Eisenhower photo collage
Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home

P.O. Box 339 * 200 SE 4th Street * Abilene, Kansas 67410

www.eisenhower.archives.gov 

 

Getting to Know George
Acts of Congress exhibit banner
Getting to Know George is a weekly series leading to the opening of the
Acts of Congress exhibit at the Eisenhower Presidential Library on April 23!
George Washington's personal copy of the Laws of the United States, First Session 1789, known as the Acts of Congress will be on display at the 13 Presidential Libraries.
For tour details, please visit www.archives.gov/exhibits/acts-of-congress

1753 - 1774: Military Leader and Planter 

 

"Remember that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the officer, and that there is more expected from him, than the title." -GW

 

What were the highlights of Washington's life during this period?

Between 1753 and 1774, Washington passed from a youth of 21 into a man in his early 40s. Through his heroics in the French and Indian War (1754 - 1763), he established a reputation that made him a legend throughout the British Empire. But when the Royal Army refused to commission him as a British officer, he returned to civilian life at Mount Vernon, unhappy and deeply disappointed. He immediately threw himself into political life, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. A few years later, he was appointed a justice of the peace. A new chapter in his life began in early 1758, when he was invited to the home of the recently widowed Martha Dandridge Custis. They married ten months later. Washington now focused on the farms of Mount Vernon, introducing wheat as a primary crop. These were happy years for the Washington family until the untimely death of Martha's daughter "Patsy" at the age of 17 in 1773.

 

How did Washington's earliest military experience shape his leadership?

In 1753, Great Britain and France were poised for conflict in the Ohio Territory, each nation viewing the other's encroachments as a threat to their interests there. George Washington, then just 21 years old, was one of a very few Virginians with knowledge of the northwest frontier, gleaned during his years as a surveyor. He volunteered for a special mission to inform the French of their "eviction" from British-claimed lands. Traveling 250 miles over difficult, if not impossible terrain, and through weeks of constant rain or snow, Washington delivered the message to the commander of Fort Le Boeuf. The trip back to Virginia was even more harrowing, with Washington nearly drowning when pitched from a raft into an ice-clogged river. Despite the hardship, the groundwork for what would become his legendary fearlessness and physical superiority was laid during this trip. But it was the publication of his journal of the mission that would immortalize his reputation for daring and extraordinary personal bravery, and provide the spark which would ignite the French and Indian War.

 

 

What do we know of Washington's physical appearance and bearing?

The real George Washington has been a victim of the passage of time for most Americans. When we think of him at all, it is as a caricature or prop to decorate for the holidays or sell cars. What a tragedy that the distinctive qualities that made him an exceptional figure in history have been hollowed out of the Father of our Country. In every respect, Washington was a giant of a man, keenly aware of the effect his appearance and demeanor had on others. Sources cite his height as between 6' and 6'3", weighing 175 pounds as a young man and 200 - 220 pounds by his 40s. He had large frame, wearing size 13 boots and gloves tailor-made to fit his large, expressive hands. Contemporaries describe him as supremely athletic and graceful, projecting great physical prowess. Washington had a fair complexion, with a tendency to sunburn, blue-gray eyes, and hair described as sandy-brown to a darker, reddish brown, which he powdered for effect. Washington had strong, masculine facial features with pockmarks from a case of smallpox as a teenager. He was both strategic and fastidious in his dress, possessing a sophisticated understanding of how to enhance his already formidable form. When George Washington walked into a room, his was a magnificent, unforgettable presence.      

 

What do we know about Washington's marriage and family life?

Though marriage to Martha Custis made George Washington a very wealthy man, it appears to have been a love match in every respect. He was 26, and she, eight months older at 27. It does not take any stretch of the imagination to understand how a pretty and diminutive (five-feet tall) Martha was smitten by the tall, handsome, somewhat-reserved, young officer, as she greeted him at the Custis plantation in early 1758. George likely experienced the same physical attraction, with an instant appreciation for her warmth and her vivacious personality. Martha was a widow. She and first husband Daniel Parke Custis-twenty years her senior-had produced four children. Sadly, their firstborn daughter and son had died at ages four and three, respectively. When George and Martha married, her surviving children, John Parke Custis, "Jacky," and Martha Parke Custis, "Patsy," were just five and three years of age. George and Martha adored the children-arguably indulging them to excess, perhaps because they would have none of their own. In addition to raising Jacky and Patsy, the Washingtons took two grandchildren into their home. Nieces and nephews from both the Washington and Dandridge families were welcomed at Mount Vernon over the years. But this interlude of contentment ended when Patsy began having epileptic seizures at the age of 11. As her parents watched over her anxiously, the seizures became increasingly debilitating before her untimely death at 17. Martha Washington would outlive all four of her children.

 

Why are George Washington and Mount Vernon so closely associated?

Washington inherited Mount Vernon outright upon the death of his sister-in-law, Ann Fairfax Washington, in 1761. He had leased the property since 1754, not long after Lawrence Washington's death. Anticipating his new family through marriage to Martha, George added a third story to Mount Vernon, the first of many improvements he would make over the years. George and Martha, along with Jacky and Patsy, moved into the home in April 1759, three months after their wedding. Here at Mount Vernon, George Washington channeled the same energy and passion into the role of planter as he had invested in his military career. He was a farmer at heart and an engaged steward of the land. Washington was an agricultural innovator. He was progressive in his approach to animal husbandry and forward-thinking in his introduction of wheat into what had been tobacco country for many generations. He chronicled the many improvements he made to the estate in his meticulous journals. Despite the dramatic transitions their lives would take over the next four decades, Mount Vernon remained the idyllic refuge to which George and Martha Washington always yearned to return.

Did Washington wear wooden dentures? 

No. He didn't! George Washington never wore wooden dentures. Rather, he wore partials and dentures made of ivory or human teeth. By age 22, he was already experiencing dental problems, likely brought on by illnesses such as smallpox, malaria, dysentery and dengue fever, and the effects of the medicines used to treat them. For decades, he suffered chronic infections, abscesses, inflammation, and frequent extractions. Embarrassed by his teeth, he went to great lengths to avoid smiling. Later in life, ill-fitting dentures distorted his appearance and caused a lifetime of discomfort. The fact that Washington occasionally displayed a hair-trigger temper is completely forgivable!

 

 

Discover George Washington: 
Read a transcribed version of Major George Washington's 1754 journal, an account of his military mission into the Ohio wilderness at  

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