10 Facts about George Washington and the Revolutionary War
Learn more about General Washington's role in securing victory in the American Revolution.
“It is assuredly better to go laughing than crying thro’ the rough journey of life.” – George Washington
In the popular imagination, there’s nothing funny about George Washington; a smile is nowhere to be seen on the one-dollar bill.
But in the memories of those who knew him best, and in Washington’s own writings, a different Washington emerges — one who “relished wit and humour,”1 according to close friend David Humphreys, or made sly jokes while barely “suppressing a smile,”2 according to another friend William Thornton.
Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that biographers such as Parson Weems sought to cleanse the General’s image for history, handing down a version of Washington that is serious, unsmiling, and unable to tell a lie. Washington himself even edited his past correspondence, with the understanding that his letters would be scrutinized by historians and would help create a presidential model.
But in many places, his humor remains. And in examining the funny things Washington said, and the things that made him laugh, we get a clearer picture of our Founding Father — and if you look closely, he might be wearing a trace of a smile.
Washington narrowly escaped death on July 9, 1755, while serving as an aide-de-camp in General Edward Braddock’s colonial force. Despite having two horses shot out from under him and four musket balls tear through his coat, Washington survived the onslaught of a combined French and Native force.
As false reports of his death began to circulate, Washington wrote to his brother John Augustine Washington:
As I have heard since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you, that I have not as yet composed the latter.
The jest pre-dates, by more than 150 years, the famous Mark Twain quip, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
In a letter of congratulations to Martha’s brother-in-law following the birth of a baby, Washington jokingly tells the new father that he should be careful not to neglect his crops during this time of excitement, for tobacco “is assailed by every villainous worm that has had an existence since the days of Noah (how unkind it was of Noah now I have mentioned his name to suffer such a brood of Vermin to get a birth in the Ark) but perhaps you may be as well off as we are—that is, have no Tobacco for them to eat and there I think we nicked the Dogs.”Learn More About Washington the Farmer
Washington was a superior athlete — and he knew it. As remembered by American artist Charles Willson Peale, a group of visitors to Mount Vernon in 1773 were “pitching the bar,” a game that involved seeing who could throw an iron bar the farthest across the lawn.
…suddenly the colonel appeared among us. He requested to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts; then, smiling, and without putting off his coat, held out his hand for the missile. No sooner … did the heavy iron bar feel the grasp of his mighty hand than it lost the power of gravitation, and whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed, as we stood around, all stripped to the buff, with shirt sleeves rolled up, and having thought ourselves very clever fellows, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, ‘When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.’3
Washington the Athlete
In his biography of the first president, Washington Irving relates a story that occurred at camp in Morristown, New Jersey, during the war. When General Washington purchased a fiery horse, a braggadocio of the army asked for the privilege of breaking it. Washington consented, and the young hotshot was:
...making a great display of his science, when the horse suddenly planted his forefeet, threw up his heels, and gave the unlucky Gambado a somerset over his head. Washington, a thorough horseman … was so convulsed with laughter that, we are told, the tears ran down his cheeks.4
Washington the Horseman
- David Humphreys, Washington's close friend and biographer
Washington one day at table mentioned his being in want of carriage horses, and asked Lee if he knew where he could get a pair.
'I have a fine pair, general,' replied Lee, 'but you cannot get them.'
'Because you will never pay more than half price for any thing; and I must have full price for my horses.'
The bantering reply set Mrs. Washington laughing, and her parrot perched beside her, joined in the laugh. The General took this familiar assault upon his dignity in great good part. 'Ah, Lee, you are a funny fellow,' said he,—'see, that bird is laughing at you.'5
Who Was Henry Lee?
To hide the fact that the artist had never seen Washington in person, a false credit line was added claiming that the image was drawn from life “by Alexr. Campbell of Williamsburgh in Virginia.”
Upon seeing the image, Washington wrote in a 1776 letter:
Mr Campbell whom I never saw (to my knowledge) has made a very formidable figure of the Commander in Chief giving him a sufficient portion of Terror in his Countenance.
When it came to setting a table, Washington preferred a “neat but plain” style. At a military banquet in 1783, Washington caught sight of the rather gaudy silver goblets on the table. It was explained to him that the cups had been made by a man who had since become a Quaker preacher. General Washington, understanding the Quaker preference for the plain and simple, replied that he wished the man “had been a Quaker preacher before he had made the cups."6
"Humphry Clinker Smashing a Dish at Dinner," an illustration from Tobias Smollett's "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker" (London, 1793), Vol. 1, print, Charles Grignion, after Thomas Rowlandson, photo courtesy Wikicommons
At the time of his death, Washington had more than 1,200 titles in his library, more than 100 of which were popular fiction, plays, or poetry.
Judging from his collection, it appears that Washington enjoyed a genre known as picaresque, an early novel form that tells the adventures of a rogue or lowborn adventurer. Among his library were titles such as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. Imagine Washington chuckling to himself while reading this passage from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, a satiric travel narrative following a cantankerous Welsh squire:
Clinker … gave his attendance at dinner. The fellow’s natural awkwardness and the flutter of his spirits were productive of repeated blunders in the course of his attendance—At length, he spilt part of a custard upon her right shoulder; and, starting back, trod upon [the dog] Chowder, who set up a dismal howl—Poor Humphry was so disconcerted at this double mistake, that he dropt the china dish, which broke into a thousand pieces.
Books Owned By Washington
It was an arduous process that must’ve been torturous for the active Washington. In this 1785 letter, Washington jokes that he now sits for portraits like a broken-in, trained horse.
I am so hackneyed to the touches of the painter’s pencil, that I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a monument whilst they are delineating the lines of my face.
It is a proof among many others, of what habit and custom can effect. At first I was as impatient at the request, and as restive under the operation, as a colt is of the saddle. The next time, I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now, no dray moves more readily to the thill, than I do to the painter’s chair.
Explore the Life Portraits of Washington
In his memoir, traveler Elkanah Watson wrote of his 1785 visit to Mount Vernon, when Washington told the following story about having his life mask made by artist Joseph Wright.
Wright came to Mount Vernon with the singular request, that I should permit him to take a model of my face, in plaster of Paris, to which I consented with some reluctance. He oiled my features over; and, placing me flat upon my back, upon a cot, proceeded to daub my face with the plaster. Whilst in this ludicrous attitude, Mrs. Washington entered the room; and, seeing my face thus overspread with the plaster, involuntarily exclaimed. Her cry excited me in a disposition to smile, which gave my mouth a slight twist, or compression of the lips, that is now observable in the busts which Wright afterward made.7
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Delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 prepare to sign the U.S. Constitution. "Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy. Courtesy Wikicommons.
In 1817, The Port Folio, a Philadelphia literary and political magazine, published the following Washington anecdote that supposedly took place 30 years earlier at the Constitutional Convention. The story is credited to a “Mr. Mercer” in the Virginia House of Delegates, who said he received the story from a member of the convention.
A member made a motion that congress should be restricted to a standing army not exceeding five thousand, at any one time. General Washington, who, being chairman, could not offer a motion, whispered to a member from Maryland, to amend the motion, by providing that no foreign enemy should invade the United States, at any one time, with more than three thousand troops.8
Learn More About How the Constitution Was Created
In a diary entry during a 1791 visit to York, Pennsylvania, Washington writes about attending a German church service. Considering the language barrier, Washington jokes that a religious conversion was unlikely.
“…there being no Episcopal Minister present in the place, I went to hear morning service performed in the Dutch Reformed Church—which, being in that language not a word of which I understood, I was in no danger of becoming a proselyte to its religion by the eloquence of the preacher.”
Learn More: Washington and Religion
Chronicler John F. Watson9 wrote in 1853: “General Washington was extremely punctual. His cabinet councils were appointed to meet him precisely at eleven o’clock on set days. On such occasions General [Alexander] Hamilton was usually latest and after the time; then he would bustle, and drawing out his watch exclaim it had deceived him. This occurred a number of times, when the General effectually prevented it, by rising and looking firmly on General Hamilton and saying:
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During Washington’s presidency, his step-granddaughter Nelly Custis kept a green parrot as a pet. In 1794, she wrote to tell a friend that she was teaching the bird to sing, an experiment that likely tried the patience of the president. As packing was underway for the family’s return to Mount Vernon, following his retirement, Washington complained in a letter that:
Explore Nelly's World
It’s hard to take oneself too seriously when a dog is around, and that was certainly the case with Washington. The names of his dogs alone prove that the General had a sense of humor. Just ask Sweetlips, Madame Moose, Countess, Maiden, Lady, Dutchess, Drunkard, Truelove, Mopsy, Pilot, Musick, Lawlor, Stately, or Jupiter.
Read about Washington’s most notorious pooch, a French hound named Vulcan, and the antics that made the General laugh heartily.
- David Humphreys, Washington’s close friend and biographer
As related by biographer Washington Irving, Chief Justice John Marshall and Washington’s nephew, Associate Justice Bushrod Washington, were approaching Mount Vernon after a long journey when they decided to stop and change out of their dusty clothes. When their servant opened the luggage in search of fresh clothes, “Out flew cakes of windsor soap and fancy articles of all kinds. The man by mistake had changed their portmanteau at the last stopping place for one which resembled it, belonging to a Scotch pedlar..." 10
Despite being famously well-mannered, Washington was not immune to lapses in etiquette—at least according to one book published in 1836, Religious Opinions & Character of Washington. “On one occasion, from the force of habit, he performed [grace] himself when a clergyman was present—an instance of indecorum very unusual with him. Being told, after the clergyman’s departure of the incivility, he expressed his regret at the oversight, but added, ‘The reverend gentleman will at least be assured, that we are not entirely graceless at Mount Vernon.’” (11)
The piazza at Mount Vernon. © Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
In his memoir, Boston merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins describes a visit to Mount Vernon in 1796.
At the back of the house, overlooking the river, is a wide piazza, which was the general resort in the afternoon. On one occasion, when sitting there with the family, a toad passed near to where I was conversing with General Washington; which led him to ask me if I had ever observed this reptile swallow a fire-fly. Upon my answering in the negative, he told me that he had; and that, from the thinness of the skin of the toad, he had seen the light of the fire-fly after it had been swallowed. This was a new, and to me a surprising, fact in natural history. 12
Take a Virtual Tour of the Piazza
Sculptor William Story shared this Washington anecdote that he had heard from his father Joseph Story, associate justice of the Supreme Court.
On a journey with Washington to visit some friends, John Marshall accidentally tore his pants on horseback. Despite the mishap, the pair had no choice but to continue on their way.
The only device to conceal his disastrous condition that occurred to Marshall was to open his handkerchief and hold it by the two ends before him like an apron and this he did. On entering the room Washington turned and looked at him and then suddenly broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter which was so violent and exhausting that it was said he actually rolled on the floor and could not for a time recover himself. 13
Architect William Thornton records a moment of military humor in a 1797 letter: "As [Washington] sat at table after dinner, the fire behind him was too large and hot. He complained and said he must remove. A gentleman observed it behove the General to stand fire. Yes, said Washington, but it does not look well for a General to receive the fire behind.” (14)
In 1797, Washington received a teasing letter from close friend and Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Willing Powel in which she reveals she found letters between George and Martha Washington in the desk she purchased from the president. Washington responded with a playful letter of his own, explaining that any old letters between the two would “have been found to be more fraught with expressions of friendship, than of enamoured love.”
Polish Count Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz spent nine days at Mount Vernon in the late 1790s. During that time, he recorded the following conversation about a recent duel:
"Did you know,” Mr. Law asked [Washington], “Mr. Jones, who was recently killed in a duel by Mr. Livingston?’”
“I believe I have seen him, but I was never on intimate terms with him.”
“They say that the shot he fired at his opponent had grazed his nose.”15
The following story about Washington’s encounter with Judge Hugh Henry Brackenridge was included in James K. Paulding’s Life of Washington (1835).
The judge was an inimitable humourist, and, on a particular occasion, fell in with Washington at a public house, where a large company had gathered together for the purpose of discussing the subject of improving the navigation of the Potomac.
They supped at the same table, and Mr. Brackenridge essayed all his powers of humour to divert the general; but in vain. He seemed aware of his purpose, and listened with a smile. However, it so happened that the chambers of Washington and Brackenridge adjoined, and were only separated from each other by a thin partition of pine boards.
The general had retired first, and when the judge entered his own room, he was delighted to hear Washington, who was already in bed, laughing to himself with infinite glee, no doubt at the recollection of his stories.16
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