We all remember George Washington's extraordinary accomplishments as commander in chief of the Continental Army and as first president of the United States. Few people realize that behind his illustrious public career was an equally interesting personal life. We have gathered some little-known highlights of Washington's life, the good and the bad, the best and the worst.

Worst Habit

The owner of the nation's most famous false teeth attributed his dental problems to his habit as a youth of cracking walnuts with his teeth. His famous dentures, by the way, were not made of wood. They were composed of cows' teeth, human teeth (one of his own), and ivory from walrus and hippopotamus tusks.

See Washington's False Teeth in Collections Online

Most Embarrassing Moment

Washington's Inauguration by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris  - Library of Congress

Washington's Inauguration by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris - Library of Congress

Anyone who has ever found themselves short of cash at a crucial moment can sympathize with poor George Washington. On the surface, Washington appeared to be a wealthy man. In addition to his Mount Vernon plantation, he owned more than 50,000 acres of land, and he filled his home with original portraits, fine silver and china, and elegant furnishings. Yet he was often without a ready supply of cash. Imagine his embarrassment in April of 1789, when after learning of his election as first president of the United States, he had to borrow money in order to make the journey to New York City for his inauguration. Even so, he refused to accept a salary as president, and instead asked Congress only to cover his presidential expenses.

Biggest Lie

Of course, everyone knows that George Washington always told the truth.
As the famous story goes, when he was a lad, he chopped down a cherry tree, and when his father questioned him about it he replied,

"I can't tell a lie ... I cut it with my hatchet."

Well, the biggest lie about George Washington is the cherry tree fable. A total fabrication, the cherry tree incident was created by Mason Weems in a biography published after Washington's death.

Because so little was known about Washington's childhood, Weems invented anecdotes to fill in the gaps and illustrate the heroic qualities that Washington exhibited as an adult. Generations of schoolchildren were exposed to the legend in a popular early textbook, and the oft-repeated tale continues to be the most persistent falsehood ever told about George Washington.

Worst Portrait

George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, 
oil on canvas, Jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Francis Warden Fund, John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund, Commonwealth Cultural Preservation Trust

George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, oil on canvas, Jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Francis Warden Fund, John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund, Commonwealth Cultural Preservation Trust

Ironically, the most famous portrait of George Washington may be one of the worst. Gilbert Stuart's "Athenaeum" portrait, a familiar sight on classroom walls as well as on the dollar bill, shows the first president with a tight-lipped and rather puffy mouth. It turns out that Washington was wearing an ill-fitting set of dentures at the time. In a letter to his dentist, now in the Mount Vernon collection, the dissatisfied patient wrote that the false teeth were "both uneasy in the mouth, and bulge my lips out in such a manner as to make them appear considerably swelled." Despite the popularity of the Stuart portrait, the Washington family preferred portraits by John Trumbull and James Sharpies, and agreed that the sculpture done from life in 1785 by Jean Houdon provided the best likeness. But the worst portraits of all showed up during the Revolutionary War. Enterprising European printmakers, eager to cash in on the excitement in the colonies, produced prints depicting officers of the Revolution.

Unfortunately, they did not wait until they had authentic likenesses to work from, and the fictitious portraits of Washington that emerged rank as the most hideous images of the man ever produced.

See All of the Portrait Washington Sat For

Strongest Arm

George Washington by Horatio Greenough in the National Museum of American History

George Washington by Horatio Greenough in the National Museum of American History

Did it belong to George Washington? Maybe, maybe not. The popular legend that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River originated in the memoirs of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington who was raised by the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. According to Custis, Washington once threw a piece of slate "about the size and shape of a dollar" across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia. While such a toss across the mile-anda-quarter-wide Potomac River would indeed be impressive, the Rappahannock River at the site of the Washington family homestead measures a mere 250 feet across.

Biggest Fish Story

Illustration of what fishing would have been like in the 18th century.

Illustration of what fishing would have been like in the 18th century.

What did George Washington ever have to do with fishing? Plenty, it turns out. Not only was he the master of an extensive plantation, but he also managed a large and profitable fishing operation. During the spawning season each spring, workers toiled around the dock, netting amazing numbers of fish from the Potomac River.

Washington's annual catch of herring sometimes exceeded one million. The fish were salted and packed in barrels for shipment up and down the East Coast and as far away as the West Indies. A good supply also remained at Mount Vernon, where Martha seldom planned a dinner that did not include fish.

Learn More about Washington's Fisheries

Most Confusing Birthday

Geo. Washington, first president of the U.S., 1789-1797. Design copyright 1908, by M. W. Taggart, N.Y.

Geo. Washington, first president of the U.S., 1789-1797. Design copyright 1908, by M. W. Taggart, N.Y.

Everyone knows that George Washington's birthday was February 22, so why does the Washington Family Bible record young George's birthday as February 11?

When Washington was born in 1732, the colonies still followed the Julian calendar.

Twenty years later, they adopted the Gregorian calendar, which was already in use throughout most of the world. Unfortunately, the old Julian calendar was 11 days off, so to conform to the new calendar, all dates prior to 1752 were moved ahead 11 days, making Washington's birthday fall on February 22. The calendar change merely acknowledged that even though Washington was born on "February 11," to the rest of the world it was really February 22. Today the official celebration of Washington's birthday takes place on the third Monday in February, which, unfortunately, will never fall on February 22.

Busiest Household

The Washingtons' reputation for hospitality was known far and wide, and travelers bearing letters of introduction were invited to spend the night at Mount Vernon. Even the greatest hosts and hostesses of today would pale at the thought of entertaining as many guests as the Washingtons did. In one year alone, no less than 423 visitors showed up on Washington's doorstep. The first president described his home as a "well-resorted tavern," and once wrote to a friend that "unless someone pops in unexpectedly-Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us, that is to sit down to dinner by ourselves."

Silliest Pet Names

Many of the lesser-known residents of Mount Vernon were the four-legged variety, who answered to names such as "Truelove" and "Sweetlips." Yes, the Father of Our Country had a soft spot for animals, and the grounds of his estate were fdled with dozens of dogs, horses, and even a parrot. He saved the most endearing names for his dogs, most of which were fleet-footed hounds selected to chase foxes and retrieve ducks during his frequent hunting adventures. Truelove and Sweetlips shared the doghouse with Mopsy, Drunkard, Tipler, Madam Moose, Scentwell, Dabster and Droner, along with the rest of Washington's comically-named canine companions.

Bring Your Dog to Mount Vernon

Greatest Non-Father

Yes, it's true. The Father of Our Country had no children of his own.

Nevertheless, Mount Vernon was often filled with the pitter-patter of little feet. George Washington helped raise two young children from his wife Martha's first marriage as well as two of her grandchildren, not to mention the numerous nieces and nephews who spent time in the Washington household. But the parental role for which Washington is best remembered will always be as the father of the world's greatest nation, first in war, first in peace and still first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Learn More About Washington

The Man & The Myth
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