Prologue Magazine

Spring 1994, Vol. 26, No. 1

The Surprising George Washington, Part 2
By Richard Norton Smith
© 1994 by Richard Norton Smith

GW, by Gilbert Stuart A bulging set of dentures contributed to this famous--if unflattering--portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart. (NARA 148-GW-861)

In the words of Oscar Wilde, "the only duty we have to history is to rewrite it." From the beginning, my ambition was not to create a Washington for our times, but rather to live with the man in his own times and on his own terms. Imagine yourselves in the presence of George Washington in the spring of 1789. The man before you is fifty-seven years old, of noble carriage and an almost regal gravitas. At six feet three inches tall, he towers over most of his contemporaries by at least half a foot. His two hundred pounds are evenly distributed over a bony, muscular frame hardened by a lifetime of outdoor exercise and physical adversity. The symmetry of Washington's face is ruined by a blunt Roman nose and cavernous sockets in which rest eyes variously described as blue or gray, dull or flashing.

By modern standards Washington would be nearly eighty years old in this, the first spring of his presidency. The chestnut hair of his youth is turning white; contrary to popular imagery, he never wore a wig. The President's low, rather indistinct voice makes him anything but a Great Communicator. In fact, he is painfully awkward when delivering a speech. Elevating a shortcoming to the level of principle, he advises a nephew elected to the Virginia Assembly against becoming what he calls "a babbler." George Washington is no babbler.

Contemporaries find it easier to describe Washington than to explain him. Abigail Adams made a good start at both when she wrote, "He has a dignity which forbids familiarity mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence." Abigail's cranky husband was somewhat less generous toward the President, whom he referred to in a fit of jealousy as Old Muttonhead. In any event, the love of which Mrs. Adams spoke was bound to be somewhat impersonal, for the hero who would give his name to one U.S. state, a capital city, thirty-three counties, at least seven mountains, nine colleges, and 121 post offices was unable to pass it on to another human being.

Washington accepts his childlessness with the same unbending discipline that governs his whole life, and that has isolated him from all but a handful of people. "Be courteous to all, intimate with few," he urged his nephew Bushrod, "for true friendship is a plant of slow growth."

As a result, the most famous man on earth has few intimates. Not even Martha knows all there is to know about the shrewd giant who prefers farming to politics and loses money on both; the expansive host who spends every penny of his twenty-five-thousand-dollar salary and complains that servants are drinking his Madeira; the iron-willed leader who has intractable ideas of personal honor and justice; the wryly satirical observer with a cordial, not always concealed dislike of tiresome preachers, financial deadbeats, and virtually anyone with the effrontery to question his motives or challenge his dignity; the painfully sensitive public figure who writhes under the criticism of newspapermen he condemns for "stuffing their papers with scurrility and nonsensical declamation"; the Spartan eater who favors pineapples, Brazil nuts, and Saturday dinners of salt cod; and the true stoic who endures near constant toothache caused by ill-fitting dentures that cause his mouth to bulge and his lips to clamp shut in unsmiling repose.

About those teeth . . . According to John Adams, Washington lost his teeth as the result of cracking Brazil nuts between his jaws. By the time he became President, he had but a single tooth left and a set of dentures fashioned from cow's teeth. In hopes of finding something better, Washington contacted a leading dentist in Philadelphia, who produced a state-of-the-art set carved, not from wood, but from hippopotamus tusk. The new dentures were thoughtfully drilled with a hole to fit over his one remaining tooth. Unfortunately, they also rubbed against this natural tooth, causing more or less constant pain for which the President took laudanum.

So much for the wooden teeth. What about other Washington legends? We can write off the cherry tree as a product of Parson Weems's sugary imagination. No Washington myth is easier to dismiss than the story of his hurling a coin across the Potomac (or Rappahannock?) if only because no man was less likely to throw away a dollar. "Many mickles make a muckle" Washington liked to tell anyone who would listen, and he was as frugal in his personal lifestyle as he was profligate in furnishing an official residence and projecting the new nation's sense of importance.

Cherry Tree Legend
For generations of Americans, Parson Weems's cherry tree legend has colored the popular image of Washington and made him seem not quite human. (NARA 148-GW-553)

If anything, Washington may have succeeded too well in crafting an image of republican dignity. Even during his lifetime, Washington was a figure deliberately set apart, wrapped in a paternal mystique until it became a psychological straightjacket. An observer writing in the spring of 1790 said that the President wore "a look of habitual gravity, sobriety that stopped short of sadness." It is not difficult to understand why. At the height of his fame, Washington was no longer at the peak of his form. His memory was failing, or so he claimed. His hearing was unreliable. Most of all, he dreaded the presidency's inevitable toll on his popularity and selfless reputation.

"I fear I must bid adieu to happiness," he blurted out to a close friend only days before his inaugural, "for I see nothing but clouds and darkness before me; and I call God to witness that the day which shall carry me again into public life will be a more distressing one than any I have ever yet known."

Interestingly, Washington had said much the same thing when chosen to command America's raw military in 1775. He turned to Joseph Addison's popular play Cato for a favorite epigraph: "Tis not in mortals to command success." It seems an odd credo from one who would spend a lifetime battling inner conflicts and external enemies, yet George Washington had always been a man of unsuspected depths, torn between his desire for fame and his disillusionment over its consequences.

The Surprising George Washington, Part 1
The Surprising George Washington, Part 3
The Surprising George Washington, Part 4

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.
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