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Did George Washington Chop Down A Cherry Tree?

The Mount Vernon Estate debunks common myths about Washington's life.

In honor of George Washington's birthday on Monday, here are some answers to some of the most common questions about Washington's life, provided by the . 

Did George Washington have wooden teeth?  

  • He had false teeth, but they were not made of wood.  As a matter of fact, the materials used in his false teeth were probably more uncomfortable than wood.  In one set of teeth, his dentist, Dr. John Greenwood, used a cow’s tooth, one of Washington’s teeth, hippopotamus ivory, metal and springs.  They fit poorly and distorted the shape of his mouth.

Did George Washington chop down a cherry tree?

  • Probably not.  The story was invented by Parson Mason Weems who wrote a biography of George Washington shortly after Washington’s death.  Since so little is known about Washington’s childhood, Weems invented several anecdotes about Washington’s early life to illustrate the origins of the heroic qualities Washington exhibited as an adult.  Introduced to countless schoolchildren as a moral tale in the McGuffey Reader textbook, the parable has become a persistent part of American mythology.

Did George Washington throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River? 

  • No.  This myth is often told to demonstrate his strength.  The Potomac River is over a mile wide and even George Washington was not that good an athlete!  Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man.  His step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, reported in his memoirs that Washington once threw a piece of slate “about the size and shape of a dollar” across the Rappahanock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia.  The Rappahannock River at the site of the Washington family homestead today measures only 250 feet across, a substantial but perhaps not impossible distance to throw.

Did George Washington wear a wig? 

  • No.  Although wigs were fashionable, Washington kept his own hair, which he wore long and tied back in a queue, or ponytail.  He did, however, powder his hair as was the custom of the time.

Is George Washington buried under the U.S. Capitol? 

  • No, although Congress built a vault under the Capitol building for this purpose.  In his will, Washington specified that he wished to be buried at Mount Vernon and that a new tomb should be constructed.  His heirs honored his wish, and the vault at the U.S. Capitol remains empty to this day.

Did George Washington free his slaves? 

  • Yes.  Washington’s attitude toward slavery gradually changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for liberty in the American Revolution.  In his will, he freed those slaves belonging to him (about 124) and his estate paid for the care of former Mount Vernon slaves for decades after his death.  At least nine early presidents owned slaves, but only one - Washington - freed all of his slaves. The remaining slaves at Mount Vernon belonged to the estate of Mrs. Washington’s first husband and were known as dower slaves.  By law, Washington had no legal rights to free those individuals.  They were eventually inherited by Mrs. Washington’s descendants upon her death in 1802.

How many votes did George Washington get in the first presidential election? 

  • Only 69.  At that time, there was no popular vote for president, only the votes of the electoral college, which was made up of representatives from each state.  The 69 votes Washington received, however, represented one vote from each elector - thereby making George Washington the only president in history to have been unanimously elected.

Did George Washington live in the White House? 

  • No.  George Washington was the only President who did not live in the White House, which was not completed until after his death.  During his two terms as president, the capital of the United States was located first in New York and then in Philadelphia. Washington played a large role, however, in the development of the new Federal City named after him and in overseeing the design of both the Capitol Building and the White House.

 Why is Washington’s birthday celebrated as “Presidents’ Day”? 

  • Declared a federal holiday by the government in 1885, George Washington’s birthday has culturally morphed into “Presidents’ Day.”  In 1968, the “Monday Holiday Law” was enacted by Congress to provide for uniform annual observances of public holidays.  George Washington’s birthday is slated to be recognized on the third Monday in February.  Soon after the law was enacted in 1971, it was referred to as “Presidents’ Day”. Ever since then, it was assumed that the holiday was designated to honor Abraham Lincoln or presidential officeholders in general.  Officially, however, the holiday has never changed.

Don't forget to visit the Estate this weekend for ! For more information, visit the Estate's website

Sally Spangler October 15, 2011 at 02:41 PM
A man by the name of Parson Weems wrote a biography of George Washington and put in those various statements. No money thrown anywhere. Not chopping down the cherry tree and telling his father "I cannot tell a lie" President's Day is a Congressional setup. Then they also changed Memorial Day to a memory of all veterans of all wars. The day was set aside to remember those lost in the American Civil War (Union type) The Confederates had a separate day, now lost from memory. I have never been positive that the Congress added in the Confederate Veterans. We also have a "Veterans Day" on November 11th which used to be "Armistice Day" to memorialize the end of World War I. The British still use the day to mark the end of WWI (The Great War) with a siren and all stop wherever they are in a moment of silence. Read the British version of that war to see the toll of dead and forever injured from gas used by "The Boch" John Singer Sargant made a huge painting showing men having to following each other with their hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him - blind from mustard gas used in the battle field. From the American Civil War were men who had lost one or both legs in the war. Not to mention the number of men whose lives were cut short from the injuries and privation of the war.
Rick Gamble February 26, 2013 at 01:55 AM
Parson Weems probably made up most of the moralizing tales about George Washington's childhood. However, Weems did perform due diligence with regard to interviewing friends and relatives of the Washington family in the years immediately after Washington died (1799). Weems knew, and understood, much about GW's early life -- items which today's Washington scholars are woefully, and willfully ignorant. Just read the ease with which Weems refers to the heroic military service of George's older brother, Lawrence, as a veteran of the expedition to Cartagena and Cuba in 1741 and 1742. The fact that Weems continually expanded his "Life of Washington" with each subsequent edition is to his credit. And anyone who has ever "interviewed" elderly people knows that they tend to have "recovered memories" the more that they talk, and reflect upon, a subject. Weems knew more about Washington, and Washington's family, than most of today's so-called experts.

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