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Four Years at the Mount

Remembering our first four Presidents

A first time for everything

Michael Kenney Jr.
MSN Class of 2019

(2/2016) Before I get into this month’s topic, I wanted to give you a quick introduction to myself. Unfortunately, you will never find me chiseled besides George Washington on Mount Rushmore nor will I ever be depicted on American currency. You will, however, find me as the new Class of 2019 writer for the Four Years At the Mount section. Like Washington’s impeccable first go at the presidency, I find that the Mount community has made my first semester at college a rewarding experience.

Growing up in a close knit, Catholic family has made leaving my Michigan roots rather challenging, but my family’s fast pace versatility has enabled me to thrive on my East Coast adventure. I love sports and gain a rush in learning new things. I am extremely competitive but never pass up an opportunity joke around. As an aspiring screenwriter, I love analyzing interpersonal dynamics both in real life and in fiction.

As a first time voter, the dynamics of the 2016 presidential election fascinate me. I want nothing more than for our 44th president to uphold our nation’s founding principles and to do justice to Washington’s vision for the future of our nation.

The first time around often gives us a sharp learning curve. The first pancake never turns out as well as the subsequent ones. The first date is unfailingly more awkward than those that follow. And the first draft of this article was much less refined than the one you are currently reading. However, the pejorative "first try" excuse is not applicable to our nation’s first president, George Washington. Even though all of America’s founding fathers were men of exceptional merit, charisma, and esteem, Washington’s impressionable character made him stand out amongst his colleagues-- so much so that he was unanimously elected president. To this day, Washington remains the only president in U.S. history to earn all of the Electoral College’s votes. Even though Washington remains one of history’s most lauded and studied political leaders, popular misunderstandings about Washington still prevail today.

Tales about Washington’s childhood attempt to explain his irreproachable character and leadership. Washington’s mischievous encounter with a cherry tree is perhaps the most famous of these allegories. Legend has it that Washington received a small hatchet for his sixth birthday and used it to chop down his father’s prize-winning cherry tree. When George’s father, Augustus, inquired about the damage, young George mustered up the courage to admit to the crime. Augustus, so moved by his son’s integrity, endearingly embraced his son and acclaimed his son’s honesty. The story suggests that George’s honesty emboldened him with a moral compass that guided him straight through his presidency.

Though entertaining, there are reasons to doubt the authenticity of this cheeky anecdote. Namely, evidence suggests that the peripatetic minister who first published the story, Mason Locke Weems, likely invented it to encourage morality and make money. As he articulated to a publisher just a few months after Washington’s passing, "Washington you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him… My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute…I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues."

Evidently, Weems penned a bestselling novel, The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington-- a biography chock full of never-before-heard accounts about the beloved first president. The "cherry tree anecdote" did not emerge until Weems’ fifth edition. If the story were just as accurate and as impactful as it was described, wouldn’t Weems have originally put it in the first edition rather than a later one?

In addition to the cherry tree story, many people entertain the false notion that George Washington had wooden dentures. While it is true that artificial teeth replaced Washington’s rotting ones, his dentures were made out of a variety of materials including ivory, gold, and lead, but not wood. In fact, wooden dentures were rarely even produced during Washington’s lifetime. Nevertheless, historians up until the twentieth century have promoted this falsehood.

While the exact origins of this misunderstanding are unclear, many historians and dental scientists reach the same conclusion. Experts reason that the ivory dentures became so severely stained over time that the teeth became brown and grainy. In a letter to the president, Washington’s dentist commented on the dentures’ discoloration. He wrote: "the set you sent me from Philadelphia...was very black...Port wine being sower takes of[f] all the polish." To the general public, Washington’s false teeth may have easily appeared to be wooden dentures.

In addition to these lighthearted myths, a somber topic continues to spark debate among educators and historians: Washington’s position on slavery. While Washington was born into a family of slaveholders, grew up in a racist society, and eventually inherited and purchased slaves himself, people question his ultimate stance on slavery. Many experts claim that Washington considered slavery a "necessary evil" but treated his slaves with respect—even occasionally joining in the manual labor himself. One foreign visitor reported that Washington treated his slaves "far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia."

Conversely, a fewer number of scathing accounts also hold credibility. One Englishman who lived near Washington’s plantation reported "it was the sense of all his [Washington's] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man." Some slaves ran away from Washington’s plantation and were pursued by slave catchers.

This dichotomous understanding of Washington as a "nice slaveholder" is continuously debated, but at some point in his life, Washington undoubtedly became an abolitionist. Of all the nine founding fathers who had slaves, Washington was the only one to advocate for abolition. Shortly before he died, Washington said that "… No man desires more heartily than I do [the end of slavery]. Not only do I pray for it on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union." He also described his ownership of slaves and his inability to abolish slavery as "the only unavoidable subject of regret" in his life. Upon his death, he emancipated 318 of his slaves, and clung tightly to the then unpopular notion that "all men are created equal" regardless their race.

Read other articles by Michael Kenney Jr.