25 Things You Probably Didn't Know About George Washington

iStock/kreicher
iStock/kreicher

You know that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Is that where your knowledge of this fascinating guy's life and history ends? Here are 25 George Washington facts that may be new to you.

1. George Washington didn't have a middle name.

With a name like George Washington, you don't really need one.

2. George Washington's birthday was not February 22, 1732.

Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731, but when the colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar, his birthday was moved 11 days. Since his birthday fell before the old date for New Year’s Day, but after the new date for New Year’s Day, his birth year was changed to 1732.

3. George Washington's hair was all real.

Painting of George Washington
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It looks white because he powdered it.

4. George Washington was made an honorary citizen of France.

The quintessential American received this honor in 1792.

5. For a time, George Washington was a non-president commander-in-chief (but he didn't do much).

In 1798, when fears were growing of a French invasion, Washington was named (by John Adams) commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, even though he wasn’t president anymore. Apparently, this was a strategy to help recruiting, as Washington’s name was very well-known. He only served in an advisory capacity, since he was pretty old by that point. But he felt he should have been a bit more involved. According to this letter, he was frustrated that even though he was the commander-in-chief, nobody really told him much about what was going on with the military.

6. No one will ever rank higher than him in the U.S. military.

In 1976 Washington was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military—ever.

According to Air Force Magazine:

When Washington died, he was a lieutenant general. But as the centuries passed, this three-star rank did not seem commensurate with what he had accomplished. After all, Washington did more than defeat the British in battle. Along the way he established the framework for how American soldiers should organize themselves, how they should behave, and how they should relate to civilian leaders. Almost every big decision he made set a precedent. He was the father of the U.S. military as well as the U.S. itself.

So, a law was passed to make Washington the highest ranking U.S. officer of all time: General of the Armies of the United States. Nobody will ever outrank him.

7. George Washington made a pretty hefty salary ...

According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1789, Washington's presidential salary was 2 percent of the total U.S. budget.

8. ... but he still had cash-flow problems.

Washington actually had to borrow money to attend his own first inauguration.

9. He was one of the sickliest presidents in history.

Throughout his life, Washington suffered from a laundry list of ailments: diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis—to name a few.

10. He may or may not have died as a result of medical malpractice.

On the day he died—December 14, 1799—Washington was treated with four rounds of bloodletting, which removed 5 pints of blood from his body. It seems that it proved to be too much. In 1999, The New York Times wrote:

"On Washington's fateful day, Albin Rawlins, one of his overseers and a bloodletter, was summoned. Washington bared his arm. The overseer had brought his lancet and made an incision. Washington said, ''Don't be afraid.'' That day, Rawlins drew 12 ounces of blood, then 18 ounces, another 18 ounces and a final 32 ounces into a porcelain bleeding bowl.

After the fourth bloodletting, the patient improved slightly and was able to swallow. By about 10 p.m., his condition deteriorated, but he was still rational enough to whisper burial instructions to Col. Tobias Lear, his secretary.

At 10:20 p.m., Dr. James Craik, 69, an Edinburgh-trained physician who had served with Washington in the French and Indian Wars, closed Washington's eyes. Another Edinburgh-trained physician, Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown, 52, was also present. The third physician, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, 37, who had been appointed coroner the previous year, stopped the clock in Washington's bedroom at that moment."

11. George Washington might have been infertile.

Washington had no children of his own. In 2007, John K. Amory of the University of Washington School of Medicine proposed that Washington was infertile. Armory goes through a number of possible reasons for Washington’s infertility, including an infection caused by his tuberculosis:

“Classic studies of soldiers with tuberculous pleurisy during World War II demonstrated that two-thirds developed chronic organ tuberculosis within five years of their initial infection. Infection of the epididymis or testes is seen in 20 percent of these individuals and frequently results in infertility.”

12. Washington's body was almost buried in the Capitol.

Don Francisco, a reenactor who works at Mount Vernon, places a wreath at George Washington's tomb at Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, February 17, 2014 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Washington requested that he be buried at Mount Vernon, and his family upheld his request, despite repeated pleas by Congress. They wanted to put his body underneath a marble statue in the Capitol.

13. He was not very religious.

As Edward Lengel, writer of the George Washington biography Inventing George Washington, told NPR in 2011, "He was a very moral man. He was a very virtuous man, and he watched carefully everything he did. But he certainly doesn't fit into our conception of a Christian evangelical or somebody who read his Bible every day and lived by a particular Christian theology. We can say he was not an atheist on the one hand, but on the other hand, he was not a devout Christian."

But what about he story of him kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge to pray? According to Lengel, "That's a story that was made up by [early Washington biographer] Parson Weems."

While he would attend church, Washington wouldn't take communion. According to biographer Barry Schwartz, Washington's "practice of Christianity was limited and superficial, because he was not himself a Christian. In the enlightened tradition of his day, he was a devout Deist—just as many of the clergymen who knew him suspected."

14. He never chopped down that cherry tree.

 A cherry tree is in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol on March 19, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Parson Weems, who wrote a myth-filled biography of Washington shortly after he died, made up the cherry tree story. The Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia identifies that book, The Life of Washington, as " the point of origin for many long-held myths about Washington."

15. He was an inveterate letter-writer.

We don’t have an exact number, but the best estimates seem to put the number of letters he penned somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000. If you wrote one letter a day, it would take you between 50 and 55 years to write that many.

16. Before becoming the father of the nation, he was a master surveyor.

Washington spent the early part of his career as a professional surveyor. One of the earliest maps he created was of his half-brother Lawrence Washington’s turnip garden. Over the course of his life, Washington created some 199 land surveys. Washington took this skill with him into his role as a military leader.

17. Before fighting the British, he fought for the British.

At the age of 21, Washington was sent to lead a British colonial force against the French in Ohio. He lost, and this helped spark the Seven Years War in North America.

18. He was a dog lover.

Washington kept and bred many hunting hounds. He is known as the "Father of the American Foxhound," and kept more than 30 of the dogs. According to his journals, three of the hounds' names were Drunkard, Tipler, and Tipsy.

19. He lost more battles than he won.

According to Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington, our first president "lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history.”

20. He was lucky, but his coat wasn't.

In the Braddock disaster of 1755, Washington’s troops were caught in the crossfire between British and Native American soldiers. Two horses were shot from under Washington, and his coat was pierced by four musket balls, none of which hit his actual body.

21. He didn't have wooden teeth.

He did, however, have teeth problems. When he attended his first inauguration, he only had one tooth left in his head. Throughout the rest of his life, he had different sets of dentures. They were made of a variety of materials, including ivory, brass, horse teeth, and, yes, even human teeth, possibly from slaves.

22. George Washington is the only president to actually go into battle while serving as president.

General George Washington (1732 - 1799) stands in the prow of a rowing boat crossing the Delaware to seek safety in Pennysylvania after defeat by the British
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But only if you don't count Bill Pullman in Independence Day. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, “On September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. president to personally lead troops in the field when he led the militia on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford.”

23. He fell in love with his best friend's wife.

According to Joseph Ellis's His Excellency, several letters show that before he married Martha, Washington was in love with Sally Fairfax, who was the wife of George William Fairfax.

In 1758, Washington wrote to Sally his famous “Votary to Love” letter:

"'Tis true I profess myself a votary to Love. I acknowledge that a Lady is in the case; and, further, I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madam, as well as she is to one who is too sensible of her Charms to deny the Power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to ... You have drawn me, my dear Madam, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a Simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning, 'tis obvious; doubt it not or expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it. One thing above all things, in this World I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that or guess my meaning—but adieu to this till happier times, if ever I shall see them."

24. George Washington was widely criticized in the press in the later years of his presidency.

He was accused of having an overly monarchical style and was criticized for his declaration of neutrality in overseas conflicts. Thomas Jefferson was among the most critical of Washington in the press, and John Adams recalled that after the Jay Treaty, the presidential mansion “was surrounded by innumerable multitudes, from day to day buzzing, demanding war against England, cursing Washington.”

25. He owned a whiskey distillery.

He installed it at Mount Vernon in 1798 and it was profitable. According to Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to the estate, it distilled 12,000 gallons a year. In 1799, Washington wrote to his nephew: “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.”

8 Momentous Facts About Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
An illustration of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address from 1905.
Sherwood Lithograph Co., Library of Congress // No known restrictions on publication

Seven score and 17 years ago, Abraham Lincoln uttered fewer than 280 words in front of Union mourners at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. Brief as it was, the Gettysburg Address captured the democratic spirit of the nation and galvanized the North to redouble their efforts in the Civil War.

Read on to learn more about the speech that originated the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and taught us all that longer doesn’t always mean better.

1. Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The Union triumphed over Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg—often considered the turning point of the Civil War—in July 1863, but both sides suffered grievous losses. Townspeople formed a committee to replace more than 3500 temporary battlefield graves with a national cemetery, and committee leader David Mills invited Abraham Lincoln to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication ceremony on November 19. Though Lincoln spoke for just two minutes, his 272-word Gettysburg Address remains one of the most famous speeches ever delivered.

2. The Gettysburg Address wasn’t the main speech of the event.

edward everett
Edward Everett
Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

The star speaker of the ceremony was Edward Everett, a former Harvard president, U.S. congressman and governor of Massachusetts, and Millard Fillmore’s secretary of state. Everett lived up to his reputation as the greatest orator of the time with an epic, impassioned two-hour speech that he delivered from memory. But he, too, was impressed with Lincoln’s concision.

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery,” he wrote to Lincoln in a letter the following day. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

3. Abraham Lincoln probably didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on the train.

Legend has it that Lincoln hastily scrawled his brief speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. However, one copy was partially written on official White House stationery, leading experts to believe that Lincoln worked on his speech before leaving home and finished it the night before the ceremony. Also, the bumpy train rides of the 1860s would have affected Lincoln’s handwriting, and both of his early manuscripts are written in his characteristically neat, even script.

4. Abraham Lincoln may have had smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

On the train ride to Gettysburg, Lincoln reportedly told one of his private secretaries that he felt weak, and his health deteriorated rapidly in the days after the speech. In 2007, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston studied the symptoms of his mysterious illness—which included high fevers, headaches, backaches, and scarlet blisters all over his skin—and suggested that he had actually suffered from a life-threatening case of smallpox. Fortunately, Lincoln made a full recovery, and resumed his regular presidential duties three weeks after falling ill.

5. The Gettysburg Address has similarities to Pericles’s funeral oration from 431 BCE.

pericles's funeral oration
Pericles's Funeral Oration by Philipp Foltz, 1852.
Philipp Foltz, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 431 BCE, Athenian statesman Pericles delivered a rousing speech to commemorate those who had already perished in the Peloponnesian War (which would last for nearly 30 more years). Not only do both speeches honor the soldiers’ sacrifice, but they also recognize those who came before them, emphasize equality in the eyes of the law, and encourage the surviving citizens to continue to fight for the greater good.

6. Not everyone loved the Gettysburg Address at the time.

Though many Union supporters and Republicans praised Lincoln’s carefully chosen words, Democrats and other skeptics did nothing to hide their derision—in fact, certain publications practically shouted about it. The Chicago Times said that “the cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States,” and Pennsylvania’s Daily Patriot and Union recommended that the nation never repeat or think about “the silly remarks” ever again. Even the Times of London thought the ceremony “was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”

7. There are five known manuscript copies of the Gettysburg Address.

bliss copy gettysburg address
The Bliss copy of the Gettysburg Address.
Smithsonian Collection, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The two early manuscripts that Abraham Lincoln entrusted to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, are both housed in the Library of Congress. Sometime after he delivered the speech, Lincoln penned three more copies. One was for Everett, which is now kept at the Illinois State Historical Library; another, now at Cornell University, was requested by historian George Bancroft; and a third, for Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss, now lives in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

The five manuscripts differ slightly, and so do people’s opinions on which one is considered standard. Some prefer the Bliss copy, since it was Lincoln’s final draft and also the only copy he signed, while others think the Associated Press transcription from the actual event is a more accurate version of the speech.

8. There’s only one confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.

abraham lincoln at gettysburg
David Bachrach, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1952, archivist Josephine Cobb was studying a glass negative of a photo taken by David Bachrach when she spotted a familiar face in the crowd at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony. It was Abraham Lincoln, his hat-less head slightly bowed as he waited for his turn at the podium later that afternoon. Alexander Gardner also snapped a photograph at the occasion that might show Lincoln, too, but people disagree about exactly where Lincoln appears. John Richter, director of the Center for Civil War Photography, identifies him on horseback, while former Disney animator Christopher Oakley places him on the ground several yards to the right.

What Happens to Leftover Campaign Funds When a Candidate Drops Out?

Alek_Koltukov/iStock via Getty Images
Alek_Koltukov/iStock via Getty Images

As of February 2020, more than 1000 individuals had registered to run for president in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, though you've probably only ever heard a fraction of their names. But as Election Day looms closer, and the state primaries continue to decide the frontrunners, more of the most visible candidates will officially bow out of the election. So what happens to all the leftover campaign funds when a candidate drops out?

One thing's for sure: Upset candidates can't console themselves by putting the dough toward a new yacht and sailing off to recuperate. The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about what federal candidates can and can't do with leftover campaign money, and the biggest directive is that they can't pocket it for personal use.

Here's what a campaign committee is allowed to do with any lingering cash: it can donate the funds to charities or political parties; it can contribute $2000 per election to other candidates; and it can save the money in case the candidate chooses to run again. However, those regulations don't apply to the relatively new super PACs (Political Action Committees); this is only the third election where they have played a role, and there are currently no rules to stipulate what happens to that money beyond that it cannot go to fund another federal candidate. Much of that money tends to be returned to its original donors, used to wrap up the failed campaign, or donated to back a state-level candidate. The goal, however, is always to spend all of that money.

Running a campaign is an expensive proposition—Barack Obama spent nearly $750 million on his 2008 White House bid, and in 2012 he spent $985 million on reelection while challenger Mitt Romney spent $992 million—and insufficient cash is often a reason campaigns go belly up.

As for winning (or sometimes losing) politicians, they'll often put their leftover funds toward their next race. If they choose not to run, they have to abide by the same FEC rules. Wonder why this law is in effect? Until 1993, U.S. Representatives who took office before January 8, 1980, were allowed to keep any leftover campaign cash when they retired, but a study showed that a third of Congress kept and spent millions in campaign donations on personal items like clothing, jewelry, artwork, personal travel, and dry cleaning. Embarrassed, Congress passed a law negating this custom for the House; the Senate already had provisions in place so this wouldn't happen.

In reality though, officials can usually find a way to make that cash still work for them (and state laws differ from federal ones). After Chris Christie won reelection as New Jersey's governor in 2014, his campaign was granted permission to use some of its remaining war chest to cover the legal fees Christie incurred during the Bridgegate scandal. And this was well before he dropped $26.7 million on his failed 2016 presidential bid.

An earlier version of this article originally ran in 2012.

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