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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.