Truth be told, our knowledge of George Washington probably ventures little beyond cherry trees, wooden teeth and his tai chi-like ability to balance in a bobbing boat being rowed across the ice-clogged Delaware River. (Even as you remind the kids that that’s not good boating safety.)
Denise Remak isn’t judging. But after years of teaching U.S. history and learning more about Washington, she’s developed a sort of crush on our first president. When, at her husband’s retirement party, she told those gathered that she’d married the modern-day equivalent of GW, “my husband then knew how I really felt about him.”
Given all the Lincoln log-rolling of late, she’s only too willing to share what she’s learned about the other guy being honored on Presidents Day.
If he’d had an eHarmony profile
Washington was a charismatic presence on the Potomac, an excellent horseman who stood an imposing 6 feet 4, a towering presence for the time. He was a brilliant conversationalist, gregarious entertainer, great dancer and avid theater-goer. Oh, and forget the lore about wooden teeth. He had several sets of false teeth, including a set carved from hippopotamus and elephant ivory made while he was president.
So … Martha? Really?
“Here is a bachelor who is quite wealthy in property, handsome, smart, climbing the political ladder,” Remak said. “He could have had any woman he wanted and he chose a widowed woman with two children. And that’s brilliant in my estimation. Some would say it was because she was a wealthy woman, but that’s beside the point. I think it speaks to the kind of man he was. I think he trusted her. Martha was solid.” And, while Martha may have worried about his roving eye, their love letters apparently were fervent enough that she burned all but five.
They liked him! They really liked him!
Washington remains the sole president to receive 100 percent of votes cast by the Electoral College, which had 69 electors in 1789. Not only that, but he was unanimously elected again in 1792. “They were so certain about him that they probably gave broader powers to the office of the president than they would have, because they knew who that person was going to be,” Remak said.
Yes, there were slaves
Washington was a slaveholder, but was one of the few Founding Fathers to free his slaves, stating in his will that they should be emancipated upon Martha’s death. She freed them within a year of his death in 1799, with his estate providing for their needs. Remak noted an Edward Savage portrait of George and Martha with her two children, “and a man of color standing behind a table. No person at that time would have had a slave in a family portrait. which I think shows how inclusive he was.”
Washington and his mother had “a contentious relationship,” Remak said. His mother attended neither of his inaugurations, “yet he was dutiful and had a home built for her, having one entire floor painted green because it was a very rare color,” and so he spared no expense.
A nonpareil nonpartisan
“The greatest triumph of Washington was not that he was our first president, but that he signified the peaceful transfer of power,” Remak said. Despite public clamor, Washington refused to run for a third term, a move that inspired his former enemy, King George III, to observe that: “... if Washington went back to his farm after his public career, he would be the greatest character of the age.” In his farewell address, he warned against political parties — just as he had chosen his Cabinet members based not on political alliances, but on their willingness to do what was best for the country. “He trusted himself, therefore he trusted other people to be as ethical as he was.”
Words he lived by
“Speak little, listen to many, ruminate much.”