Monday, February 18, 2013

Myths about George Washington (to celebrate Washington's Birthday / Presidents Day)

Today is a special federal holiday - Washington's Birthday!  Most of us (thanks to endless silhouette crafts in elementary school) know this day more popularly as Presidents Day.

As you may already know, myths about our first President abound in our culture.  Some of these are merely anecdotal, but some actually represent a serious problem for our society's understanding of Washington and his legacy.  Here are six of these myths, and some quick correctives to them.

Myth #1: It's Presidents Day!
Although many Americans celebrate Presidents Day on the third Monday in February, no such federal holiday actually exists.  Instead, the day is officially called Washington's Birthday.  The day has slowly morphed over the decades into its present moniker in order to account for the many traditions in various states and regions which celebrate other presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John F. Kennedy.  Rather than supplant the great George Washington, most places simply chose to rename the holiday generally to account for all of their favorite presidents

Myth #2: George Washington had Wooden Teeth
George Washington never had wooden teeth.  He did have a lot of false teeth.  But like all false teeth of his day, they were made of other, more durable materials, including ivory, animal bones, and even human teeth.  These were never terribly comfortable, but they were better than wood.

Myth #3: George Washington Smoked Marijuana
George Washington did not grow or smoke marijuana.  He did grow hemp on his plantation, but this hemp produced no narcotic effects.  Besides, it is clear from his books that he grew hemp to sell for very focused industrial purposes, including the production of paper, fuel, and rope.  Sorry to all of you Colorado pot-smokers: Washington is not your pal.  (Washington did, however, own a very productive distillery, which produced a highly-sought-after whiskey.  You can read about that, and about the recent reproduction of that whiskey from his handwritten recipe here.)

Myth #4: George Washington Chopped Down a Cherry Tree, and could not Tell a Lie
The old myth goes something like this: as a boy, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree.  When confronted with his sin by his father Augustine, Washington promptly confessed, saying something like "I cannot tell a lie."  Well, the truth is that this story never happened.  Instead, it was concocted by a man named Mason Locke Weems, otherwise known as Parson Weems.  In 1800, Weems published a book entitled The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.  This book was sold as a biography of Washington, but in truth, it was a book of fables, meant to use the great Father of the United States as an example of moral behavior (and to make alot of money).  He later wrote other moralistic books such as The Drunkard's Glass and God's Revenge Against Dueling.

Myth #5: George Washington said "So Help me God" in his Presidential Oath
Every president must affirm a specific oath, as required by Article Two, Section One, Clause Eight of the Constitution.  It ends with, "I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."  It ends there.  Do you feel like something is missing?  If you do, that is because since the early-19th century, presidents have been adding the phrase "So Help me God" to the end of the oath.  The addition of this phrase has always been attributed to - you guessed it - George Washington.  The problem is that there is no evidence that Washington ever said this.  The only sources for this spurious flourish at the end of the oath come from people who wrote later in the 1800s, who had specific religious agendas, and who were not present for Washington's original inauguration.  Hardly trustworthy sources.

Myth #6: George Washington Had a Vision and Prayed at Valley Forge
You have probably seen an image like this one before: Washington on his knees, in the snow, slightly illuminated by light from above, praying.  There are several versions of the same story: General Washington, in the middle of the American Revolution, in deep trouble at Valley Forge in the Winter of 1777-1778, had a religious vision, and retreated to the woods to fall on his knees in prayer.  Guess where this story first showed up - our old friend, Parson Weems.  Weems published an article in The Federalist in 1804 claiming that this happened, but provided no sources, no witnesses, and no explanation.  Now, Washington was certainly a religious man, who belonged to an Episcopal Church most of his life.  He regularly called on "Providence" to aid him, or thanked "Providence" for aid.  He may have even prayed while at Valley Forge.  Americans, including Christians, can thus look to him as an example of dedication, prayerfulness, and possibly even piety.  But if we do so, we should do so based on facts, not on caricatures.  And these paintings of Washington at Valley Forge are just that - caricatures.

Next time someone tries to spread one of these myths, you'll be ready.  Such myths may be fun, interesting, or even helpful to a religious cause, but they're myths nonetheless, and should not be perpetuated by anyone who wants to know or spread the truth.

For great reading on Washington, myths about him, and his times, I recommend:

Edward Lengel, Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory
David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing
John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction

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