“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.  

Conflicting Reports

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.

George Washington rallying the broken forces at the Battle of Monongahela on July 9, 1755. [Washington the Soldier], c. 1834, Library of Congress.

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.”

Worm Wars

George Washington depicted as a farmer in an 1851 painting.

George Washington depicted as a farmer in an 1851 painting.

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

Strong-armed

George Washington and Christopher Gist crossing the Allegheny River, attributed to Daniel Huntington, ca. mid 19th century. [M-3941]. MVLA.

George Washington and Christopher Gist crossing the Allegheny River, attributed to Daniel Huntington, ca. mid 19th century. [M-3941]. MVLA.

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

Horse Tales

During the American Revolution, Washington was gifted two horses, Nelson and Blueskin (sometimes written as Blewskin), who returned with Washington to Mount Vernon after the war.

During the American Revolution, Washington was gifted two horses, Nelson and Blueskin (sometimes written as Blewskin), who returned with Washington to Mount Vernon after the war.

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

“Grave and majestic as he ordinarily was in his deportment, he occasionally, not only relished wit and humour in others, but displayed no inconsiderable share of them himself.”

- David Humphreys, Washington's close friend and biographer

The Joke’s on You

"Light Horse Harry" Lee, by William Edward West, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

"Light Horse Harry" Lee, by William Edward West, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Another story from Irving reveals that Washington could take a joke as well, this one from Henry Lee.

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.'

'Why not?'

'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?

Two-Faced

After Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army, an anonymous printmaker produced an engraving of the General sporting, what was intended to be, an intense scowl on the battlefield (pictured).

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.

Not Impressed

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

Comedy on the Bookshelf

Comedy on the Bookshelf

"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

Well-Trained

The portrait Washington was referring to in his 1785 letter was this one by artist Robert Edge Pine.

The portrait Washington was referring to in his 1785 letter was this one by artist Robert Edge Pine.

The national hero of the Revolution was no stranger to sitting to have his portrait made.

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

Cracking a Smile

Joseph Wright's plaster portrait of Washington, 1783-1785.

Joseph Wright's plaster portrait of Washington, 1783-1785.

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.

All Jokes Aside

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

Lost in Translation

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

Comedic Timing

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:

"‘Sir, you must provide yourself a new watch, or I a new Secretary.’”

 

Learn More About the First Cabinet

Take It or Leave It

Portrait of Eleanor Parke Custis by Robert Edge Pine.

Portrait of Eleanor Parke Custis by Robert Edge Pine.

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:

"On one side I am called upon to remember the parrot, on the other to remember the dog. For my own part I should not pine much if both were forgot."

 

Explore Nelly's World

A Funny Bone

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.

“[Washington] perfectly relishes a pleasant story, an unaffected sally of wit, or a burlesque description which surprises by its suddenness and incongruity with the ordinary appearance of the same object.”

- David Humphreys, Washington’s close friend and biographer

Lost Luggage

Portrait of Bushrod Washington by Henry Benbridge, 1783. MVLA.

Portrait of Bushrod Washington by Henry Benbridge, 1783. MVLA.

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

"Washington, who happened to be out upon his grounds, was attracted by the noise, and so overcome by the strange plight of his friends and the whimsicality of the whole scene, that he is said to have actually rolled on the grass with laughter.”

 

Washington Family

The piazza at Mount Vernon. © Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

Light Banter

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

A Rip-Roaring Good Time

John Marshall, by Cephas Thompson, 1809-1810. National Portrait Gallery NPG.2010.48

John Marshall, by Cephas Thompson, 1809-1810. National Portrait Gallery NPG.2010.48

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

Taking Fire

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)

Hot Take

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.”

The only way Powel would find any warmth in the letters, he continues, would be to set them on fire.

Nosey Gossip

Polish Count Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz was a visitor to Mount Vernon in the late 1790s.

Polish Count Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz was a visitor to Mount Vernon in the late 1790s.

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

“How could he miss it,” replied the General. “You know Livingston’s nose; what a target!"

 

Explore Mount Vernon's Notable Visitors Over the Years

A Night Laugh

Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a Scottish-born Pennsylvanian preacher, politician, writer, jurist, and a known humorist.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a Scottish-born Pennsylvanian preacher, politician, writer, jurist, and a known humorist.

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

Notes

  1. Humphreys, David. Life of General Washington. Greece: University of Georgia Press (2006): 56.
  2. William Thornton Letter, National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), 23 August 1823, 4:4.
  3. Kaminski, John P., “Charles Willson Peale, Recollection of December 28, 1773,” The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the American Revolutionary Era, (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press), 470.
  4. Irving, Washington. Life of George Washington. United States: Co-operative Publication Society, (1900) 4: 80.
  5. Irving, Washington. Life of George Washington. United States: Co-operative Publication Society, (1900) 4: 81.
  6. Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (1934) 7:292.
  7. Elkanah Watson, Men and Times of the Revolution, New York: Dana and Co. (1856): 119.
  8. The Port Folio, 5s. 3 (April 1817): 354.
  9. John F. Watson, “Notes on the Private Character of General Washington,” Collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1 (1853): 139.
  10. Irving, Washington. Life of George Washington. United States: Co-operative Publication Society, (1900) 4: 82
  11. Edward C. McGuire, Religious Opinions & Character of Washington (New York: Harpers, 1836), 155-56.
  12. Thomas G. Cary, ed. Memoir of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1856), 199.
  13. Henry Cabot Lodge, Early Memories (1913), 169-170.
  14. Pettigrew, Thomas Joseph. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late John Coakley Lettsom ...: With a Selection from His Correspondence. United Kingdom: Nichols, son, and Bentley, 1817.
  15. M. J. E. Budka, ed., Under Their Vine and Fig Tree (1965), 85.
  16. James K. Paudling, Life of Washington (1835), 2:194-95.

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