Sunday, March 05, 2006

George, We Hardly Knew Ye!

At a conference that I recently attended I overhead two teachers talking. They were discussing a lesson for American History. I inferred they were lower elementary teachers since some of the activities they discussed usually take place in first and second grades.

It was very hard to not wedge myself into their conversation. They were discussing one of our foremost American heroes…George Washington. There are many false stories out there surrounding the man that is remembered as being first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of our countrymen, and these two educators had bought into all of them. Yikes!

I guess the reason why their ignorance struck such a cord with me is I began the French and Indian War earlier this week as an introduction to the American Revolution. For my purposes it is not necessary to cover the entire French and Indian War. I hit the causes and the results which is kind of sad because there are several interesting tidbits concerning this time period. I would introduce more information, but we do tend to be a bit “standards” anal these days, and time is my enemy. I do feel, however, that if we teach social studies we should take the time to de “myth”isize history.

One of the first things I do is I ask the students to tell me things about George Washington. Our jot list includes: he’s on the dollar bill, he’s on the quarter, he never told a lie, he cut down a cherry tree, he had wooden teeth, he could throw a silver dollar across a river, he wore a wig, and he was our first president. I tell the kids that unfortunately history is full of myths that get handed down from generation to generation and people believe them for so long it is as if they are fact. I take a marker and draw a line through all of the myths leaving only the money facts and the first president fact on our list. They are shocked. “But my mom said….”, “But my teacher said…”

Anytime we de “myth”isize history in my classroom I make sure students realize the reasons behind the myths. We talk about revisionists (like Disney), we discuss how new information is discovered, and we discuss the motives behind changing history to leave out groups of people. I make sure students realize no one is trying to pull the wool over their eyes, especially their parents and former teachers. I certainly don’t want to break a bond of trust within the family.

I share the following with students….

George Washington’s family (on both sides) had been in the colonies for at least 2 generations. He considered himself a Virginian, however, his loyalties were with the King of Britain. He was British. He was a soldier in the British army. I tell the kids to close their gaping mouths and think for a minute. I remind students that we are talking about a time period before the United States. We look at our map again. I remind them that everyone who lived in the 13 colonies were not citizens of the United States but were citizens of British colonies and were loyal to the King.

This is very powerful for nine year olds to grasp. They hear George Washington and automatically think United States. I make sure in my lesson I remind them that George is British several times while we tackle the myths they have learned.

Teeth-GW did not have wooden teeth. He did have false teeth but they made from various materials------cows teeth, human teeth, and ivory. One dependable source stated he had a set of teeth that were lead and weighed as much as three pounds. These false teeth would have had springs to allow him to open and close his mouth. These would have been very uncomfortable which explains why GW is not seen with a toothy grin in any of his pictures.

A great throw-It is routinely shared with schoolchildren that George Washington once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. That would have been impossible since the Potomac is very wide and silver dollars would not have existed at the time the story takes place. Later Washington’s step-grandson theorized that there had been a mix-up in the story. He verified Washington had thrown a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River where he lived at Ferry Farm, his childhood home. The Rappahannock’s banks are much closer together than the Potomac’s.

Expert with an ax-You know, I saw this myth debunked a few years ago in Weekly Reader…why is it still hanging around? Mason Weems, an early biographer of Washington’s, made this story up to promote GW’s honesty. Family members have verified through the decades that the whole story is bunk.

Weird Powdered Hair-Many historians, including those that work at Mount Vernon, have verified GW did not wear a wig. He hated them. He powdered his own red/brown hair and braided it down the back to comply with the style.

Here are some non-myths (at least until they are proven otherwise):

*GW was the only president to be elected unanimously
*GW was a slave owner with 300 plus souls under his control.
*GW used slave laws to his advantage. He took his favorite cook, a male slave named Hercules, to Pennsylvania to prepare his meals. At the time Pennsylvania had a law that slaves within the colony would be free after residing in the colony for six months. GW always sent Hercules home before the end of the six month period. Eventually Hercules ran away and GW never found him.
*Upon his death GW’s will ordered his slaves freed, and he ordered that funds be set aside to help the elderly and to educate the young.
*GW, like Thomas Jefferson, is now rumored to have fathered a slave child of his own. However, many people dispute this and state that more than likely GW was unable to father children. He may have had TB earlier in his life and this may have caused him to be sterile. Some state that a Washington probably fathered the child in question, but not
George Washington.
*GW didn’t lack for children. He fathered his step-children and grandchildren. He and Martha also took in several children belonging to friends or family at various times. GW even took in the Marquis de Lafayette’s son during the French Revolution.
*The hemp plant was grown at Mount Vernon so some folks like to think GW knew something about pot. I think the plant was more than likely used for rope.
*We can thank GW for the Bible being part of the presidential inauguration ceremony and the words “So help me God” which he added himself.
*Upon her husband’s death Martha Washington burned all of her and her husband’s correspondence---only two or three letters survive.
*GW’s horses had their teeth brushed each morning. Was he planning on using them in a new set of dentures?
*It is a wonder he ever made it to serve as our first president. As a young man he suffered malaria, smallpox, pleurisy, dysentery, a near drowning in an icy river, shot at and missed by an Indian standing less than 50’ away, and had two horses shot out from underneath him
*GW survived a close call with a duel with a man named Payne---problems ended when GW offered his hand as a sign of apology and friendship*GW turned down a salary from Congress and insisted that he be paid only for his expenses. His salary would have been $500. By accepting an expense only arrangement during the 8 years of war GW was owed $447,220

Some might argue that it doesn't hurt the American public to believe their first president had superhuman throwing strength and never told a lie but we also need to understand our leaders are mortal men and women. They have the same fears, bad habits, and mortality that we do. Their greatness comes in the manner they overcome their shortcomings, the honing of their skills in leadership and delegation of duties, and their desire and constant effort at doing the right thing all the time.


Kevin said...

I think it is wonderful that you are exposing your students to the mythology behind American history at such an early age. It seems that you are doing it in a productive way that teaches them not to accept everything they hear or read in their books. I teach American history on the high school level and we always read a few chapters out of Loewen's book _Lies My Teachers Told Me_. It reinforces the importance of questioning.

Anonymous said...

That image you have up of George Washington looks a LOT like fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

EHT said...

Thank you Kevin. I have read Loewen's book and find it an interesting resource. I agree...critical learning needs to start as soon as possible.

My picture of "George" does look like Karl Lagerfeld. I just happened upon it while I was verifying some "myths" and "facts" and thought it would tie in
nicely. So often our younger students want to place historical figures in their own time period. It simply makes me cringe. However, this particular child artist really has it "goin' on!"

Thanks for commenting!

kontan said...

GREAT post!!! It is amazing to me what myths make it to the high school level. We just started the Civil War...oh boy!

If you don't mind I'm going to link this post at

Mike in Texas said...

Thanks for the interesting myths, and truths, about Washington

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

Actually, he got smallpox in the Caribbean when he was a young man, and many speculate that that made him sterile. His face bore the pockmarks until his death.

EHT said...

I stand corrected on the TB issue---smallpox was mentioned later in the post. I believe that is one reason why his supporters state he probably didn't father a child.

Ahistoricality said...

Your remaining list of "truths" after removing the myths does have one semi-truth on it. George Washington was the first president under the Constitution, but the first President of the United States under the earlier Articles of Confederation was John Hanson.

I do love your list of actual facts, though: very thought provoking stuff.

EHT said...

Thank you for pointing out the fact that we had a pre-Constitution president. I was focusing on the initial time I introduce GW to my students which is mucho, mucho pre-Constitution. Since it is so hard for them to remember George Washington did not represent the U.S. during the French and Indian War I usually don't bring up extra interesting stuff until we have reached that point in history. I do teach my students about John Hanson, but I do so in the proper sequence. For us adults, though, I guess I could have included him in my post.

EasyLiving said...

I just wonder, with time being a constraint, why you feel it is important to let your pupils know GW can't throw as far as some have claimed. Isn't it much more important to teach about GW's leadership abilities, political abilities, and, surprise surprise, the actual effect he had on the USA? Why waste your students time on basically worthless information when you could be talking about the wisdom and knowledge of one of our greatest treasures?

Anonymous said...

Why do you doubt the story about Washington throwing a dollar across the Potomac. We all know a dollar went a lot further in his day.

Seriously, besides the Rappahannock story, Washington as a young man did a lot of surveying in the wilderness, maybe he visited the Potomac well upstream where most anyone could have thrown a dollar across it.

EHT said...

Easyliving, please understand at the elementary level social studies "class" isn't the only arena where history information can be discussed. Many teachers utilize reading class to teach social studies and science content as well. My fourth grade homeroom reads independently for 40 minutes each day. I have in my classroom approximately 300 books that have been purchased by my district but most I have bought myself. Students self-select what they read and you can bet I plan carefully what is in my library for them to use. If I'm teaching the American Rev. those books are in the forefront. Most of the "facts" I've collected have come from the student's own investigations during our reading time. Yes, time is a contraint and it is my ultimate enemy.
Nowhere in the post did I say I taught students every fact I related. Interesting twists in history, myths, and facinating facts are not time wasters. They are methods teachers can use to motivate students to dig for more on their own. All I need to do is throw out one quirky fact and say, "Let's try to see if we can find more", and they are off and running. That's how you build life-long history students.

Anonymous said...

I used to wonder how slavery could go on for almost 400 years and not one person in the history books is blamed for it!!! Not to mention who were the people who stole all the land from the Indians and Mexicans. I guess the people who did these things were the ones who wrote the history books, no doubt!! The history books have no input from the slaves or Indians at all. If they did then maybe there would be some truth to them. These devils actually convinced us that they are angels and heroes! They did not even like poor whites...they were an elitist class....I cannot think of anyone in history as we know it more selfish, greedy and evil than the founding fathers. Isn't it funny how Charlton Heston plays a slave in 'The Ten Commandments'and fights the evil Egyptian slaveowners but in real life he supports the exactly same kind of evil men by quoting the founding fathers in the 'Bowling For Columbine' movie. He might be a racist but he is definetly stupid.

Joy said...

George Washington was an engineer on the canal up at Great Falls. In that area of the Potomac during a drought (which happens) you could easily throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. The river is much narrower than it is at Mount Vernon.