George Washington Was Kinda Hot

July 12, 2008 at 7:17 am | Posted in History, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(January 7, 2008)

This year I decided to read a biography of each of the United States presidents.  If I do one a week, I’ll be done in mid-September, in time to read anything by our new candidates.  It’s something to do to fill in the time between now and the election, one of the few things I find of great interest lately.

First was George Washington.  You may recognize him from his portrait on the dollar bill.  (I had to go by the book cover – not too many other Dead Presidents at my house, if you catch my drift…) I chose the relatively new 2005 biography His Excellency, by Joseph J. Ellis, which was succinct and comprehensive.

Apparently young George was between 6’2″ and 6’4″, weighed 175, and was great at dancing and horseback riding.  While his teeth were still okay, he was quite the babe!  It’s easier to tell from his best portrait, if you imagine him with a modern haircut.  Yow.  That’s how he wound up marrying the wealthiest young widow in Virginia.

There were two things I liked reading about “the father of our country”:  He was always concerned about getting a fair deal for the Native Americans, and he was bothered enough by owning slaves that he set them free in his will.  (There are complicated and not entirely flattering reasons why he didn’t do it while he was alive).

Evidently, the major impetus for Washington to develop a peeve with Britain was the low price he was getting for his tobacco crops plus the high price he was charged for all British goods.  He and the other Virginia plantation owners were all in debt up to their eyeballs.  Washington suddenly realized he was never going to get out from under if he kept living that way.  So he planted crops that would actually feed his plantation and set up his own mill and weaving operation.  He was so horrified at the idea of being in debt, on a personal as well as a national level, that he was willing to do whatever it took to become self-sufficient.  (There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he would have objected very strongly to our national dependence on foreign oil).  Indeed, he did get out from under, and died a wealthy man with property all over the place.

Now, some of this may simply come from historiographic trends, but there were apparently things true of our country from the very beginning that are still true today.  For one, our nation was already in debt before we even were a nation, due to what we like to call “unfunded liabilities” in the form of military pensions.  For another, the debate between the two parties, the Federalists and the Republicans, was just as nasty and horrible as our two-party debates now.  In fact, I suspect I’m going to find that evil words have never ceased being flung between two political groups in this country, not for one single second.  Oh, and no matter what his record or his initial popularity, poor Washington suffered the same type of ad hominem attacks our presidents have in the last couple of decades.  One of the prices of free speech is for a president to have to develop a really thick skin.

Washington had his dark side – he did own hundreds of slaves, went about ordering people flogged and hanged left and right in the Continental Army, and abandoned his true love Sally Fairfax so he could marry for money.  He was also kind of a legend in his own mind and was obsessed with how he would look to posterity, since he wasn’t able to have children of his own.  Through that, though, Ellis paints a picture of a man surprisingly modern in his troubles, from debt to paparazzi to mud-slinging political opponents.

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