American Presidents CHAT

Chat Transcript from March 15th 1999

C-SPANModerator Welcome to C-SPAN's American Presidents chat room. Our guest today is Washington Scholar Jack Warren. Mr. Warren is an advisor to the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, George Washington's Ferry Farm and is a former editor of the papers of George Washington.

jae I'm very curious about Washington's false teeth. How did they keep them white and what was the most common substance used to make them?

JackWarren Contrary to popular legend, Washington's false teeth were not made from wood. He had a set made of iron, which must have been terribly uncomfortable, but the surviving sets, which were made late in his life, are made from one of two materials: ivory or extracted human teeth. When the federal government took up residence in New York in 1789, Washington went to a New York dentist named John Greenwood, who made very modern dentures using human teeth, which, incident ally, were extracted live. Greenwood advertized in New York papers for teeth; you came in, he pulled one, and gave you a pound and sixpence. The teeth used springs to stay in place, which forced wearers to clench down to keep them in place. Washington was apparently pleased with Greenwood's work, because when the government moved t o Philadelphia in 1790 he continued to use Greenwood's services. We know all about this because the business was conducted th rough the mail. It proved to be an un satisfactory way to do business, because it was difficult to fit the teeth by mail, as you can imagine. But Washington liked the teeth, and Greenwood didn't want to lose a famous client. Greenwood's letters to Washington include instructions on proper cleaning. Washington drank a good bit of dark wine, and Greenwood chided the president for staining the teeth. He was instructed to soak them and scrub them with mild abrasives, much like modern dentures.

June H. Shaw Can you suggest a bookstore where I might find second hand biographies of the presidents which are not available in popular bookstores?

JackWarren Try the many second-hand and antiquarian bookstores gathered together online at (formerly

D.M.Baker I heard Washington had Syphilis True o false?

JackWarren There is no credible evidence that he did, and no credible evidence that he suffered from any of the symptoms.

martha I have heard that many presidents have had interesting sleeping habits (one even slept sitting up I believe). Did Washington have any of these interesting habits?

JackWarren Many people in the eighteenth century slept propped up on pillows, which was believed to prevent problems with breathing and ward off illnesses of various sorts. Washington probably slept this way, though I have never seen any documentary evidence on this point. Washington retired early and rose early, and was apparently very regular in his sleeping habits when at home. He was a man of almost inexhaustible energy, and as a young man he could go long periods with little sleep.

guest57 What book do you prefer on being the most precise on GW's life and presidency?

JackWarren The best biography of Washington is, without much doubt, Douglas Southall Freeman's seven-volume biography. In one volume, I like John Ferling, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1988). Ferling is critical of Washington at some points, but his work is lively and intelligent. It is very difficult to get Washington's entire life into one volume. Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument is a wonderful short introduction t o h is life. On Washington's presidency, I recommend Ri chard Norton Smith, Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation (Boston, 1993). I also re commend Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (New York, 1993), which covers the politics of Washingt on's presidency in an outstanding way. On Washington as a symbolic figure, I recommend Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment.

defender what do you think about Sally F and George?

JackWarren Everyone who has studied Washington for any length of time forms an opinion about Washington's relationship with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his neighbor and friend, George William Fairfax. In truth, we don't have quite enough evidence to assess their relationship well. He wrote her what seems, to many modern readers, improperly rom antic letters during the French and Indian War, but flirtatious letters of this sort were not all that uncommon in Washington's age. I see no evidence that they were engaged in any sort of improper relationship.

Terry Do you believe that GW's political contemporaries would have voluntarily stepped down after two terms as President? This seems like one of GW's most important acts.

JackWarren Stepping down after two terms WAS one of Washington's most important acts, and established a precedent that survived until Franklin Roosevelt was elected for a third term. But it was an accidental precedent. Washington wanted to resign halfway through his first term, and only accepted a second term with great reluctance. Would any of his contemporaries have retired after a term or two, if one of them had been elected in his place? This is a difficult hypothetic al question, because it is difficult to imagine who might have been elected if Washington had refused to serve. John Adams? I suspect Adams would have stepped down after a term or two. John Jay? He probably would have done so as wel l. There was however, a general sense that Washington could have been reelected for the remainder of his life, and his recognition of the importance of turning over the helm of state to other hands was of vital importance to the future of American constitutional government.

alekjhidel where would you rank washington as a general among the other great generals of history

JackWarren Washington won a war that was widely believed to be unwinnable, and for this reason must be regarded as one of history's great generals. He lost most of his battles, of course. But what matters in war is who wins in the end. Washington was not a great tactician --- a great battlefield general in the tactical sense --- but he was a great strategist. He understood that keeping the army intact was the most important thing he could do, and he avoided committing the army to a great battle to decide the war. This ra n counter, in a way to his nature. He could be very impetuous and wanted to bring the war to a swift, decisive end, but he understood that he lacked the manpower to do it. Prudence is not a virtue we usually celebrate in military leaders, but this was the virtue that made it possible for Washington to win the war. He was also a man of tremendous physical cou rage, and in the Revolutionary War the courage of the commanding general under fire was an important factor in maintaining the morale of the army. Washington's willingness to subordinate himself to the civilian authorities was also a mark of his greatness as a general, and in the long term was perhaps the most important mark of his greatness.

Buxton How did washington lose his teeth????

JackWarren He started losing his teeth in his twenties, and by the time he was president he had only one natural tooth left. This wasn't all that uncommon in the eighteenth century, but people who met Washington sometimes commented on his defective teeth so his case was apparently worse than most. We don't know why he lost them. His accounts from the 1760s and early 1770s list tooth powders and other dental hygiene products, so he was apparently trying to keep his teeth. John Adams wrote that Washington cracked nuts with his teeth and otherwise abused them, which is possible. A geneticist has written that Washington may have suffered from a rare genetic disorder, the symptoms of which include tooth loss, sterility, and the particular body form that Washington had #NAME? hip s, and great height. But even the geneticist admits that its difficult to diagose someone who's been dead two hundred years, so that's little more than speculation.


JackWarren There will always be people who claim to be descended from the great heroes of world history. There are probably fewer who claim descent from Washington than from most others. We don't know that Washington was sterile. Smallpox can render a man sterile if he has the disease after puberty, but it doesn't always render a man sterile. Washington does not seem to have regarded himself as sterile. In the eighteenth century, most medical writers agreed that a man who could function sexually was capable of fathering children. Impotence was not properly defined until the ninetenth century. Washington seems to have believed that his marriage was childless because Martha was incapable of bearing more children. He wrote once to a nephew that as long as I remain married to Mrs. Washington, it is a moral certainty I shall not have children. I believe all of the suggestions about illegitimate Washington children are ground less. The ambition of Washington's mature years was to be remembered like a hero out of classical antiquity, and he would not have risked that reputation through sexual impropriety.

alekjhidel who were Washington's best friends

JackWarren Thomas Jefferson once wrote that Washington was not warm in his affections, but Jefferson was not really one of Washington's close friends, and so would not have been a very good judge. Washington had friends, but they were not the famous men of the periodm for the most part. Dr. James Craik, his physician, was close to him for most of his life, and was probably Washington's best friend. Craik named one of his sons (born before the Revolution) George Washington Craik. Sadly, Washington's letters to Craik were lost when the barn in which they were stored in Dumfries, Virgi nia, was destroyed early in the 19th century. Washington was also close to David Stuart, another physician who married the widow of Martha's son John parke Custis. These were among Washington's closest friends. The nature of Washington's relationship with his neighbor, George Mason, is a matter of dispute. It may have been a close friendship for a time, although Peter Henriques, a Washington scholar, has argued in a well-known article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography that it was an Uneven Friendship, one not reciprocated fully by Washington. Washington was also genuinely close to Lafayette, and their letters are filled with an obvious affectionate regard. Washington did not have a great many close friends. The nature of his role in the new nation tended to isolate him from others. He actually advised his nephew Bushrod Washington (to whom he left Mount Vernon) not to extend too much familiarity to subordinates. And of course, by the time he was president, that ruled, for Washington, familiarity with just about everyone.

craig What was Washington's relationship with Alexander Hamilton like?

JackWarren Look at Forrest McDonald's book, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. McDonald assesses the relationship better than anyone else I know. Washington admired Hamilton. He was a great judge of talent and in this case recognized Hamilton as one of the most talented young men on his military staff, and later, in his cabinet. They were not close, and McDonald argues that this was more Hamilton's choice than Washington's.

Buxton what other places did Washington live besides Mount Vernon

JackWarren Washington spent the first three years of his life at Popes Creek Plantation, now George Washington Birthplace National Monument --- a lovely place and well worth the visit. When Washington was three, the family moved to a house at Little Hunting Creek, on the plantation later known as Mount Vernon. In 1738 the family moved again, this time to Ferry Farm, on the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg. The site is preserved by the Kenmore Association of Fredericksburg as a memorial to Washington. Archaeologists have recently uncovered the remains of a house the family lived in when George was a boy. That house seems to have burned down on Christmas Eve, 1740. The family see ms to have moved back to Little Hunting Creek in 1741, and to have returned to a newly built house at Ferry Farm by the beginning of 1742. Washington lived at Ferry Farm until he moved permanently to Mount Vernon in 1754. He lived there for the remainder of his life, although duty often called him away. Though there are many places where Washington visited, there are only three places where he actually lived --- Pope's Creek, Mount Vernon, and Ferry Farm.

jae I recently visited Mt. Vernon and was intrigued by the octagonal barn. How did Washington come up with the design and was it used elsewhere or ever patented?

JackWarren Washington was fascinated by the progressive agricultural ideas of his time, and was an extraordinarily innovative farmer in his own right. Washington's 16-sided treading barn was based on plans provided to him by Arthur Young, an English agricultural reformer with whom Washington corresponded. The purpose of the barn is to bring t he treading of wheat out of the farm yard and into a clean, indoor environment and to cut down waste. Anyone who has visited the rest oration --- and everyone should --- can readily see that it was a tremendous advance over the traditional methods of treading wheat. It wasn 't widely copied, but neither were many of the innovations Washington experimented with.

APAR There's a recent book on GW by Vermont author Sterne or Randall, have you read it?

JackWarren The book you are referring to is Willard Sterne Randall, George Washington. It is sold widely, but critics have been tough on it, and I think justifiably so. The book is filled with errors and its treatment of Washington's career is pretty imbalanced. When Washington's father dies at Ferry Farm in 1743 (when George was 11), Randal l says he was buried in the family burying ground at Ferry Farm, for example. Well, there isn't a family burying ground at Ferry Farm. Augustine was buried at his ancestral burying ground near the Popes Creek Plantation. You can find lots of errors of this sort in the book. Randall skips quickly through Washington's second term as president, though it was enormously eventful. This is not a book I recommend.

Statesmanship All these so called Washington experts say he was 6 foot 2 to 6 foot 3, yet both his doctor and his adopted son GWP Custis say he was just over 6 foot even. He carried himself erect seeming to be taller than he was, seems the probable explanation.

JackWarren Houdon, the sculptor who visited Washington at Mount Vernon and measured his body for the famous statue of Washington now in the Virginia Capitol in Richmond, placed Washington at over 6'2. I think that is the most reliable measure. But there can be no doubt that Washington's erect bearing gave him an imposing appearance.

Statesmanship In a March 11th letter to CSPAN's Brian Lamb, GW was quoted, my revered Mother, by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led from childhood. Yet Jim Rees clings to his mistaken notion that GW's relationship was strained.

JackWarren Both can be true, and I think they are. Washington owed a great deal to his mother, and was probably much like her. She was obviously a woman of great determination and independence, strong-willed and, at times, demanding. After her husband died, she never remarried, and managed to pass on the inheritance of each of her children in tact. This was an extraordinary accomplishment. She offered her son George a model of tenacity that was probably important to the development of his character. The relationship between mother and son does, ho wever, seem to have been strained, as Jim Rees says. She grumbled that George was not a dutiful son, and he clearly resented the implication that he was not treating her as he should. He gave her money when he visited her in Fredericksburg, but found later that she claimed he was neglecting her. In his accounts he began to note things like "Gave my mother 10 pounds . . . in the presence of my brother Charles." suggesting that there was a certain degree of distrust and perhaps, in financial matters, a certain animosity between them. But recognizing this, which I think the record of their correspondence demonstrates, does not demonstrate that Washington was not influenced by his mother. To me, at least, it suggests the opposite. They may have clashed occasionally because they were so much alike in many ways.

Statesmanship Regarding Mason Weems being rejected by Modern Hysterians remember he visited GW at Mount Vernon on March 3, 1787 with GW's close friend and doctor, James Craik. Thus he had personal observation of GW and contact with one of his closest friends.

JackWarren Weems actually visited Mount Vernon in the company of Craik's son James, a lawyer. But your point is valid. Weems, who is credited with inventing fables about Washington, had actually met Washington, and knew many people who knew Washington well. Weems was married into the Ewell family, relatives of the Craiks. Weems lived in Dumfries, Virginia, about halfway between Mount Vernon and Fredericksburg, and often visited the area where Washington had grown up. It does seem like he collected some of the famous stories he included in his Life of Washington from people who knew Washington, acting as a kind of early oral historian. Weems relates the story that Washington's cousin, Lewis Willis, said that when Washington was a boy, he could throw a rock across the Rappahannock River at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg. It wasn 't until the 19th century that a later writer changed the stone into a silver dollar and made a perfectly reasonable childhood recollection into anim probably fable. Willis was living in Fredericksburg when Weems published to book. It seems unlikely to me that Weems would have made the story up and then attribute it to a living person who could make a liar of him. The Rappahannock was about 440 feet across at the lower ferry when Washington was a boy. Someone with a good arm can make this throw. You can try it today at Ferry Farm, where the lower ferry was located. But the river today is narrower, so you'll find the throw a bit easier. Weems attributed the story of Washington and the cherry tree to an old lady of the neighborhood. There is nothing completely implausible about this story of a mischievous little boy who confesses his misdeed. But Weems does strain credibility by recounting the dialogue between father and son, and using the story for a heavy-handed didactic purpose. Weems should not be dismissed entirely, but he is not altogether credible, either. Historians who laugh at him misunderstand his work. Likewise credulous people who embrace every tale he tells.

Statesmanship At Valley Forge, on May 2, 1778, Washington gave an order which included, In addition to the distinguished character of a patriot, it should be our highest glory to laud the more distinguished character of a Christian. Why do historians hide that?

JackWarren This is one of several questions that deal with Washington's religious life. Several of you suggest, and like this writer, some of you ask directly why modern historians tend to ignore or diminish the importance of Washington's religious life. There are few subject about Washington that engender as much passion as this one, and for good reason. Faith is a timeless subject, and we are naturally curious about the spiritual lives of the founders of our nation. In Washington's case, this is not easy. Washington's spiritual life was a very p rivate affair. Washington was a very reserved man, by nature, and it would have been unlike him to write about Christian doctrine in the way Jefferson did, for example. To get a grasp on Washington's religious principles, we have to infer much from his private correspondence, from his public statements, from his explicit actions, and from the recollections of others. Washington did not make may professions of faith in his correspondence, but his frequent references to divine providence suggest that he did not subscribe to the deistic principles of many of his contemporaries. Deists imagined God as divine clock-maker, who established the natural world and its laws and did not intervene in human affairs. Washington's expressions of belief in providence indicate that he did believe that God intervenes in human events. He was no deist. Similar references to divine providence occur in many of Washington's public papers, although these are often more formulaic documents and I am not inclined to regard them as the best sources for understanding Washington's personal religious sentiments. The record of Washington's actions indicates that he was an active, but perhaps not an enthusiastic churchman. He was a vestryman, but I do not infer much from this fact. Vestry service was expected of the leading gentry of the parish in eighteenth century Virginia, and men who expressed distinctly un-Christian sentiments can be found on vestry rolls. Washington was a frequent church-goer, but his diary is a very good record of the fact that he was not a constant church-goer. I have seen no credible document discussing private devotionals at Mount Vernon. There are some 19th century accounts of Washington at prayer at Mount Vernon. The most famous is by his nephew Robert Lewis, who described catching sight through a window of Washington on his knees in private prayer. Balanced against this is the recollection of Bishop White of Pennsylvania, in whose church Washington worshipped frequently during his presidency. White wrote that Washington did not kneel in prayer or take communion, although Martha Washington did both. I do not know why White, a devout Episcopalian, would have fabricated such a story. White's recollection suggests that Washington had imbided someof the principles of rational Christianity promoted by the eighteenth century Enlightenment. In the end, I think, the subject is impenetrable. The historical record is not sufficient for us to say anything conclusive about Washington's religious principles. I know that this answer will infuriate many people --- freethinkers who want to class Washington with them, evangelicals who want Washington to have been one of them, and every shade between. This, at least, is a testament to Washington's enduring importance. We all want to believe he would be on our side. He is still our touchstone.

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