What Does History Suggest?
Research offers many clues to how Washington sounded. As to the question of whether or not Washington had an English accent, there are many possibilities. Washington was born on February 22, 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His parents, Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, were part of the gentry class and of English descent. Since the newly formed United States was physically separate from England, different dialects formed within the early colonies. Likely they would influence the accents of those around Washington in rural Virginia. Further, newer elements of the English language, adapting itself across the Atlantic, may not have made it to the areas with less contact to England. Washington’s accent may have been more influenced by the rural setting of his younger years than it was by his exposure to people with English accents. Considering all of this and his farmer upbringing, it is safe to speculate that Washington’s natural accent was, as Morse portrays it, predominantly American with a detectable English influence.
In his life, Washington suffered from a host of throat and lung related illnesses, including diphtheria, tuberculosis, epiglottitis, pneumonia, and quinsy (infection of the tonsils.) It is likely that any of these illnesses, or perhaps all of them together, had an influence on the tonality and strength of Washington’s voice. Steve Yoch, author of the book “Becoming George Washington” cites Washington’s bout of pleurisy, an illness which involves inflammation of the lung tissues, as the cause of his voice being “high, weak and breathy.” Washington also suffered from numerous tooth problems, so he attempted to keep his mouth closed as often as possible to hide any unsightliness. This habit may have caused Washington to speak with a slight murmur, an element that was highlighted in both Morse and Kahn’s performances.
Washington’s contemporaries described his voice similarly to the way that Morse, Kahn, and others have portrayed it. Fisher Ames, a representative in the United States Congress, said Washington’s voice was “deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.” Other contemporaries of Washington described his tone as dispassionate, which Paul K. Longmore, author of “The Invention of George Washington” argues reassured Americans of a lack of emotionality that could have led Washington to tyranny. George Mercer, a friend to Washington, wrote that “His voice is agreeable rather than strong.” Mercer’s comment supports the idea that Washington’s voice may have been weaker than what has been popularly portrayed.