Why George Washington was a man of many contradictions

In the mid-1700s, any traveler of a certain class knew they were welcome for a bed and a hot meal at George Washington’s estate in Virginia, Mount Vernon. But contrary to the customs of the time, Washington did not want his hosts to “kidnap” the slaves from the property. As Major William North wrote to a friend, “Would you believe it? I haven’t worked a single one [one] since I’ve been here.

The only visitor who dared to test Washington’s resolve felt the general’s wrath. An artist staying in Mt. Vernon brought in an assistant who tried to approach a young girl who was working in the house one morning. When she screamed, Washington roared out of his boudoir, his face only partially shaved and his body partially clothed. Assessing the situation, General Washington immediately sent the aide flying down the stairs with a thunderous kick.

By the time he was sworn in as president, George Washington had only one tooth left. He wore dentures (pictured) created for him by his dentist, a man named John Greenwood.
Courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library
John Greenwood kept Washington’s last tooth in a gold medallion he wore on his watch case.
Courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library

As Maurizio Valsania writes in “First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity” (Johns Hopkins University Press), “The mystery of George Washington lies here: the civilized man could, on occasion, transform into a very simple and reckless man. male, himself a “barbarian”.

George Washington was no myth – just a man, warts and all. Although he heroically defended the honor of a female slave, it is believed that he enjoyed the sexual favors of others. There was even a rumor that he had a secret system for evaluating the erotic abilities of his enslaved conquests.

Washington crossing the Delaware
The 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” amplifies the myth of George Washington as a warrior.
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Washington wanted children, but he and Martha could not conceive. Widow Martha had four children with her first husband, so the infertility likely arose when a sexually transmitted disease (i.e. gonorrhea or syphilis) rendered the general infertile. It is believed that Washington may have been struck when he lost his virginity to a ‘ciprian lady’ (a prostitute) when he visited other ladies of the night on a youth trip to Barbados, or sleeping with an unknown number of women. he had.”

Washington was a man of his time, both civilized and savage. He was interested in fashion and had his suits made by the best London tailors. He wore corsets to keep his back straight and his stomach bulging, as did all the distinguished men of polite Virginia society. He powdered his hair. He even liked to dance a minuet.

Martha Washington
Martha Washington was a widow and had four children with her first husband; she and Washington could not have children due to her infertility.
Courtesy of Washington and Lee University Museums

But Washington could also be brutal. As a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment in 1754, he fired the first shot in what would become the French and Indian War and led a “bloodbath” at Jumonville, Pennsylvania. He didn’t flinch after that battle, when the Virginian-allied Iroquois chief scalped the French commander, split his head in half with a hatchet, then ripped out the man’s brains to wash his hands in. .

His defense could be seen in a letter written to the nation of Delaware in 1779, when he wrote, “I am a warrior.”

dental hygiene kit
Have Teeth, Go Travel: The Washington Dental Hygiene Kit.
Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The opposing sides of Washington’s personality could also be seen in his Revolutionary War career. He wanted his soldiers to act with honor, forbidding playing cards, swearing, or even bathing naked anywhere they could be seen. “The fate of millions unborn will now depend, under God’s direction, on the courage and leadership of this army,” Washington told his fighters.

And if the soldiers went astray, the idealistic Washington responded with absolute severity. Misconduct could result in severe penalties, including up to 1,000 lashes for deserters. The general even signed death warrants for some 14 men who were court-martialed and sentenced to death – he eventually commuted most of the executions, but two men were hanged from a 40-foot gallows. “I want to give an example of some of them,” Washington reportedly said.

Author Maurizio Valsania
Author Maurizio Valsania
Julien Berti
First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity by Maurizio Valsania

When starving dogs began to invade Continental Army camps in an attempt to steal their supplies, General Washington’s callousness was clear: He told his soldiers to “hang all stray dogs.”

Washington was a man of principle who tried to live by some of the 110 maxims he had copied as a child from the book “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Business and Conversation”, such as: “Do not be in a hurry to believe flying reports to the denigration of everything.But he was also a slave owner – and a tough one at that.

A British visitor to Mount Vernon claimed that Washington treated his slaves “more harshly than any other man”, while as president in 1793 he enacted the Fugitive Slave Act. This allowed slave owners to pursue their fugitive “property” across state lines and made it a federal crime for anyone who tried to help.

Upon his death in 1799, George Washington freed the 123 slaves personally owned by him. It was perhaps his only saving grace as a slave owner – or a case of too little, too late.

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