George Washington was an ‘illiterate, unread’ liar who the other Founding Fathers couldn’t wait to see the back of, claims a new biography on The Father of his Country.
Buying teeth from his slaves at a third of the market price,refusing to free them, and causing conflict that eventually led the the start of ‘humanity’s first world war’ are among the many ethical and moral missteps the country’s first president made, claims new book ‘You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington’ by historian Alexis Coe.
The book was released this Presidents’ Day weekend to coincide with the broadcast of the History Channel’s new three-part series ‘Washington’, on which Coe was also a consulting producer.
‘You Never Forget Your First’ dives into the untold stories about stubborn, disobedient and conflict-hungry Washington, who Coe claims is misrepresented as a savvy military leader, having lost more battles than he won.
George Washington, the man the myth says couldn’t tell a lie, told plenty of them during his lifetime, a new book reveals. In fact, the ‘I cannot tell a lie’ tale is one of the biggest myths
Author Alexis Coe has published a new book ‘You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington’ in which she debunks plenty of the myths around George Washington
‘You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington’ is released this Presidents’ Day weekend to clear up some of the myths surrounding him, including the lie about his wig
One of the greatest myths surrounding Washington was his wooden teeth, the Founding Father famously having only one real tooth of his own left in his gums when he was first inaugurated.
It wasn’t wood that replaced his own chompers, however, but teeth he purchased from others, including those ‘bought’ from his own slaves.
‘At the age of eleven, he inherited ten slaves from his father, and over the next 56 years, he would sometimes rely on them to supply replacement teeth,’ write Coe.
‘He paid his slaves for their teeth, but not at fair market value, [paying] two-thirds less than . . . offered in newspaper advertisements.’
When he couldn’t purchase teeth from a slave, his dentures were constructed from ‘chunks of ivory from hippopotamuses, walruses, and elephants’.
His slaves also helped Washington in powdering white his fiery red hair, as well as gathering, fluffing and curling his hair into his preferred style. While it is pretty much always claimed, no, he did not wear a wig.
While its well-known that Washington owned slaves and was not a man who fought for their equality, the extents to which he went to keep them may not be as widely shared.
George Washington talks to a slave on his Mount Vernon estate where he once hit a slave so badly that he ‘whirled round like a top’ for not chopping up a piece of wood the way he liked
Washington did not wear a wig as believed but had red hair his slaves powdered white
So determined was he to keep his slaves in the Washington family, that he left his wife Martha fearing for her life as their owner after his death.
It is generally reported that Washington set his slaves free in his will in 1799 but he in fact only gave freedom to his favorite slave, William Lee.
The others he left to Martha until her own death, leaving her fearful that they knew freedom came only once she passed away.
‘She did not feel as tho her life was safe in their hands,’ Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her sister.
Martha passed away three years after her husband aged 70 after a lengthy spell of bad health.
While he was alive, Washington ensured his slaves were kept working from sunrise to sunset, employing overseers to whip them as they worked six days a week, a system he declared ‘very proper’.
He was also far from an easygoing overseer himself, once slapping a slave so hard that he ‘whirled round like a top’ for not chopping up a piece of wood the way he liked.
Washington’s slaves also had no chance of freedom as he went to extreme lengths to find loop holes that would keep them in his possession.
Martha Washington feared for her life after Washington left his slaves to her in his will
Washington would often send slaves back to his home in Mount Vernon, Vermont, to avoid having to give them their freedom if they lived in Pennsylvania for more than six months
The earliest authenticated portrait of George Washington shows him wearing his Virginia Regiment colonel’s uniform during the French and Indian War in which he made a dire misstep
When a law was enacted in Pennsylvania during his first term as President that declared he would be forced to free slaves if they lived in the state from more than six months at a time, he would force his favorites to travel briefly to his home in Mount Vernon in Vermont to ensure they remained his property.
The first President also claimed that he disagreed with selling slaves ‘like cattle’ preferring the system to revolve around inheriting them but history shows that Washington was a hypocrite in that regard, having engaged in the selling of slaves in three separate occasions.
He even admitted to selling a slave to the West Indies where life for slaves was even worse than in America and ‘virtually guaranteed a premature death’.
One of the most groundbreaking revelations in the book, however, is the story of a political and military misstep which not only further tears down the image of Washington as the man ‘who cannot tell a lie’ but proves his part in inciting Europe’s Seven Year War.
Aged 22, Washington was fighting on behalf of the British Crown and was a major in the Virginia militia.
In 1753 the British governor of Virginia Robert Dinwiddie assigned Washington on a diplomatic mission in which ‘discretion and caution’ were vital.
Illustration shows the death of French Canadian officer Joseph Coulon de Villiers during the Battle of Jumonville Glen against British forces led by George Washington, May 28, 1754 – Washington manipulated a Seneca chief to begin this battle and add to French/British tensions
N. Coulon De Jumonville Grave Marker showing site of the grave of N. Coulon de Jumonville on Route 40, killed when Washington incited a battle when commanded to use diplomacy
Engraving of Washington and Christopher Gist meeting leader of the Seneca Tribe in 1900
Washington was to accompany local Seneca tribe allies to a French fort to assess whether they had set up on British land but he threw aside diplomacy, preferring to manipulate the Seneca chief into starting a fight.
He told the chief that the French intended to kill the Seneca tribe and achieved his ‘desired affect’ as a battle commenced as soon as they reached the French camp.
Ten French soldiers were killed and 21 more captured in an incident that helped intensify the ongoing war between Britain and France and eventually led to the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years War in Europe.
‘At the age of 22, Washington had committed a political misstep of global consequence,’ writes Coe.
‘If the American Revolution had not taken place, Washington would probably be remembered today as the instigator of humanity’s first world war, one that lasted seven years.’
His own reputation would not suffer after the battle and Washington continued on to become the glorified hero of the War of Independence with thanks to his vast knowledge of the Royal Army.
Moving from war hero to President, Washington was considered more than deserving to serve as the new country’s leader.
He went on to serve two terms but by the time he left office in 1797, most of the other Founding Fathers were done with him.
Washington started as unnecessary battle that led to the Seven Years’ War shown here
Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, painted her writing the Declaration of Independence, were tired of Washington by the end of his second term as President
‘The President is fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others to hold the bag,’ a resentful Thomas Jefferson complained in a letter sent that same year to James Madison.
‘He will have his usual good fortune of reaping credit from the good arts of other.’
Their anger continued through to 1812, years after Washington’s death, when John Adams branded him ‘too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation’.
The worst came in 1797, however, when James Monroe, who later became the fifth US President, penned a full 473-page critic of Washington’s administration and the way in which he he US relationships with warring Britain and France.
The Seven Years War had ended in 1763 but the countries were still rivals.
Perhaps the most hard-hitting revelation in the disproved myths about Washington is that his famous ‘I cannot tell a lie’ line to his father when felling the family’s cherry tree is completely fictitious.
The tale was made up by Mason Locke Weems, a broke itinerant parson and bookseller, for the 19th century for the book ‘The Life of Washington’.