History

5 biggest lies you were told about George Washington

Being the first President of the United States puts one in the spotlight, and with such notoriety comes an abundance of rumors and lies. There are sure to be many tall tales told of Founding Father and political pioneer George Washington. The leading political figure of the 18th century had quite an intriguing life, but that didn’t stop some from trying to embellish on or completely fabricate parts of it.

The following alleged facts about George Washington are quite the opposite. They’re stories passed down from one generation to the next, anecdotes that may be fun to talk about but have no real historical value.

He chopped down a cherry tree

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“Father, I cannot tell a lie.” These were the alleged words of a young George Washington to his father regarding a damaged cherry tree. According to the legend, Washington took a newly-received hatchet to his father’s tree and damaged it. When confronted, the young boy fessed up for his wrongdoing and earned the praise and respect of his father.

Ironically, Washington’s inability to bend the truth stems from a made-up story by Mason Locke Weems, author of “The Life of Washington.” Wanting to profit off of Washington’s popularity after his death, Weems wrote the biography. By its fifth edition, the myth of the cherry tree was included to give a glimpse into Washington’s virtues and depict him as the ideal role model.

His teeth were made of wood

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Being from the 18th century, it’s not unfathomable to think that George Washington would have poor oral hygiene by today's standards. In fact, it’s known that his teeth weren’t the kind many dentists would take credit for. Plagued with dental issues in his adult life, Washington started to lose teeth in his twenties.

While he was forced to wear dentures, they weren’t, as many believe, made of wood. Instead, they were a mix of human teeth, metal fasteners, and hippopotamus ivory. While closer in appearance to real teeth than wood, early dentures were a far cry from the modern implements used today. Not only were they painful to wear, but their appearance also wasn’t quite as clean.

He’s buried within a crypt beneath the U.S. Capitol

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Unlike many of the lies told about the first president of the United States, this one is rooted in a little bit of truth. On December 23, 1799, the House and Senate decided that, with the permission of his family, the body of George Washington would be buried under a marble memorial at the United States Capitol. Martha Washington agreed, despite the president’s wish to be buried in Mount Vernon.

As with many things, cost became a factor in delaying the construction of the monument. Despite the wishes of representatives and senators, Washington’s body remained at his plantation, Mount Vernon. In 1832, another attempt was made to relocate the body, but Mount Vernon’s owner, John A. Washington II, refused to disturb his ancestor. While some may still claim he’s buried beneath the capitol, George Washington is resting peacefully at Mount Vernon.

He was a sound military leader

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As revered as George Washington is, the praise for his military leadership may not be quite as founded in reality. It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of Washington as a victorious general, but his track record on the battlefield tells a different story.

In fact, it was Washington who outed his own inexperience of military leadership. Speaking with Congress on the night before the New York campaign of 1776, Washington noted his “limited and contracted knowledge” of military operations. On multiple occasions, his inability to make quick decisions caused significant losses, specifically at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 and the loss of Fort Washington on Manhattan Island.

In 1796, American pamphleteer Thomas Paine published a “Letter to George Washington.” Within the document, he claimed that Washington’s achievements were erroneous. According to Paine, many of the president’s achievements belonged to Generals Nathanael Greene and Horatio Gates.

He lived in the White House

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Today, it’s common knowledge that the President of the United States lives in the White House. That may be why so many are adamant that George Washington was one of the many that called this structure home. Logic may dictate the notion, but the timeline of the White House’s construction completely shuts it down.

George Washington was president from 1789 to 1797. Plans for the original president’s house didn’t surface until 1790, and a builder wasn’t selected until 1792. During much of Washington’s presidency, the White House was under construction, and it wasn’t until 1800 that John and Abigail Adams moved in as the first residents.

The truth about George

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George Washington’s reputation has reached mythic proportions over the years, and not all the stories about him are true. His achievements are undeniable—but as far as national heroes go, even he had his limits. And regardless of their truth, these stories are iconic, and just about impossible to separate from the man’s legacy.