Happy Constitution Day! September 17, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Constitution Day, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, U.S. Constitution
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to wish you all a happy Constitution Day! In honor of the occasion, I’ve whipped up a little quiz so you can test your knowledge of the Constitution. Try it and see how you fare! As always, I’ll reveal the answers at the end of the quiz. But no cheating, now!
1. The U.S. Constitution was signed on this day, September 17, in:
2. Who was President when the Constitution was signed?
a) James Madison
b) Thomas Jefferson
c) George Washington
d) Benjamin Franklin
3. Who is called The Father of the Constitution?
a) Thomas Jefferson
b) George Washington
c) James Madison
d) Gouverneur Morris
4. The Constitution was based on:
a) The Magna Carta
b) The Articles of Confederation
c) The Virginia Plan
d) The New Jersey Plan
5. Where is the Constitution housed?
a) The White House
b) The Library of Congress
c) The National Archives
d) The Smithsonian Museum
6. How many states were there when the Constitution was signed?
7. What document did the Constitution replace?
a) The Declaration of Independence
b) The Bill of Rights
c) The Articles of Confederation
d) The Colonial Charter
8. How does the Constitution begin?
a) “It is hereby declared…”
b) “We, the duly elected representatives of the various States of the Union…”
c) “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”
d) “We the People…”
9) Which state refused to send representatives to the Constitutional Convention?
a) New York
b) Rhode Island
10) Who gave the closing speech after the Constitution was signed?
a) George Washington
b) Benjamin Franklin
c) James Madison
d) Thomas Jefferson
Now it’s time for some answers. Ready? Here you go:
1. The answer is b), 1787. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed in 1803.
2. This is a trick question; the answer is “none of the above.” There was no office of the President when the Constitution was signed in 1787; the Constitution itself established the office. Our first President, George Washington, wasn’t elected until 1789.
3. The answer is c), James Madison, whose passionate support of the Constitution and Bill of Rights helped bring them into being. The Constitution is also partially based on the Virginia Plan that Madison drafted, and he coauthored The Federalist Papers to win public support for the Constitution. But the title could have also been bestowed on Gouverneur Morris, the most undervalued of the Founders, who actually wrote the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson is The Father of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington is, of course, The Father of Our Country.
4. Another trick question; the correct answer is “all of the above,” with quite a few other ingredients tossed into the stew for good measure.
5. The answer is c), the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which also houses the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Articles of Confederation, the Treaty of Paris, an early copy of the Magna Carta, and many other important documents. It’s well worth a visit next time you’re in D.C.
6. The answer is a). There were still just the original former Thirteen Colonies (now states) in 1787 when the Constitution was signed. The next state admitted to the Union was Vermont, in 1791.
7. The answer is c), the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The Articles of Confederation gave more power to the individual states at the expense of a strong central government. It lacked provisions for an executive or judiciary branch, a bicameral legislature (i.e., separate Senate and House of Representatives), or means of raising Federal taxes. The Constitution rectified these omissions, creating the strong central government we have today and paving the way for the Federal Income Tax. Thanks, guys!
8. The answer is d), “We the People.” If it were written today, it would probably be more along the lines of “In accordance with Provision 746-B of the…” Sigh.
9. The answer is b), Rhode Island. Like many States’ Rights advocates, Rhode Islanders opposed a strong central government, fearing that it would be dominated by larger, more powerful states and by urban rather than rural interests. This same states-versus-feds conflict fueled the Civil War, and you can still see it in action in today’s Libertarian Party and “tea parties.” The most famous patriot who championed States’ Rights was Virginia’s Patrick Henry, who refused to attend the Constitutional Convention, saying he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia [where the Convention was held], tending toward the monarchy.”
10. The answer is b), our very own hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. We find this entirely fitting, since there wouldn’t have been a Constitution—or an America, for that matter—if it hadn’t been for old Ben’s diplomatic skills in persuading King Louis XVI to act against his own interests (as subsequent events conclusively proved) and support the Revolutionaries against a fellow monarch. Ben Franklin was also the only Founder to sign all three of America’s seminal documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris (which established peace between Britain and America after the war), and the Constitution. Go Ben go!!!
Do you feel smarter now? For more Constitutional fun, head over to the National Constitution Center’s website (http://constitutioncenter.org/FoundersQuiz/) and take their “Which Founder Are You?” quiz! I’m James Madison. No big surprise, our friend Ben is Ben Franklin. And can you guess who Silence Dogood is? Turns out, she’s James Madison too, even though when we compared notes she answered a lot of the 11 questions differently than I did. (Silence was a bit—well, a lot—disgruntled by this. She says she wanted to be Alexander Hamilton or George Washington or Gouverneur Morris. Sorry, Silence.) Let us know who you are!
Think he’ll friend me back? May 13, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Benjamin Franklin, blog humor, Colonial history, George Washington, Martha Washington, Mount Vernon
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood went to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, yesterday. It was the first time I’d been back since I was a child.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the architecture, the majestic setting, the fact that it was the home of our first and greatest President, or even that it was the seat of my own relative Martha Dandridge (Custis Washington), that impressed the youthful Ben. Yes, I loved Colonial history and architecture even then. But no amount of history or achitecture could compete with the stench rising up from the (then) foully polluted Potomac River. It was basically the only memory I took away from my childhood visit to this historic site.
Mercifully, it’s been decades since the Potomac has been cleaned up. Now joggers, cyclists, walkers, and picnicers enjoy trails along its banks, often with their families and dogs. Not a whiff of foulness and rot rises from the river. Instead, the whirr of power boats, the honk of towboats, and the majestic sight of yachts and cruise ships brings your attention to the great expanse of water that, legend has it, as a young man George Washington hurled a silver dollar across to show his strength.
Looking across what seems like miles of water, this story seems as much a legend as Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child. (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Yet it was supposedly witnessed. And certainly the young, athletic, 6’4″ Washington (he had shrunk to “just” 6’2″ in his 60s) prided himself on his prodigious strength.
If you think this feat unlikely, consider that the young athlete Benjamin Franklin regularly swam across the mighty Delaware River in Philadelphia for exercise, something few Olympic swimmers would consider doing today (and not one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted).
History affirms Ben’s wholesome swims, quite a slap in the face to the picture of the portly elder statesman. And Ben in his youth was not only a vegetarian but a teetotaler, denouncing the consumption of alcohol and advocating drinking water instead, a radical (and probably misguided) idea in an era when raw sewage was dumped in the streets and polluted the wells, rivers, and other water sources.
The general populace may have been ignorant as to why, but they were right that drinking water could kill you. No wonder they drank massive quantities of alcohol—beer, small beer, hard cider, grog, ale, wine, fortified wine like Port and Madeira, sparkling wine, wine punches, rum, gin, and so on—from morning to night. God forbid that you should drink a drop of that sickening, polluted water!
But I digress. As a Colonial history buff, I was probably a bit more aware of George Washington the man than many visitors to Mount Vernon the day Silence and I came. I knew how tall he was, and that only that other great Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, was as tall; I knew he had numerous sets of false teeth made, but they were made of ivory and human teeth, not wood. I knew he was a great gardener, farmer, and botanist, as well as a statesman, and I was aware not just of his keen interest in agriculture but of all the innovations he implemented on the Mount Vernon estate.
I knew he had the foresight to abandon growing tobacco, a nutrient-greedy and labor-intensive crop, on his land and turn it to more sustainable crops two hundred years before the idea caught hold with other American farmers. And I knew that he freed his slaves on his death, something Ben Franklin had done well before his death, but that Thomas Jefferson never did, his will requiring them to all be sold off to settle his massive debts, along with his home Monticello and all its furnishings, leaving his heirs with nothing. Washington by contrast not only left his widow and heirs well provided for, but also provided funds for the education and fortune of his freed slaves.
What I didn’t know, and what the tour of Mount Vernon told me, was that the house at Mount Vernon was made of wood, and that George Washington had had the planks planed, varnished, painted, and then covered with sand so that they resembled set stone. He also had the roofing shaped from wood to resemble Italian ceramic tiles, and painted red to match them. I can’t imagine the upkeep this would have required, but as trompe d’oeil (fool the eye), it was brilliant.
But there was something else I didn’t know, and it came as quite a shock. I knew that George Washington’s inherent courtesy caused his death. On a cold December day, he’d gone riding as usual over the lands of Mount Vernon to see how the plantation was faring. Rain, sleet and snow drenched his garments and soaked him to the skin. But Washington, who never regarded the weather or his own typically robust health, never thought to turn back. After a long day in this bitter weather, he returned to Mount Vernon.
Upon arriving home, Washington saw that his guests had already assembled for dinner. As punctilious a host as he was a commander, he refused to consider detaining them by changing into dry clothing. So he sat there, chilled to the bone, in wet, frigid clothes, for hours, entertaining his guests. By the next morning, he felt that he’d caught a chill. But colds and the like meant nothing to a man who’d never been sick and had emerged unscathed from barrages of bullets that had riddled his uniform and killed the horses he was riding. What was a little cold compared to that?!
Unfortunately, today’s doctors think that he caught a rare but horrendous bacterial throat infection. I’d always assumed it must have been a high fever that killed him so quickly in his prime, but the evidence says otherwise. Apparently a bacterial infection of the epiglottis caused the first President’s throat to swell shut and killed him by suffocation. (Contemporary accounts of doctors and slaves attempting to give him liquids and his being unable to swallow them tend to bear this diagnosis out.)
This would have been a horrific way to die, but comparatively quick, given the so-called medical treatments of most of the doctors of the day. (And of course they did bleed George Washington four times between the onset of his illness and his death, weakening him further. No doubt it was only his robust constitution that allowed him to hold on through the bleedings rather than dying like most people who were bled.)
But the real sorrow was that the account pointed out that, had antibiotics been known in Washington’s time, he could have been quickly cured and might have lived at least 20 years longer, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The Father of Our Country died too soon, and pointlessly.
But there was something else our friend Ben didn’t know about Mount Vernon: That it was and remains the graveyard of George and Martha Washington and generations of other Washingtons. You can visit the crypt and pay your respects to the Washingtons. I had no idea. Thank goodness the site was preserved and not turned into townhouses or an industrial complex! Good grief. To think that a tour of Mount Vernon also includes a visit to George Washington’s actual grave! Yow. You can look into the crypt and see two plain marble sarcophogi. One bears the seal of office, carved into the marble, and says simply: “Washington.” The other is completely plain. It says: “Martha: Wife of Washington.”
Clearly, for a generation for whom George Washington was peerless, that was enough.
I’d love to end this post here, but I have to add one poignant and one humorous comment picked up during our trip. First, when I asked the hotel clerk, a pleasant, competent young man, how to get to Mount Vernon from our hotel in nearby Falls Church, VA (for those who think Washington and environs are somehow offshore, they’re actually in Virginia, George Washington’s home state), he seemed a bit bemused. As with all check-in desk clerks, he was very used to recommending restaurants and directing travelers. But this time, he was stumped. “Ah, ahem, is that a city in Maryland?”
Well, no. It happens to be the home of the Father of our Country. But of course, who wants to be rude? I thanked the desk clerk and turned to our maps.
Now for the humorous part. When Silence and I were lining up for our tour of the mansion, we overheard a woman saying to her son, “They want me to friend George Washington on Facebook. Do you think he’ll friend me back?” Oh, oh, oh. Classic! But if George were here, I wonder…
Why is it called Mount Vernon? May 8, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Colonial history, George Washington, Lawrence Washington, Mount Vernon, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon
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If you’ve been following Poor Richard’s Almanac, you’ll know that our hero and blog mentor is the great Benjamin Franklin, and that we’re obsessed with all things Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are going down to Washington, DC this weekend, and are contemplating a trip to Mount Vernon, which I haven’t seen since childhood and Silence has never seen, en route back.
Contemplating returning as an adult and seeing the property through adult eyes must have stimulated a few dormant brain cells, since I suddenly began wondering why the place was called Mount Vernon. As much as I’ve read about George Washington and his family history, it had never dawned on me to ask this question before. To my knowledge, no Washington ancestors were named Vernon, and there certainly was no mountain called Vernon bordering the Potomac. What the bleep?!
Fortunately, a visit with Wikipedia resolved the mystery fast enough. Turns out, the Washington plantation was originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation after the Little Hunting Creek which ran nearby.
But George Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence, who owned the property before him, renamed the estate in honor of his revered Royal Naval commander, the British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon. (Where the “Mount” comes from remains a mystery.) Upon Lawrence’s untimely death and George’s inheritance, the much younger George, who revered Lawrence as Lawrence revered Admiral Vernon, elected to retain the name his brother had bestowed on the property.
This all sounds ironic in light of brother George’s Revolutionary uprising and defeat of the British forces, not to mention his becoming the first President of the United States. But you have to remember that, until the Revolution, all American colonists, even Doctor Franklin, considered themselves to be British citizens. Vice Admiral Vernon never attacked American citizens; rather, he won a number of major wars in their defense, with Lawrence Washington fighting under his command.
No doubt, those of us living in post-Revolutionary times would rather have George Washington’s iconic home named Mount Washington or Washington on the Potomac or something, rather than honoring a British Admiral. But let’s try to be fair as George Washington was fair, refusing to punish Colonists who sided with the pro-British Tory faction even during the Revolution. We owe our Founding Father that much at least.
Choose your President. February 17, 2013Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Franklin, Colin Powell, Dwight Eisenhower, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt
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Our friend Ben was extremely interested to see a post in today’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, that summarized readers’ responses to the question, “Which President would you bring back to solve today’s problems?”
Reader responses ranged from George Washington, John Admas, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison through Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.
I myself would love to see a coalition, a “greatest hits” lineup of those who actually were President and those who should have been. My group would include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Colin Powell. Like the Supreme Court, this group would combine extreme intelligence, individuality, and opposing views under the overarching tent of love of country and love of honor. I’d love to see the solution they proposed for our country’s current woes.
Who would you choose?
What would the Founders do? And what should we do? July 4, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Benjamin Franklin, Declaration of Independence, Founding Fathers, George Washington, how to fix our government, Independence Day, John Adams
Does this sound like any form of government you know?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Our friend Ben, a lifelong United States citizen, has never known a form of government that actually worked to safeguard the happiness and liberty of its citizens, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, from which the passage just quoted is taken. Instead, our government is a huge, bloated, impersonal entity, peopled by career politicians who are bought and paid for by special-interest groups and the corporations that can, thanks to our Supreme Court, have the rights of individuals and “contribute” to campaigns accordingly. I’m not even allowed to decide whether or not to wear a seatbelt in my own car.
I’m sure the Founders, from George Washington down, are spinning in their collective graves. This was not the government or so-called “republic” that they envisioned. I wish with all my heart that our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, were here to lend his perspective, and possible solutions, to the parody of democracy America has become.
Just this morning, I read an op-ed piece advocating the use of the internet to level the political playing field. The article suggested doing away with the Electoral College and instead allowing the President and VP to be elected directly by popular vote, which I entirely approve. It’s an outrage that our leaders are still chosen by a clunky, archaic proxy system when the people themselves should cast the deciding votes, and we finally have the technology needed to tally them accurately.
The author of the op-ed piece went on to suggest that people should be allowed to vote on legislation themselves via the internet as well, which is an intriguing thought. That would certainly be true democracy in action, if anyone could tear themselves away from texting and Facebook long enough to actually read the proposed legislation.
Our friend Ben was on board so far, but the writer’s third suggestion threw me: That citizens be allowed to nominate candidates themselves online, and that those who garnered the most votes would run. In our celebrity-driven culture, this brought an immediate “American Idol”-like vision to my mind: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our new Chief Executive, Justin Bieber, and VP, Lady Gaga!” (Oh, wait: Justin Bieber’s Canadian, isn’t he? But my point still stands.) I think those who believe themselves prepared to lead our country should stand and declare their willingness to serve, and then people should decide who among them is most fit to do so.
In the absence of Ben Franklin’s wise guidance, our friend Ben would like to propose three additional ideas for returning power to the people, in addition to doing away with the Electoral College and electing the President and VP by actual popular vote (as in the vote of the populace, as opposed to a popularity contest). They are:
* Limit terms of office. Like the President, no member of the House or Senate should be allowed to serve more than two terms. Not a single Founder envisioned a political position as a career. It was, instead, a duty, a time to step up and serve your country, after which you returned to your plantation like George Washington or your lawyer’s practice like John Adams. This was an excellent counter to corruption, and should certainly be applied to the Supreme Court as well.
* Mandate free campaigns. Having to raise money—lots of money—for a campaign guarantees that even the most idealistic candidate will be beholden to—bought by—his or her contributors long before the election results are tallied. If you win, you owe us. Instead, I think we should implement a system where every candidate is given the same amount of free air time to present themselves and their platforms, leveling the field and freeing politicians from the Godfather grip of “the offer they can’t refuse.”
* Do away with political parties. George Washington himself strenuously opposed the formation of political parties, presciently seeing how damaging they could be to the idea of a “united” States. Our current poisonous political separation and the rise of hate politics proves our greatest President right. Forget parties, and let every candidate stand on his or her own convictions and plans for governing the country. In the age of the internet, the concept of parties is outdated and not just divisive but destructive. Let each speak for him- or herself!
On this July Fourth, let’s set down the picnic fare long enough to contemplate what a government “by the people, for the people, of the people” might actually be.
Forget about the cherry tree. February 22, 2012Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: American history, Colonial history, Founding Fathers, George Washington, Washington quiz, Washington's birthday
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. Today, February 22, is George Washington’s birthday, and I’m here to help you celebrate with a little quiz. What do you really know about the Father of Our Country?
If you find you could use a little help with these answers, I highly recommend a little book I found a few years ago called Don’t Know Much About George Washington by Kenneth C. Davis. This little $4.99 paperback packs a lot of information about our first president into a fun-to-read format that the whole family will enjoy. (The cartoon illustrations reinforce the publisher’s intentions of directing the book to 8- to 12-year-old kids. But like so many references aimed at kids, it’s a lot more entertaining way to get top-notch historical information than plowing through a long, serious tome, even for history buffs like me.)
Back to the quiz: As always, you’ll find the answers at the end. But no cheating, now!
1. George Washington was:
a. a surveyor
b. a Freemason
c. a general
d. a president
e. a farmer
f. all of the above
2. George Washington visited which of the following countries?
e. none of the above
f. all of the above
3. Where did George Washington go to college?
c. William and Mary
d. Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey)
e. Washington and Lee
f. The University of Virginia
4. George Washington’s true love was:
a. Martha Custis
b. Dolley Madison
c. Sally Fairfax
d. Betsy Ross
e. Molly Pitcher
5. George Washington’s false teeth were made of:
b. cow’s teeth
6. Which of the following are true:
a. As a boy, George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree.
b. To show his immense strength, as a young man, Washington tossed a coin clear across the Rappahannock River.
c. Despite seeing military action hundreds of times and having several horses shot out from under him, Washington was never even wounded.
d. Washington signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
e. Washington’s children were named Martha (known as Patsy) and George Jr.
f. Washington chose to be buried in his Masonic regalia.
7. George Washington was born and lived in:
a. Washington, D.C.
c. New York
8. True or false? George Washington:
a. Said “I cannot tell a lie.”
b. Never smiled.
c. Owned slaves.
d. Powdered his hair.
e. Designed his own uniforms.
f. Died from politeness.
9. George Washington was happiest:
a. At his plantation, Mount Vernon.
b. With his family.
c. Experimenting with the latest horticultural and agricultural advances.
d. On horseback.
e. Entertaining guests at home.
f. In the company of his military attaches.
10. George Washington’s greatest achievement was:
a. Marrying the wealthiest widow in Virginia.
b. Winning the Revolutionary War.
c. Becoming our first president.
d. Freeing his slaves.
e. Walking away from a lifetime presidency.
f. Dying a wealthy man.
And now, the answers:
1. F, all of the above. Like many men of his day, George Washington did many things, and did many things well. The concept of specializing, becoming, say, a computer technician or an MBA and never doing anything else, was virtually unknown in Colonial times. The sparse population meant that almost everyone had to be something of a jack of all trades.
2. C, Barbados. As a young man, Washington accompanied his older brother and mentor, Lawrence Washington, to Barbados, hoping the balmy climate would cure Lawrence’s consumption (tuberculosis). Sadly, the cure didn’t work. After Lawrence’s death, George ultimately inherited his brother’s plantation, Mount Vernon. Unlike Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and many of the other Founding Fathers, Washington never went to England or France. And though he made a name for himself in the French and Indian Wars, he never made it as far north as Canada.
3. This is a trick question. The answer is “none of the above.” Like Bill Gates, George Washington never went to college. But there’s no question that he regretted it all his life. His pet project was to have a university established in the capital that would be open to all American citizens, so that none would be denied a college education as he had been. Though Washington himself didn’t live to see his dream realized, eventually American University was established in Washington, D.C. as a direct result of his efforts.
4. The correct answer is C, Sally Fairfax. The young George Washington had the misfortune to fall passionately in love with his best friend’s wife. Though nothing ever came of his infatuation, it lasted through his entire life. Washington eventually married Martha Custis, the extremely wealthy widow of another Virginia planter, Daniel Parke Custis, in what would today be called “the marriage of the century.” Martha’s vast wealth enabled George to set himself up in style. And she and George enjoyed a happy, devoted marriage, despite its essential nature as a marriage of convenience. But it was never the passionate attachment that George fantasized about with Sally, with whom he remained in touch until his death. However, if I had to try my hand at matchmaking, I’d have hooked George up with the tall, attractive, dynamic Dolley Madison. I think they’d have been an amazing pair!
5. Lack of understanding of dental hygeine caused plenty of upper-class people throughout Europe and the Colonies to lose their teeth at an early age. Unlike the lower classes, who ate whole-grain bread and never got a taste of sugar, the wealthy classes enjoyed the novelties of white bread and sugar without understanding the need to brush their tooth-rotting residue off after eating them. Additionally, the complete oblivion to the concept of nutrition meant that many people of the time were vitamin- and mineral-deficient, which contributed to gum disease and loosening of teeth. By the time he was president, poor George had exactly one tooth left in his head. Over his lifetime, he had many sets of dentures made, including sets from cow’s teeth and hippopotamus ivory. (Yikes! No wonder he never smiled.) But he never had a set made from wood, despite legends to the contrary.
6. The correct answers are C and F. Washington’s ability to emerge unscathed time and again from a hail of bullets conferred invulnerable status on him and made him an icon to his men. He was never so much as scratched, despite putting himself in the forefront of the action and having several horses shot out from under him. And like many surveyors (and, for that matter, Colonial and European intellectuals of the day), Washington was a devout Freemason, who chose to be buried in the attire of his Masonic rank. But even the wrong answers have some basis in truth. Though the stories about the cherry tree and the coin toss were invented by a man called Parson Weems in an early biography of Washington, in an attempt to fill in the blanks of his early life, there is no question that he was both incredibly honorable and incredibly strong. He spent his whole life trying to do what was noble and right, and even as an old man, he could defeat any younger opponent in feats of strength and skill. But what about D and E? Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention, but was unable to be present to sign the Declaration of Independence because he was already in the field engaging the British. And though Washington was a devoted family man, he had no children of his own. Instead, he became a father to the widowed Martha Washington’s two children by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Martha (known as Patsy) and John Parke (known as Jack).
7. Though the adult Washington spent time in New York, Philadelphia, and the new capital city (then known as the Federal City, only later as Washington, D.C.), he was born and raised in Virginia, and his home, Mount Vernon, as well as his heart, were there. The correct answer is D.
8. The correct answers are C through F, though the others have merit even though they’re not literally true. Washington is not actually recorded by any contemporary as saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and, as we’ve seen, the whole cherry-tree incident was invented by an early biographer. But Washington held himself to such a high standard that he in fact probably never did tell a lie. He wore painful and unsightly dentures that, with his inherent formality, caused him to appear reserved and unsmiling in public. But the private Washington—when alone with his family or his trusted aides—was a different person, laughing, joking, even telling bawdy jokes to his friends and laughing uproariously. Though not exactly a dandy, the tall, admired Washington was always conscious of the need to appear at his best. He did design his own (and his regiments’) uniforms, and he wore his thick, abundant hair long and powdered it rather than resorting to a wig like most of his contemporaries. (We’ll talk about why people felt the need to powder their wigs—or hair—another time.) Okay, you may be wondering about the plausibility of F: How could someone die from politeness? Well, here’s how: Washington loved to entertain guests at Mount Vernon. One day, he’d been riding over the plantation as he loved to do and had gotten soaked in a cold rain. Arriving home to find guests for dinner, rather than changing into dry clothes and making them wait on him, George insisted on sitting down to supper in his cold, wet clothes. He came down with pneumonia and died as a result.
9. This too is a trick question, because the correct answer is “all of the above.” Washington loved his family and his plantation, and was never happier than when puttering around the place, trying out the latest agricultural and horticultural developments, and spending time with his beloved family and close friends. He loved entertaining guests, even if they were what we’d call hangers-on or groupies, folks who showed up unannounced at Mount Vernon just to see the great Washington with their own eyes. As noted, his feelings for his guests ultimately led to his untimely death. And Washington, who grew up on horseback, loved nothing better than to spend a day riding over his land.
10. The correct answer is really “all of the above.” Though his contemporaries—including King George III of England—and historians would tell you the answer was E, giving America an unprecedented example by walking away from a crown and/or a president-for-life appointment, every answer has merit. Martha’s wealth enabled George to set himself up among Virginia’s first families, which helped him achieve prominence. Winning the Revolutionary War and becoming the young America’s first president need no additional commentary from me. But freeing his slaves and dying out of debt do. Pretty much all the Founders realized that slavery was insupportable, an abomination, and a gross hypocrisy as they ranted on about freedom. But only two of them did anything about it: Old Ben Franklin and George Washington. Ben freed his few slaves during his lifetime, and founded the first abolitionist society in the Colonies. But Washington had a more complex situation. Not only did he, like all Southern planters of his day, own many slaves, but they actually belonged to his wife, Martha. So in a sense, his achievement was greater. He spent many years weaning Mount Vernon off labor-intensive crops like tobacco so it wouldn’t be reliant on slave labor to produce income. And he made it an article of his will that all the Mount Vernon slaves would be freed (and educated, so they could establish themselves in the trade of their choice) upon Martha’s death. (Rising to the occasion, she actually freed them immediately after his death.) By comparison, that so-called beacon of freedom Thomas Jefferson not only fathered innumerable children on one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, but left them all, including his own children (one was lucky enough to secure his freedom during Jefferson’s life), to be sold into perpetual slavery to strangers after his death. Which brings me to the last point: Jefferson died in massive debt, which he dumped on his heirs, who actually had to sell his beloved Monticello as well as his slaves. This was not at all unusual in an age when it was important to live expensively while completely ignoring the sources of one’s income, such as a tobacco-depleted land. George Washington, by contrast, worked hard to diversify agriculture at Mount Vernon, reduce the need for labor, and get rid of greedy, soil-depleting crops like tobacco. He was also a shrewd speculator, and bought properties with potential as they came on the market. As a result, he left his widow and heirs with a comfortable fortune as opposed to a pile of debt.
So happy birthday, George! There was only one George Washington. But we can all be inspired by his example to make both the most and the best of who we are.
Do you have George Washington’s wine cooler? November 27, 2011Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Alexander Hamilton, Early American history, Founding Fathers, George Washington, George Washington artifacts, George Washington wine cooler, Hamilton family treasures
1 comment so far
It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a good old-fashioned Early American mystery. I first became aware of it in a Wall Street Journal article, “Washington Chilled Here: A Wine Cooler’s Tale” (check it out at www.wsj.com).
The article tells a very sad tale, involving three of our favorite Founding Fathers, Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris. Apparently Washington commissioned Morris in 1789 to have four wine coolers made by a British silversmith to his exacting specifications. To quote the article:
“Specifying the design of a wine cooler for his claret and port, the founding father [Washington] said the bottles had to sit upright rather than at angles, the neck of the decanters had to rise above the cooler rim and there had to be room at the bottom of the bowl so the bottles would sit above the ice.”
Iced port. Now there’s a thought. But I digress.
The point is that Washington had one cooler lengthily engraved to present to his favorite co-Founder, Alexander Hamilton. Unlike most men of his time, including many of the Founders, who were strong States’ Rights men and had joined together merely to throw off the yoke of Britain, Hamilton was a visionary genius. He envisioned the America of today, with a strong central government, a sound treasury, and a standing army, a country that would become a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. And his vision fired Washington’s imagination.
The Father of our Country embraced the Federal view with a passion, and did everything in his power to help Hamilton make it a reality, defying other Founders like Jefferson, Adams and Madison, and outraging States-Righters like Patrick Henry and Sam Adams. If justice were served, the real Father of our Country would be recognized as Hamilton, its creator and architect, not Washington, its figurehead.
The two men shared a warm personal relationship as well. Hamilton, 20 years younger and an orphan, looked to Washington as a father figure, and Washington returned his affection. He recognized Hamilton’s brilliance when Hamilton was one of his aides-de-camp in the Revolution, and the two remained fast friends for the rest of their lives.
I realize that this hardly sounds like a sad story. But it is. First, both men died prematurely, Washington most likely from the bleeding and purging inflicted by his doctors after he caught a bad cold at Mount Vernon, and Hamilton at the business end of Aaron Burr’s dueling pistol. But what makes this story particularly sad is that Washington’s gift, which has remained and been cherished in the Hamilton family ever since, has now been consigned to the auction block by the ironically named Alexander Hamilton Spaulding.
“Once Mr. Spaulding’s mother moved to a retirement community, the item became too difficult to keep,” the article explains. So, now that mom’s no longer there to safeguard the family treasure, ”Sandy” is looking to strike it rich by auctioning it off. Shame on him, unworthy of his ancestry, unworthy of his name!
If Mr. Spaulding and his family no longer want the Washington/Hamilton wine cooler, surely it belongs to the nation, and should be donated to a museum where all Americans could see this treasure of American history. He could donate it to Mount Vernon, Washington’s home, or to the Smithsonian or Colonial Williamsburg or the Library of Congress or the National Archives or Winterthur or any museum that showcased early American history. He could make it a national treasure rather than selling it to the highest bidder. It’s a slap in the face to both Washington and Hamilton that he isn’t doing it. How sad that things have come to this!
Okay, we’ve covered the sad part. Let’s move on to the mystery. As noted, Washington commissioned four of these wine coolers. The Hamilton family has theirs, and two are at Mount Vernon. Apparently no one knows what became of the fourth wine cooler, and there lies the mystery. Washington must have also commissioned it as a presentation gift to someone, since he didn’t keep it. Perhaps he presented it to Gouverneur Morris, who, after all, had been put to the trouble of having the coolers made. Perhaps he’d had it made for our favorite Founding Father, the great Benjamin Franklin. Or for Thomas Jefferson or Lafayette or heaven knows who.
Whatever the case, Washington was so revered, not just in his lifetime but through the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, that it’s improbable in the extreme that someone would have simply taken a personal, engraved gift from him and melted it down for scrap. (Especially since it was plate rather than sterling silver, so its value melted down would have been nil.)
But it is possible that someone inherited the wine cooler along with numerous items from a great-aunt’s estate and had no idea what it was. It is possible that someone was facing financial problems and decided to sell it off. It is possible that, as I write, it is sitting in an attic somewhere with a bunch of other family mementoes, or sitting in some flea market or antiques shop waiting to be rediscovered.
Is it in your attic? Will you, perhaps, stumble upon it at your local antiques mall? I suggest that you keep your eyes peeled. And, if you do happen to have it or find it, that you do the noble thing and donate it to our nation. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton would be proud.
On jewelry, marbles, antiques… and George. April 3, 2011Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: antiques, Ben Franklin, George Washington, point of antiques
Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, I left our friend Ben furiously writing his latest opus and snuck off to the Allentown (PA) Fairgrounds to go to a big antiques show they’re holding this weekend and to the Allentown Farmers’ Market. It had probably been a year since I’d last been to Allentown, but frankly, I needed a break from the ongoing winter doldrums, I love antiques, and there were a couple of things I actually needed from that particular market.
Of course, given our ongoing financial restrictions, I had to dodge OFB’s objections before heading out the door. “It costs $7 to even attend the antiques show—and that’s with the coupon from the paper?! Silence, that’s too much! And you know that once you’re in there you’ll just spend more money! And what about that farmers’ market? It’s too big, too tempting. Have you ever gotten out of there without spending at least $60? Do you really, really have to go?!”
Yes, I really, really did. And of course I had my arguments lined up. “Ben, I’m just going to get two things at the Farmers’ Market—delicious Middle Eastern food from that specialty stand, which we can have for supper and enjoy in salads and as appetizers for the rest of the week, and empty cigar boxes from the cigar stand for our marble collection, which, might I point out, are free. The Middle Eastern food at that stand is as good as that in any restaurant, and you can get a lot more—for a lot less—than it would cost you at a restaurant. As for the show, you know how much I love antiques. And appalling as it is, a $7 entrance fee is cheaper than most movie tickets these days. The way I see it, I’m just going to see a museum exhibit, to enjoy immersing myself in the past. Think of it as a matinee-priced antiques movie.”
Our friend Ben still looked worried, with good reason. Neither of us is especially good at self-control, and both of us have very wide-ranging tastes and interests, a very bad combination when you’re about to be confronted with hundreds of delicious edibles and thousands of appealing collectibles. Still, a slim wallet and a passion for staying out of debt can put a pretty good check on even the most enthusiastic. I was determined to exert fiscal control while enjoying myself visually to the max.
In my opinion, I didn’t do too badly. Some might say that I went a little overboard at the Middle Eastern stand, buying baba ghannouj, herbed feta, a feta-olive salad, a Mediterranean bean salad, six falafel patties, and their luscious cucumber-onion-spiced yogurt. And I did go over the rails in the gift department, buying a bottle of hot sauce for our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders that was made with the Bhut Jalokia pepper, the world’s hottest, and a packet of file gumbo (or is that gumbo file?) for my friend Delilah, who I know has been looking for this special New Orleans spice. But otherwise, I stayed on course, avoided the wonderful cheese, wine, produce, pickle, bread, Italian, Mexican, dried fruit, and etc.etc. stands that usually tempt me, and stashed my treasures in the car before heading over to the antiques show.
Let me explain my passion for antiques. Unlike OFB, who was brought up in a Colonial home filled with authentic period furniture, basically a child in a living museum, I grew up in a home with a hodgepodge of history. We had some stuff from my great-great-grandparents, more from my great-grandparents, and hand-me-downs from my grandparents, as well as my parents’ acquisitions based on need or taste.
This jumble of stuff brought domestic history alive for me in a way no book, movie, or museum could ever do. Here was my great-great-Grandma’s butter mold. Here was my Grandma’s wartime copy of the Joy of Cooking. Here was my other Grandma’s prized Victorian sofa and her button collection. Here was my Mama’s percolator, my Grandaddy’s gold coin, my great-great-Grandma’s sidesaddle and Great-Grandma’s tinted photograph and her prized brooch.
To this day, going to an antiques mall or antiques shop or antiques show, or even a flea market, brings history alive for me in a visceral, present way nothing else can. These artifacts of everyday life show how everyday people actually lived. And the diversity, the care and time taken to make each object, the love and appreciation that has preserved it to this day, is so humbling in our day of plastic, mass-produced, made-to-break junk. However humble, the objects made in the past were made carefully, and made to last. And they were so diverse and individual in their inception!
This is always most evident to me in the jewelry, and as I took in the offerings at this show, I kept that at the front of my mind, while at the back was a secret desire to find an antique cherry amber ring. No luck with that, but I did see and enjoy a pair of very tempting Ben Franklin earrings, an exquisite turquoise-inlaid Mexican silver cross pendant ca. 1924, some glistening calcite beads, amazing enamelled beetle brooches, Southwest silver squash blossom-and-turquoise earrings, and a heavy handmade looped silver necklace encrusted with religious pendants of all types and stripes.
Other notable finds were a British “Livingstone in Africa” board game, a beautiful woven coverlet, an intricately carved bone-and-fruitwood 18th-century chess piece, and some heavy silver “pieces of eight.” There were, need I say, plenty of other delights to ponder, including a small collection of George Washington memorabilia from the centenary and bicentenary of his birth in 1732.
There was an elaborate print of Washington on his white horse, a charming little amateur watercolor of Washington, also mounted, and a blue-and-white plate featuring Martha Washington, all from 1832, as well as a medal and bookends from the 1932 bicentennial. (This was also the inaugural date for the Washington quarter, in case you’re wondering.) As an admirer of Washington, and having just read Marvin Kittman’s The Making of the Prefident 1789, I was actually on the lookout for Washingtoniana, and this little grouping didn’t disappoint. Our friend Ben is actually related to Martha Washington, so the plate and the little watercolor were especially appealing. But I resisted.
I did succumb to one thing, though: a bag of antique marbles. OFB and I love marbles, and I knew he’d forgive me for spending $10 on a bag that included handmade onionskin “mist” and “agate” shooters, along with many early machine-made gems. I know we’ll spend many hours admiring the marbles, checking to see which ones fluoresce under blacklight (think Vaseline Glass), trying to price those superb shooters. Hours of entertainment, and permanent additions to our collection, for just $10.
I freely admit that, if I had disposable income, I’d have bought those Ben Franklin earrings, the Washington memorabilia, the pieces of eight, the amazing assortment of religious memorabilia. Not to mention the Livingstone game and the chess piece. But at least I got to see them on my tour of history, real history, the way it was lived, the things that were valued, back in the day, however near or distant that day happened to be. It was fun. Our friend Ben loved the marbles and, later, our Middle Eastern buffet. And I had an opportunity to time-travel for just $7. Who could ask for more?
‘Til next time,
Good news for history-loving gardeners. March 29, 2011Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
Tags: American history, Ben Franklin, Colonial gardening, Founding Fathers, Founding Gardeners, gardening in America, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Revolutionary-era gardening, Thomas Jefferson
It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a real treat for gardeners who also happen to be fans of Early American history, such as yours truly, our friend Ben, and Silence Dogood. A new book, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Andrea Wulf, Knopf, $30) was released just today, March 29. I was happy to see that Amazon already has it in stock, and you can buy it there for $17.64 (with free shipping, if you add a second item to your order to bring it to at least $25). It’s also available on the Barnes & Noble website (www.barnesandnoble.com).
This is far from the first book about America’s Founders and their passion for agriculture and gardening, as we’ll soon see. But Ms. Wulf, a British garden design historian, has done us all a service by bringing all the “Founding Gardeners”—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, even our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin—together in a single volume. And she adds a new spin by focusing on how their travels abroad and exchanges with fellow plant-lovers across Europe enriched their own views of America’s gardening and agricultural potential. (Of the Founders, only the frail, sickly Madison never traveled abroad; Washington didn’t get as far as Europe, but did venture off to Jamaica with his brother Lawrence as a young man.)
We think of today’s internet access, services like Skype, and the Global economy as making today’s world a lot smaller and more accessible than the world of the Founders. But in some ways, this is a fallacy. In their day, everyone who was anyone knew everyone, or at least everyone who shared their interests and passions. True, it may have taken longer to get a letter or package, or to get from place to place. But if you were a well-connected plant enthusiast, you’d be in constant correspondence with everyone from John Bartram, America’s first nurseryman, to the great botanists, plant explorers, nurserymen, and garden enthusiasts across Europe, exchanging plants, seeds, techniques, successes and failures, plant gossip, and, of course, the latest styles.
Let’s say you’d barely made it through elementary school when your father, who’d planned to send you to college but was furious at your refusal to become a minister, instead forces you to go to work as a gopher at the local newspaper. Fed up, at 17 you move to a distant state and end up running a paper of your own, along with creating a number of useful societies and institutions and displaying a passion for experiment and invention that causes you to create a lifesaving device used by everyone, which you decline to patent or trademark and allow to pass into the public domain, profiting not a cent or a sou from your work.
Now, imagine that, your eighth-grade education and lack of social standing—not to mention your irregular domestic situation and acknowledged illegitimate child—notwithstanding, you regularly corresponded with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and pretty much every major figure in science, medicine, technology, literature, music, and philosophy around the world. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Not very. Yet that was Benjamin Franklin, and his contemporaries also had access to the global network of fellow enthusiasts, generalists, and specialists.
I can’t quite see myself—or, say, our friend Ben, with his advanced education, eager mind, and broad-ranging interests—engaging the attention of a Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, or Ekhart Tolle to discuss ideas. Despite our “small world,” there are simply too many of us, and specialization is the order of our day, preventing those who are interested in everything (or even many things) from even finding each other. In today’s world, generalists like Dr. Franklin who were good at many things would be ridiculed rather than revered like folks who kept their interests confined not merely to, say, medicine, but to the most specialized forms of same, such as bariatric surgery.
But I’m straying from the point here. Fortunately, back in the Founders’ day, it was viewed as perfectly reasonable to be, say, a surveyor, soldier, Freemason, landowner, politician, avid plantsman and agricultural innovator, and Father of Our Country, like our first and greatest President, George Washington. Nobody thought it peculiar that someone with Ben Franklin’s stature would take the time to introduce plants like rhubarb to America while off on diplomatic missions.
Anyway, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have added Founding Gardeners to our must-have lists. If you’re a gardener who’s also a follower of the Founders, we suggest that you do likewise, or that you suggest that your local library purchase a copy for its collection. But let’s get back to the other books on the topic. A quick scan of our collective libraries produced some other books you might be interested in checking out*:
Early American Gardens “For Meate or Medicine” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, $10)
American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century “For Use or For Delight” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, $17.50)
Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books (Robert C. Baron, ed., Fulcrum, 1987, $20)
Everyday Life in Early America (David Freeman Hawke, Harper & Rowe, 1989, $9.95)
Colonial Gardens (Rudy F. Favretti and Gordon P. DeWolf, Barre Publishers, 1972, no price)
For Every House a Garden: A guide for reproducing period gardens (Rudy and Joy Favretti, The Pequot Press, 1977, $4.95)
Eighteenth Century Life: British and American Gardens (Robert P. Maccubbin and Peter Martin, eds., Special Issue, College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Volume VIII, n.s., 2, January 1983, $10)
Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America (Colonial Dames of America, Dover Publications Inc., 1995, $3.95)
Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America (James L Reveal, Starwood Publishing, Inc., 1992, no price)
The Art of Colonial Flower Arranging (Jean C. Clark, The Pyne Press, 1974, $8.95)
Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008, $17.95, a wonderful children’s book about, who else, George Washington)
We know we have others, too, but—how embarrassing!—all of us have so many books, we’re just not putting our hands on them right now.
Here are other books I found on Amazon that we need to add to our collections*:
Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man (Mac Griswold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999, $40)
Colonial Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of George Washington’s Time (American Society of Landscape Architects, United States Bicentennial Commission, 1932, from $52)
Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Gardens at Monticello (Peter J. Hatch, Edwin Morris Betts, and Hazelhurst Bolton Perkins, University of Virginia Press, 3rd ed., 1971, $12.95)
Jefferson’s Garden (Peter Loewer, Stackpole Books, 2004, $21.95)
Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect (Frederick Doveton Nichols and Frank E. Griswold, Univeristy of Virginia Press, 2003, $14.95)
Plants of Colonial Days (Raymond L. Taylor, Dover Publications Inc., 2nd. ed., 1996, $5.95)
Flowers and Herbs of Early America (Lawrence D. Griffith, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2010, $24)
Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: How to Identify 200 of Colonial America’s Flowers, Herbs, and Trees (Joan Parry Dutton, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979, $12.95)
The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1995, $29.95)
Williamsburg’s Glorious Gardens (Roger Foley, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996, $19,95)
From a Colonial Garden: Ideas, Decorations, Recipes (Susan Hight Rountree, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004, $19.95)
Whew, that’s quite a wish list. And we’re sure we’re still missing plenty! Please let us know if you have favorite books on Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal gardening in our Colonies/States that I’ve overlooked!
* Note that prices are list prices, not Amazon prices, typically considerably lower, unless noted.
Happy birthday, George! February 22, 2011Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, clafouti, Colonial cooking, George Washington, George Washington birthday, George Washington cherries, George Washington cherry tree, Martha Washington recipes
Today is the birthday of America’s first and greatest President, George Washington (February 22, 1732-December 14, 1799). We now know that the famous story of the young Washington’s chopping down his father’s cherry tree, then confessing it with the statement “I cannot tell a lie,” was actually an allegory created by his early biographer, Mason Locke “Parson” Weems in his book A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), to inspire future generations. But we also know that the General really did love cherries (and all fresh fruit and nuts).
So we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have prevailed on our resident culinary historian, Silence Dogood, to provide one authentic and one more modern cherry-based recipe so you can celebrate Washington’s birthday in style. And for those of you who aren’t especially interested in recipes but are interested in the life and times of George Washington, we suggest that you head to our search bar at upper right and type in “Happy birthday, big guy,” to find one of our fellow blog contributors, Richard Saunders’s, George Washington quiz. Take it, and see how you well you really know the Father of Our Country!
Silence Dogood here. Big George loved his cherries, but he wasn’t too big on dessert. So what sorts of cherry treats did Martha make for him at Mount Vernon? Turning to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, containing her handwritten collection of recipes (called “receipts” back in her day), I found a recipe that was sure to sit well with George: cherry wine.
Washington, like all his contemporaries, was a heavy drinker, often polishing off four glasses of madeira after downing homebrew throughout dinner. And drinking beer with breakfast was considered par for the course in his day, followed by an assortment of alcoholic beverages, from hard cider to claret and port, not to mention gin and rum among members of the navy, as the day wore on.
Why? Was America founded by a bunch of alcoholics? Hardly, nor were the Colonists alone in their drinking habits: All Europe shared them, with good reason. With no knowledge of sanitation, and sewage being dumped in the streets and into the water supply, drinking water was—and was widely recognized as—dangerous. Encounters with E. coli and other contagious diseases usually proved fatal in the days when bleeding and purging were the recommended treatments for pretty much everything and antibiotics were unknown.
Fermentation was an easy way to destroy most of the bad bacteria, so drinking fermented (i.e., alcoholic) beverages was strongly recommended and pretty much universally practiced. Only one voice was raised against the practice, that of the youthful visionary Benjamin Franklin, who was both a teetotaler and a vegetarian, centuries ahead of his time, and recommended water as the universal beverage. Spending time in the polluted cities of London and Paris eventually cured Franklin of his idealism—fresh water was nowhere to be found in either locale—and he came to appreciate a glass of wine or a mug of beer; his vegetarianism also eventually fell by the wayside.
But even in an era of universal drinking, public drunkenness was condemned as vulgar and appalling; a gentleman (or lady, for that matter) was supposed to be able to hold his (or her) liquor. I have no idea how the people of the time managed to walk that tightrope; I’m just glad we moderns have a lot more options when it comes to choosing a thirst-quenching beverage.
But to get back to Martha’s cherry wine, which we would probably consider more of a cherry cordial, let’s just say I’m providing the recipe as a matter of historical interest rather than urging you to try it. We’ll get to a cherry recipe next that would probably have pleased George and will certainly please you.
Martha Washington’s Cherry Wine
Take a good quantety of spring water & let it boyle halfe an houre. then beat 4 pounds of raysons, clean pickt & washed, & beat them in a mortar to paste. then put them in an earthen pot, & pour on ym 12 quarts of this water boyling hot, & put to it 6 quarts of ye Juice of cheries, & put in the pulp & scins of ye cheries after they are strayned. & let all these steep together, close covered, 3 days, then strayn all out & let it stand 3 or 4 hours to settle. take of ye cleerest, & run ye rest thorough a Jelley bagg, then put ye Juice up into bottles & stop them up close, & set them in sand.
Mmm, mmm, good! Well, maybe it was good. But I don’t think I’ll try it and see! Instead, I set myself to thinking about what our First President, a man of hearty appetite but plain tastes, who was known to leave the fancy dishes and desserts to his guests, would have enjoyed in the way of cherry recipes.
Clafouti sprang to mind, a simple, warm dish that is half-pancake, half pudding, full of fruit and flavor, but not too sweet. It would have made a great breakfast dish for George, served with his eggs, a variety of meats (including ham, bacon, sausage, and possibly fish), hominy, and biscuits before he headed out to ride over his plantations. If you’d like to make it as a dessert, whipped cream adds a lovely touch; for breakfast, you, like George, would probably prefer heavy cream poured over your portion of hot clafouti. This recipe is courtesy of Anna Thomas’s wonderful The Vegetarian Epicure Book Two (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1979). Ben Franklin would be proud!
Clafouti of Cherries
1 cup flour
2 cups warm milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons kirsch
pinch of salt
1 to 2 tablespoons soft butter
1 pound sweet, dark cherries, washed, stemmed, and pitted
Beat the eggs lightly and gradually stir in the flour. When the mixture is smooth, beat in the milk, sugar, melted butter, and kirsch, along with a tiny pinch of salt.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Very generously butter a large, shallow baking dish and pour a very thin layer of the batter across the bottom of it. Put it in the hot oven for 2 to 3 minutes, or just long enough for the batter to begin to set.
Arrange the pitted cherries evenly over the layer of batter and pour the remaining batter carefully over them. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and bake the clafouti for about 30 to 35 minutes. It should be golden brown and slightly puffed. It’s a good idea to check it once or twice during the baking, and if it is starting to puff unevenly in large bubbles, pierce it with a skewer or fork.
Sprinkle the hot clafouti with sieved confectioners’ sugar and serve it hot or warm, topped with cold heavy cream or whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8. (Probably more like two if one of you is George Washington!)
So there you have it, a breakfast dish fit for, if not a king, at least a president! From all of us here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, Happy Birthday, George!!!