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Think he’ll friend me back? May 13, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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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…

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