25 Things You Probably Didn't Know About George Washington

iStock/kreicher
iStock/kreicher

You know that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Is that where your knowledge of this fascinating guy's life and history ends? Here are 25 George Washington facts that may be new to you.

1. George Washington didn't have a middle name.

With a name like George Washington, you don't really need one.

2. George Washington's birthday was not February 22, 1732.

Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731, but when the colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar, his birthday was moved 11 days. Since his birthday fell before the old date for New Year’s Day, but after the new date for New Year’s Day, his birth year was changed to 1732.

3. George Washington's hair was all real.

Painting of George Washington
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It looks white because he powdered it.

4. George Washington was made an honorary citizen of France.

The quintessential American received this honor in 1792.

5. For a time, George Washington was a non-president commander-in-chief (but he didn't do much).

In 1798, when fears were growing of a French invasion, Washington was named (by John Adams) commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, even though he wasn’t president anymore. Apparently, this was a strategy to help recruiting, as Washington’s name was very well-known. He only served in an advisory capacity, since he was pretty old by that point. But he felt he should have been a bit more involved. According to this letter, he was frustrated that even though he was the commander-in-chief, nobody really told him much about what was going on with the military.

6. No one will ever rank higher than him in the U.S. military.

In 1976 Washington was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military—ever.

According to Air Force Magazine:

When Washington died, he was a lieutenant general. But as the centuries passed, this three-star rank did not seem commensurate with what he had accomplished. After all, Washington did more than defeat the British in battle. Along the way he established the framework for how American soldiers should organize themselves, how they should behave, and how they should relate to civilian leaders. Almost every big decision he made set a precedent. He was the father of the U.S. military as well as the U.S. itself.

So, a law was passed to make Washington the highest ranking U.S. officer of all time: General of the Armies of the United States. Nobody will ever outrank him.

7. George Washington made a pretty hefty salary ...

According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1789, Washington's presidential salary was 2 percent of the total U.S. budget.

8. ... but he still had cash-flow problems.

Washington actually had to borrow money to attend his own first inauguration.

9. He was one of the sickliest presidents in history.

Throughout his life, Washington suffered from a laundry list of ailments: diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis—to name a few.

10. He may or may not have died as a result of medical malpractice.

On the day he died—December 14, 1799—Washington was treated with four rounds of bloodletting, which removed 5 pints of blood from his body. It seems that it proved to be too much. In 1999, The New York Times wrote:

"On Washington's fateful day, Albin Rawlins, one of his overseers and a bloodletter, was summoned. Washington bared his arm. The overseer had brought his lancet and made an incision. Washington said, ''Don't be afraid.'' That day, Rawlins drew 12 ounces of blood, then 18 ounces, another 18 ounces and a final 32 ounces into a porcelain bleeding bowl.

After the fourth bloodletting, the patient improved slightly and was able to swallow. By about 10 p.m., his condition deteriorated, but he was still rational enough to whisper burial instructions to Col. Tobias Lear, his secretary.

At 10:20 p.m., Dr. James Craik, 69, an Edinburgh-trained physician who had served with Washington in the French and Indian Wars, closed Washington's eyes. Another Edinburgh-trained physician, Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown, 52, was also present. The third physician, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, 37, who had been appointed coroner the previous year, stopped the clock in Washington's bedroom at that moment."

11. George Washington might have been infertile.

Washington had no children of his own. In 2007, John K. Amory of the University of Washington School of Medicine proposed that Washington was infertile. Armory goes through a number of possible reasons for Washington’s infertility, including an infection caused by his tuberculosis:

“Classic studies of soldiers with tuberculous pleurisy during World War II demonstrated that two-thirds developed chronic organ tuberculosis within five years of their initial infection. Infection of the epididymis or testes is seen in 20 percent of these individuals and frequently results in infertility.”

12. Washington's body was almost buried in the Capitol.

Don Francisco, a reenactor who works at Mount Vernon, places a wreath at George Washington's tomb at Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, February 17, 2014 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Washington requested that he be buried at Mount Vernon, and his family upheld his request, despite repeated pleas by Congress. They wanted to put his body underneath a marble statue in the Capitol.

13. He was not very religious.

As Washington biographer Edward Lengel told NPR in 2011, "He was a very moral man. He was a very virtuous man, and he watched carefully everything he did. But he certainly doesn't fit into our conception of a Christian evangelical or somebody who read his Bible every day and lived by a particular Christian theology. We can say he was not an atheist on the one hand, but on the other hand, he was not a devout Christian."

But what about he story of him kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge to pray? According to Lengel, "That's a story that was made up by [early Washington biographer] Parson Weems."

While he would attend church, Washington wouldn't take communion. According to biographer Barry Schwartz, Washington's "practice of Christianity was limited and superficial, because he was not himself a Christian. In the enlightened tradition of his day, he was a devout Deist—just as many of the clergymen who knew him suspected."

14. He never chopped down that cherry tree.

 A cherry tree is in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol on March 19, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Parson Weems, who wrote a myth-filled biography of Washington shortly after he died, made up the cherry tree story. The Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia identifies that book, The Life of Washington, as " the point of origin for many long-held myths about Washington."

15. He was an inveterate letter-writer.

We don’t have an exact number, but the best estimates seem to put the number of letters he penned somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000. If you wrote one letter a day, it would take you between 50 and 55 years to write that many.

16. Before becoming the father of the nation, he was a master surveyor.

Washington spent the early part of his career as a professional surveyor. One of the earliest maps he created was of his half-brother Lawrence Washington’s turnip garden. Over the course of his life, Washington created some 199 land surveys. Washington took this skill with him into his role as a military leader.

17. Before fighting the British, he fought for the British.

At the age of 21, Washington was sent to lead a British colonial force against the French in Ohio. He lost, and this helped spark the Seven Years War in North America.

18. He was a dog lover.

Washington kept and bred many hunting hounds. He is known as the "Father of the American Foxhound," and kept more than 30 of the dogs. According to his journals, three of the hounds' names were Drunkard, Tipler, and Tipsy.

19. He lost more battles than he won.

According to Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington, our first president "lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history.”

20. He was lucky, but his coat wasn't.

In the Braddock disaster of 1755, Washington’s troops were caught in the crossfire between British and Native American soldiers. Two horses were shot from under Washington, and his coat was pierced by four musket balls, none of which hit his actual body.

21. He didn't have wooden teeth.

He did, however, have teeth problems. When he attended his first inauguration, he only had one tooth left in his head.

22. George Washington is the only president to actually go into battle while serving as president.

General George Washington (1732 - 1799) stands in the prow of a rowing boat crossing the Delaware to seek safety in Pennysylvania after defeat by the British
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But only if you don't count Bill Pullman in Independence Day. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, “On September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. president to personally lead troops in the field when he led the militia on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford.”

23. He fell in love with his best friend's wife.

According to Joseph Ellis's His Excellency, several letters show that before he married Martha, Washington was in love with Sally Fairfax, who was the wife of George William Fairfax.

In 1758, Washington wrote to Sally his famous “Votary to Love” letter:

"'Tis true I profess myself a votary to Love. I acknowledge that a Lady is in the case; and, further, I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madam, as well as she is to one who is too sensible of her Charms to deny the Power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to ... You have drawn me, my dear Madam, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a Simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning, 'tis obvious; doubt it not or expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it. One thing above all things, in this World I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that or guess my meaning—but adieu to this till happier times, if ever I shall see them."

24. George Washington was widely criticized in the press in the later years of his presidency.

He was accused of having an overly monarchical style and was criticized for his declaration of neutrality in overseas conflicts. Thomas Jefferson was among the most critical of Washington in the press, and John Adams recalled that after the Jay Treaty, the presidential mansion “was surrounded by innumerable multitudes, from day to day buzzing, demanding war against England, cursing Washington.”

25. He owned a whiskey distillery.

He installed it at Mount Vernon in 1798 and it was profitable. According to Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to the estate, it distilled 12,000 gallons a year. In 1799, Washington wrote to his nephew: “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.”

Could You Keep Up With Theodore Roosevelt's Ruthlessly Efficient Daily Routine?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An avid outdoorsman, politician, and quote machine, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was never one to sit idle. The 26th president of the United States (1901 to 1909) regarded the calendar as something to be conquered and fulfilled, never squandered. He employed a number of routines to help him achieve his goals during his presidency and beyond, and each was ruthlessly efficient—particularly when he was on the campaign trail.

In his role as running mate to presidential candidate William McKinley in 1900, Roosevelt adhered to a strict schedule that packed more into one day than some people accomplish in a week. In his book The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, author Edmund Morris detailed Roosevelt's activities:

7:00 a.m. Breakfast

7:30 a.m. A speech

8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work

9:00 a.m. A speech

10:00 a.m. Dictating letters

11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines

11:30 a.m. A speech

12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work

12:30 p.m. A speech

1:00 p.m. Lunch

1:30 p.m. A speech

2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott

3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams

3:45 p.m. A speech

4:00 p.m. Meeting the press

4:30 p.m. Reading

5:00 p.m. A speech

6:00 p.m. Reading

7:00 p.m. Supper

8-10 p.m. Speaking

11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his car

12:00 a.m. To bed

Clearly, Roosevelt had an effective strategy for fulfilling the obligations of his working life while still making time for reading in order to enrich his intellect. The habits grew out of his experience at Harvard, where he balanced his schoolwork with athletic pursuits and other interests. Roosevelt devoted fragments of each day to study and refused to entertain any interruptions. Studying or reading for even half an hour with an appropriate amount of focused intensity, he believed, was more beneficial than sitting for twice as long while distracted by friends, food, or daydreaming.

When he became president following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt's responsibilities grew exponentially, but he remained insistent on a highly organized approach to the day. During one week in February 1903, Roosevelt took up to eight meetings in an hour, averaging 7.5 minutes to conduct whatever business was on the table. During this time, he was also posing for his official presidential portrait by artist John Singer Sargent. Rather than sit for one or two marathon sessions, Roosevelt agreed to pose for just one half-hour a day. On Sunday, he cleared his schedule to unwind and keep up with correspondence.

The ability to concentrate has only gotten harder in an era of screens and buzzing phones, and you might think Roosevelt had it comparatively easier. It might help to remember that, in 1912, he was shot by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee, Wisconsin just before going on stage to give a scheduled speech. He managed to complete the 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his ribs. For Roosevelt, nothing was going to interfere with the day's routine.

Think you know everything there is to know about T.R.? Test your knowledge with our quiz, "Did Theodore Roosevelt Do That?"

Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Harris & Ewing, Inc., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Presidential pardons have been in the news, which has led to an onslaught of questions about just how far a president's pardoning powers extend—and what would happen if the person being offered the pardon declined it altogether? Is such a thing even possible, or does the pardoned individual in question have no choice in the matter? Believe it or not, it's an issue that has come up a few times over the past two centuries—and the answer isn't exactly a clear-cut one.

To fully answer the question, first an important distinction has to be made between commutation and pardoning. Both are part of the pardoning powers given to the president, but differ in levels. Speaking to ABC News, Randy Barnett, a professor at Georgetown University, explained that "Pardon is an 'executive forgiveness of crime'; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'" And the answer to the question depends on that distinction.

UNITED STATES V. WILSON

In 1833 the Supreme Court heard the case of the United States v. George Wilson. On May 27, 1830, Wilson and co-conspirator James Porter were both sentenced to death after being convicted of robbing a U.S. postal worker and putting the carrier’s life in jeopardy. While Porter was executed just over a month later, on July 2, 1830, Wilson managed to escape the sentence. President Andrew Jackson decided to pardon Wilson for the death penalty charge on the understanding that he had yet to be sentenced for other crimes (for which he was looking at a minimum of 20 years). For some reason Wilson waived the pardon, possibly because of confusion about what case he was being tried for at the time and what cases the pardon was for.

In 1833, the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the issue, ruling “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” (Strangely, the details of whether or not Wilson was ever executed are lost to time.)

BURDICK V. UNITED STATES

This right of refusal was affirmed in 1915. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, refused to testify regarding sources for articles on alleged custom fraud by invoking his Fifth Amendment rights [PDF]. President Woodrow Wilson then gave a pardon to Burdick, protecting him from any charge he may incriminate himself of during his testimony. The idea behind the pardon was to force Burdick to testify, under the theory that he could no longer be convicted for any acts he may reveal. But Burdick rejected the pardon, continued to invoke his rights, and was found guilty of contempt.

The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick was within his rights to refuse the pardon and as such he did not lose his Fifth Amendment rights.

BIDDLE V. PEROVICH

A 1927 ruling added a new wrinkle to the pardoning issue. In 1905, Vuco Perovich was sentenced to hang for murder, which President Taft commuted to life imprisonment a few years later. Perovich was then transferred from Alaska to Washington, and later to Leavenworth. Perovich eventually filed an application for writ of habeas corpus, claiming that his commutation was done without his consent. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that "the convict’s consent is not required."

This ruling has led decades of legal scholars to wonder if the Perovich ruling overturned these earlier cases, with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. arguing “Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful. They seem clearly to indicate that by substantiating a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty" [PDF].

In other words: You may be able to refuse a pardon, but you would not be able to refuse a commutation.

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