Fearless Commander of the Continental Army, trusted overseer of the Constitutional Convention and unimpeachable first American president: George Washington has long been a celebrated emblem of what is means to be truly ‘American’.
Born in 1732 to Augustine and Mary Washington, he began life at his father’s plantation, Pope’s Creek in Virginia. George Washington was therefore also a land and slave owner, and his legacy, which has come to symbolise liberty and robust character, is not a simple one.
Washington died in 1799 from a throat infection, having survived tuberculosis, smallpox and at least 4 very near misses during battle in which his clothing was pierced by bullets but he remained otherwise unharmed.
Here are 10 facts about George Washington.
1. He was largely self-educated
George Washington’s father died in 1743 leaving the family without much money. Aged 11, Washington had not had the same chance his brothers had to study abroad in England, and instead left education at 15 to become a surveyor.
Despite his formal education ending prematurely, Washington pursued knowledge throughout his life. He avidly read about being a soldier, farmer and president; he corresponded with authors and friends in America and Europe; and he exchanged ideas about the economic, social and political revolutions of his day.
2. He owned enslaved people
Although not left with much money, Washington inherited 10 enslaved people upon his father’s death. During his lifetime Washington would buy, rent and control some 557 enslaved people.
His attitude toward slavery did gradually change. Yet although supporting abolition in theory, it was only in Washington’s will that he instructed that the enslaved individuals he owned were to be freed after his wife had died.
On 1 January 1801, a year before her death, Martha Washington fulfilled Washington’s wish early and freed 123 people.
3. His bold actions provoked a world war
In the mid 18th century, Britain and France battled it out for territory in North America. Virginia sided with the British and as a young Virginian militia-man, Washington was sent to help hold the Ohio River Valley.
Indigenous allies warned Washington of a French encampment just a few miles away from his location and, taking a force of 40 men, Washington led an attack on the unsuspecting French. The skirmish lasted 15 minutes, ending with 11 dead (10 French, one Virginian). Unfortunately for Washington, minor French noble Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, was killed. The French claimed Jumonville was on a diplomatic mission and labelled Washington an assassin.
Fighting between the French and British escalated into the French and Indian War, soon reaching across the Atlantic to pull the rest of the European powers into the Seven Years’ War.
4. He wore (very uncomfortable) dentures
Washington destroyed his teeth by using them to crack walnut shells. He therefore had to wear dentures, made from human teeth, pulled from the mouths of the poor and his enslaved workers, as well as ivory, cow teeth and lead. A little spring inside the dentures helped them open and close.
However, unsurprisingly, the fake teeth caused him a lot of discomfort. Washington rarely smiled and his breakfast of hoe cakes was cut into small pieces to make it easier to eat.
5. He had no biological children
Explanations for why the Washingtons could not conceive include adolescent cases of smallpox, tuberculosis and measles. Regardless, George and Martha Washington had two children – John and Martha – born of Martha’s first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, who Washington adored.
6. George Washington was the first person to sign the United States Constitution
In 1787, Washington attended a convention in Philadelphia to recommend improvements to the Confederation. He was unanimously voted to preside over the Constitutional Convention, a responsibility lasting 4 months.
During the debate, Washington reportedly spoke very little, although this did not mean his passion for creating a strong government was lacking. When the Constitution had been finalised, as the president of the convention, Washington had the privilege of being first to sign his name against the document.
7. He saved the American Revolution in battle, twice
By December 1776, after a series of humiliating defeats, the fate of the Continental Army and patriot cause hung in the balance. General Washington made a bold counterstrike by crossing of the frozen Delaware River on Christmas Day, leading to 3 victories that bolstered American morale.
Once again, with the Revolution on the brink of defeat in early 1781, Washington led a daring march south to surround Lord Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. Washington’s victory at Yorktown in October 1781 proved to be the decisive battle of the war.
8. He was unanimously elected President of the United States, twice
After 8 years at war, Washington was quite content to head back to Mount Vernon and tend to his crops. Yet Washington’s leadership during the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention, along with his reliable character and respect for power, made him the ideal presidential candidate. Even his lack of biological children comforted those worrying about the creation of an American monarchy.
Washington won the electors of all 10 states during the first election in 1789, and in 1792, Washington received all 132 electoral votes, winning each of the 15 states. Today, he remains the only US President to have a state named for him.
9. He was a keen farmer
Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, was a prosperous farming estate of some 8,000 acres. The property boasted 5 individual farms growing crops such as wheat and corn, had fruit orchards, a fishery and whisky distillery. Washington also became known for his breeding of American mules after being gifted a prize donkey by the Spanish King.
Washington’s interest in farming innovation at Mount Vernon was reflected during his presidency when he signed the patent for a new automated mill technology.
10. He supported westward expansion
One of the richest presidents in American history, Washington owned more than 50,000 acres of land across western Virginia, what is now West Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio. At the centre of his vision for an ever-expanding and ever-connected United States, was the Potomac River.
It was no mistake that Washington built the United States’ new capitol along the Potomac. The river connected the interior territories of Ohio to the Atlantic trading ports, signalling the United States’ growth into the powerful and rich nation it is today.