Prussia, Russia, Spain, and Sweden were forced to take sides. The war expanded to colonial holdings in the Americas, Africa, India, and the Philippines. The war lasted 7 years.
The widow Martha Custis was one of the wealthiest women in Virginia, owning 18,000 acres of land and nearly 300 slaves. Washington’s career in the military wasn’t making him rich as he’d thought it would, but a wealthy widow would. She was also attractive and had two children, providing she was fertile. She had many suitors.
Washington was 6’2, half a foot taller than his rivals, plus he was already a famous military leader, and he was the same age as Martha, contrasted to her first husband who was twenty years older. After getting married, Washington was able to resign his military commission to become a gentleman farmer.
Washington was made commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War. He lost more battles than he won, but he also understood psychological warfare, publishing accounts of British troops gang raping teenage girls and other atrocities to turn public sentiment against them.
When the British offered to free slaves who fought on their side (the British even came to Mount Vernon and freed some of Washington’s slaves), Washington responded by publishing a poem written by slave Phillis Wheatley which praised him.
The British had made treaties with Native Americans curtailing westward expansion. Colonists, unable to steal native land, saw themselves as the victims. To win the colonists over, Washington undertook a campaign of genocide against the Six Nations, the northeast Iroquis confederacy, in 1779.
Washington also used espionage, using spies and communicating with coded messages written in invisible ink. He went by the codename Agent 711. He provided the British with misinformation, making them think the Patriots were stronger than they actually were. He allowed a former British soldier, actually an American spy, to escape custody to give faulty intelligence to the British.
The British brought smallpox with them. Washington himself was immune due to catching it in Barbados when he was younger, but those around him were not. The Virginia legislature made inoculation illegal, fearing it would spread the disease. By 1776, 20 percent of his army suffered from or died from smallpox. Smallpox was more deadly to his troops than the British. Washington made inoculation compulsory which dropped smallpox-related fatalities to only 1 percent by the end of the war. If he hadn’t done this, he likely would have lost the war.
Ironically, while fighting for liberty, Washington was attended by a slave named Billy Lee. Martha was also by his side for half the war. When his step son died, Washington and Martha raised his two youngest as well as one of the kids of one of Washington’s deceased brothers.
The war aged him. It started when he was 44 and lasted until he was 52. He became the first American celebrity. Congress waived postage on letters addressed to Washington, so he was inundated with mail. Fans would also show up in person. He was sometimes happy to meet his fans, but usually he tried to avoid them.
He intended to stay retired after serving as commander-in-chief, but he hated that the Articles of Confederation allowed states to ignore congress. The states failed to abide by the peace treaty with Britain, not paying back debts or treating remaining Loyalists well. Without a central government with real power, it would be impossible to collect taxes to pay off the debts. Foreign countries would exclude the US from trade if it remained this unstable.
America owed 40 million to its own citizens and 25 million to people around the world, mostly France which had helped American win the Revolutionary War.
Washington was pressured to return to politics. He helped hammer out the Constitution and thought that would be it, but everyone else assumed he’d be president. He was elected in 1789. He didn’t want to be president, but felt it his duty.
After his inauguration, he suffered several illnesses. He was bedridden for weeks with carbuncle, regular fevers, inflammation, flu, and he also fell off a horse and needed to walk with a crutch.
Washington didn’t claim a party affiliation while in office. Madison and Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican party (anti-British, pro-French Revolution, against a strong federal government) and Hamilton started the Federalists (pro-British, anti-French Revolution, in favor of a strong federal government). Washington tried to get them to work together, but they were often at odds.
Washington wanted to resign after one term, but everyone told him the North and South wouldn’t hold together without him, so he stayed for a second term.
In his first term, he passed the Bill of Rights, appointed the Supreme Court as well as district and federal judges, added Rhode Island, Vermont, and Kentucky to the union, formed armies, and granted citizenship to any free white person who had lived in the country for at least two years. Banks, an official currency, the Copyright Act, and the capital city were underway.
France declared war on Great Britain at the beginning of his second term. Many, including Jefferson, tried to pressure Washington into supporting France, though Washington wanted to remain neutral. Thousands of people threatened to drag Washington from his home and effect a revolution in government. He remained firm in his decision not to join the war, however.
In 1794, whiskey distillers who felt taxes on their product were too high, attacked tax collectors, tar and feathering them, and burning down someone’s house. The governor of Pennsylvania didn’t want to send in troops, but Washington did. At the age of 63, he led twelve thousand troops himself, the only president to take up arms against his own citizens. In the end, no blood was shed in the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington pardoned the two men found guilty of treason, using the first presidential pardon.
In the same year, he sent the army to deal with natives resisting white settlement. 40 died in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
The British seized hundreds of American merchant vessels and conscripted the sailors to fight for them. Instead of going to war as many wanted, Washington instead negotiated a treaty.
Ona Judge had been Martha’s personal maid since she was ten. When Washington gave her as a wedding present to his short-tempered granddaughter Betsy, Judge decided to run away, simply walking out the door while the family was eating dinner. They were in Philadelphia at the time, and Ona had friends among the free blacks there.
Another of his slaves named Hercules ran away after his son was accused of stealing. Washington assumed the alleged theft was part of a plan to escape and punished Hercules by making him do back-breaking labor. Washington never saw Hercules again. Judge was found in New Hampshire where slavery had been abolished. She agreed to return on the condition that she would be freed when George and Martha died and they wouldn’t give or sell her to anyone. Washington was furious at these conditions, thinking that would amount to her getting special treatment over the faithful slaves who hadn’t run away.
Washington not only authorized physically abusing slaves, but beat them himself. Although, he did urge his overseers to use force sparingly because injured slaves were less productive. Nearly fifty of his slaves attempted to flee during his lifetime. He sold slaves to the West Indies on at least three occasions, even though the brutal conditions there meant a premature death. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. He said he was in favor of gradually freeing slaves, but did nothing to make it happen. Unlike other founding fathers, (such as Benjamin Franklin who freed his slaves back in 1785 and petitioned congress to abolish slavery in 1790 when Washington was president) Washington kept finding excuses not to free the slaves he personally owned.
In his will, he freed just one slave upon his 1799 death, Billy Lee. His other slaves would be free upon Martha’s death. Some of his slaves fled upon his death while others looked forward to Martha’s death which would give them freedom. She was afraid they would kill her, so she freed them a year later. (She didn’t free her own slaves, giving them to family members in her will.)
After reading Al Carroll’s book, Presidents’ Body Counts, I think the true measure of any president is how many people lived or died because of their actions. However, this is difficult to calculate. Carroll doesn’t say much about Washington in his book. We know Washington ordered the slaughter of Native Americans, but I don’t think anyone knows exactly how many died. The only estimate I could find online put the number at hundreds, but the true number could be higher than this.
Washington also contributed to numerous premature deaths by not doing anything to stop or slow the spread of slavery. It’s hard to put a number to this, though.
At least 853,000 people died during the Seven Years’ War, which Washington was responsible for starting. However, it’s not fair to blame him for all of those deaths since other people were responsible as well. Also, if he didn’t start the war, someone else probably would have. The same caveats apply to the American Revolutionary War in which around 255,000 people died. I do wonder if it was possible for Washington to avoid war by negotiating a diplomatic solution with Britain. He did negotiate with them later on, after all. Perhaps these wars were unavoidable, but perhaps not.
As for lives saved, Washington stayed out of the war between Britain and France in 1793, which probably saved thousands of lives. His smallpox inoculation mandate during the Revolutionary War likely saved thousands of lives as well.
Like all presidents, Washington improved some people’s lives and made other people’s lives worse. Overall, did he do more good than bad? I can’t really say. How many war deaths are his fault? Could the wars have been prevented or not? How many slavery-related deaths can be blamed on him? If he tried to abolish slavery as Benjamin Franklin wanted, would he have succeeded or not? The fact he didn’t even try does speak against him.
In the end, it’s really difficult to say whether Washington was a good president or not. The only way to truly know would be to see what would have happened if someone else had been president. Would Benjamin Franklin as president have been able to negotiate a way to free slaves that wealthy plantation owners could live with? It’s really hard to say.