10 Common Misconceptions About George Washington
Some of the most commonly known “facts” about George Washington are simply not true. Go beyond the mythology and find out how much you don’t know about the man.
1. George Washington’s dentures were made out of wood: FALSE
One of the most enduring myths about George Washington is that his dentures were made of wood. It’s quite possible that some of his dentures, particularly after they had been stained, took on a wooden complexion, but wood was never used in the construction of any of his dental fittings.
Throughout his life Washington employed numerous full and partial dentures that were constructed of materials including human, and probably cow and horse teeth, ivory (possibly elephant), lead-tin alloy, copper alloy (possibly brass), and silver alloy
2. A young Washington demonstrated his honest character after coming clean about chopping down his father’s cherry tree: FALSE
Ironically, this iconic story about the value of honesty was invented by one of Washington’s first biographers, an itinerant minister and bookseller named Mason Locke Weems. His cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about George Washington.
In the original story, when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.
3. George Washington wore a white wig, as it was the popular style of his time: FALSE
Even though wigs were fashionable, George Washington kept his own hair. He kept his hair long and tied back in a queue, or ponytail.
Although he didn’t wear a wig, George Washington did powder his hair, giving it the iconic white color seen in famous portraits. Powdering ones hair was another custom of the time.
As a young man, George Washington was actually a redhead!
4. In a tremendous show of strength, George Washington once skipped a silver dollar all the way across the Potomac River: FALSE!
The Potomac River is over a mile wide at Mount Vernon and even George Washington did not have the arm to fling a silver dollar that far.
Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man! The first silver dollar coin was minted in 1794.
His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, recounts a story in which the General hurls a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This would have been a more plausible feat, as the Rappahannock is much narrower than the Potomac.
This myth is frequently told to demonstrate George Washington’s considerable physical strength.
5. President Washington was the first to live in the White House: FALSE
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president in 1789, the White House had not been built yet. In fact, Washington D.C. was not even the nation’s capitol. The first president to live in the White House was Washington’s successor, John Adams.
At the beginning of his presidency, George Washington and the first family resided at the Samuel Osgood house in New York City. Located uptown facing the East River, it was just a few long blocks away from the countryside.
Although it was the best available residence in New York at the time of Washington’s inauguration, its location proved inconvenient and its size too small for the President’s household. He was relocated to another residence on lower Broadway in 1790, then later to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Building “the Seat of Empire”
Although he never lived in Washington D.C. or the White House, George Washington did help build the capitol. In July 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act which called for the permanent capital of the United States to be located on the Potomac River. When President George Washington signed the bill, he took personal control over the building of what he once termed “the seat of Empire.” He specified the location of the ten-mile square federal district, the President’s mansion (the White House), and the Capitol.
6. George Washington is buried in a crypt beneath the U.S. Capitol: FALSE
In his will, George Washington outlined his desire to be buried at home at Mount Vernon along with his wife and the rest of the Washington family. His final resting place is in a tomb overlooking the Potomac River at his beloved estate.
However, the Crypt at the U.S. Capitol building was at one time intended to be the burial place of the first president.
7. General Washington was famous for his many victories on the battlefield: FALSE
General Washington was rarely victorious in battle. In fact, he lost many more battles than he won.
Despite having little practical experience in managing large, conventional armies, Washington proved to be a capable and resilient leader of the American military forces during the war. While he lost more battles than he won, George Washington employed a winning strategy that included signal victories at the Battle of Trenton in 1776 and Yorktown in 1781.
Perhaps Washington’s greatest wartime legacy was his decision to surrender his commission to Congress, affirming the principle of civilian control of the military in the new United States.
8. George Washington was a Republican: FALSE
President Washington was not affiliated with any political party. In fact, he was totally against the very notion of partisanship and warned against it in his farewell address:
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
During his presidency he witnessed the rise of the Democratic-Republican party in opposition to the Federalists and worried that future political squabbles would undermine the concept of popular sovereignty in the United States.
9. George Washington did not grow hemp at Mount Vernon: FALSE
George Washington did indeed grow hemp on his farm at Mount Vernon. But not the kind you’re thinking of.
Throughout his lifetime, George Washington cultivated hemp at Mount Vernon for industrial uses. The fibers from hemp held excellent properties for the making of rope and sail canvas, thread for clothing, and for use in repairing the large seine fishing nets used in his fishing operations along the Potomac.
At one point in the 1760’s Washington considered whether hemp would be a more lucrative cash crop than tobacco but determined that wheat would be a better alternative.
10. George and Martha Washington had several children together: FALSE
While George Washington was fond of children, he and Martha did not have any children of their own.
Many have speculated as to why Martha and George could not have children, but it is impossible to know exactly why the couple was childless. Despite that fact, there were always children in the Washington household throughout their marriage.
Martha Washington brought two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, into the union from her previous marriage. Together they raised Mrs. Washington’s two children, as well as two of her four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews at Mount Vernon.
Editor’s note: Want to learn more about the Presidency in terms of the constitution, policymaking and the people? Mark your calendar for the Presidential Ideas Festival: Democracy in Dialogue.