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25 Things You Probably Didn't Know About George Washington

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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 things you might not have known about POTUS #1.

1. HE DIDN'T HAVE A MIDDLE NAME.

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

2. HE WAS NOT BORN ON 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. HIS HAIR WAS ALL REAL.


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It looks white because he powdered it.

4. HE WAS MADE AN HONORARY CITIZEN OF FRANCE.

The quintessential American received this honor in 1792.

5. FOR A TIME, HE 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 already pretty old by that point. That being said, 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.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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 US military as well as the US 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. HE 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. EVEN SO, HE HAD SOME CASH FLOW PROBLEMS.

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

9. HE WAS ONE OF THE SICKLIEST PRESIDENTS IN U.S. 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, 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. From the New York Times:

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. HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN INFERTILE.

It is well-known that 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 5 years of their initial infection. Infection of the epididymis or testes is seen in 20% 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.

According to Washington biographer Edward Lengel, "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.


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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. HE 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. HE 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.”

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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Richard Nixon
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Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon than his political impropriety. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with Robocop.

1. HE WAS A QUAKER.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. HE WANTED TO JOIN THE FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. HE WROTE LOVE NOTES TO HIS WIFE-TO-BE.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A DOG HELPED SAVE HIS POLITICAL CAREER.

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. HE LITERALLY MADE THE MORNINGS DARKER.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. HE HAD A BOWLING ALLEY INSTALLED UNDER THE WHITE HOUSE.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. HE WANTED THE SECRET SERVICE TO WEAR UNIFORMS.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. HE ALMOST MESSED UP CHARLES MANSON’S MURDER TRIAL.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. HE MET ROBOCOP.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. HIS MEETING WITH ELVIS MADE NATIONAL ARCHIVES HISTORY.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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