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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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Why is it called Mount Vernon? May 8, 2013

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

Forget about the cherry tree. February 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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?

a. England

b. France

c. Barbados

d. Canada

e. none of the above

f. all of the above

3. Where did George Washington go to college?

a. Harvard

b. Yale

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:

a. wood

b. cow’s teeth

c. ivory

d. glass

e. gold

f. porcelain

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.

b. Philadelphia

c. New York

d. Virginia

e. Maryland

f. Boston

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.

Happy birthday, big guy! February 22, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

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 this past fall 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?

a. England

b. France

c. Barbados

d. Canada

e. none of the above

f. all of the above

3. Where did George Washington go to college?

a. Harvard

b. Yale

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:

a. wood

b. cow’s teeth

c. ivory

d. glass

e. gold

f. porcelain

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.

b. Philadelphia

c. New York

d. Virginia

e. Maryland

f. Boston

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.

The Wal-Martization of our national heritage April 5, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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8 comments

Our friend Ben grew up in a history-loving family, and many childhood vacations were spent touring Colonial homes, museums, and other sites of historical import. Thus our friend Ben was green with envy to hear that our friend Sarah had just returned from what to me would have been a dream vacation—touring Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, and Jamestown.

I was just saying to Silence on our recent trip to North Carolina, where we passed the site of Nathanael Greene’s famous Revolutionary battle of Guilford Courthouse, that I hadn’t been back to Mount Vernon since I was a child, and a visit was overdue. And I’ve been trying to pry us out of the hands of relatives so we could spend Christmas at Williamsburg for several years now. (No luck, but maybe this year…)

Anyway, our friend Ben eagerly pressed Sarah for details of her trip, and was horrified by what I heard. Apparently, George Washington’s stately home, his beloved Mount Vernon, has now been dwarfed by a giant visitors’ center plopped right on the grounds, sort of like a giant highway rest area with food courts and tourist info. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the visitors’ center experience and tour the virtual Mount Vernon at the expense of Washington’s actual home. Similarly, Sarah bemoaned the fact that she and her companion weren’t even able to see the actual Jamestown site, only the “tourist-friendly” reproduction.

Our friend Ben is appalled. In today’s world of impersonal furnishings chosen by interior decorators, I suppose it’s easy to lose track of how very personal these homes were to their owners, who often designed the homes themselves as well as personally choosing every book, every bauble, and every stick of furniture. To see the house is to know the owner in a very real way.

Most of the time, the Founding Fathers strike us as larger-than-life and/or cardboard figures, playing out their roles on the stage of history, far removed from us. But when you see that James Madison, whose fragile health prevented him (alone of all the great Founders) from ever leaving the U.S., filled his home, Montpelier, with souvenirs of France; when you see all the ingenious, homely domestic comforts that Thomas Jefferson designed and installed at Monticello; when you see the exquisite scenery hand-painted on the walls of The Hermitage, the supposedly nail-hard Andrew Jackson’s retreat from the world; when you see the grounds of Mount Vernon that George Washington rode over every day he could get away home until he died—when you see all this, any of this, suddenly history takes on flesh.

No matter how much you may have read of their writings, how many biographies, how much Colonial and Federal history, in their homes, and for the very first time, you feel you actually know them. You know their vanities; you know their treasures; you know their pleasures. You know what ultimately mattered to them personally when they could escape the cares of state.

This is living history, and this is why it grieves our friend Ben so to think that now, instead of seeing Mount Vernon’s house and grounds as George Washington saw it, visitors will see a massive, modern building. Instead of enjoying a private home, they will have a box-store experience: not one man’s intensely private vision, but a slickly produced, focus-group-approved, committee-created mass entertainment. The unspeakable offspring of television and Wal-Mart, devoid of individuality, destroying the opportunity to explore and discover on one’s own, to find the meaning at the heart of the experience.

Let me try to show, not tell. Come with our friend Ben across the Atlantic to England for a little time travel. Back in the day, when our friend Ben was a student spending a summer studying archaeology and digging up a bit of Roman Britain, our group took a trip to Stonehenge. The youthful Ben was very excited at the prospect of seeing the great megalithic monument, and was continually looking out the bus window, hoping to catch that first glimpse of the standing stones. Suddenly, across the Salisbury plain, I saw a very strange thing: it appeared to be a cluster of grey marshmallows covered with swarming, multicolored ants. It took our friend Ben a moment to realize that the marshmallows were Stonehenge, and the swarming ants were tourists. How could anyone possibly get a feeling for the place in the midst of that?

Our friend Ben was hugely deflated when the bus pulled up to the site. And then (to steal a line from “Amadeus”), a miracle happened: It began to rain. The colorful swarm subsided to their conveyances, and the dozen or so of us were alone among the stones. For a half-hour, if you were careful, you could walk in the place and not see another face. You were alone with history. At the end of the half-hour, we were loaded back on the bus. As we left, the sun came out. Our friend Ben peered out the window as the bus moved across the plain, hoping for one last glance at what had been a sacred experience. And what I saw was a cluster of grey marshmallows swarming with multicolored ants.

In case Stonehenge doesn’t seem to have much connection to Mount Vernon, my point is this: To be meaningful, personally meaningful, to become real, history requires privacy. It requires quiet. It requires the opportunity to form a personal connection, to create life from fact. If you’re a gardener, when you stand in Jefferson’s vegetable garden, you feel a connection to the man that no amount of reading the Declaration of Independence could ever give you. Looking at Washington’s plain but beautiful Sevres china, you can envision him enjoying the dinners he loved to host in his home. You are where they chose to be, seeing what they chose to do. Time drops away, and you are, for that moment, in communion.

What visitors’ center can give you that?