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Hail to the Chiefs
Presidential Mischief, Morals, & Malarkey from George W. to George W.
By Barbara Holland
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2003 Barbara Holland
All rights reserved.
You're wrong about George Washington. Nathaniel Hawthorne was wrong too. He said, "He had no nakedness, but was born with clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world." People rarely feel all warm and cozy about Washington. They look at pictures of his wife and think he must have been a stranger to the tender passion, and maybe the birds and the bees do it but George didn't.
To all this I say, then what about Sally Fairfax?
As a young country colonel, George fell in love with several pretty girls who wouldn't marry him. Then he met Sally. She was said to be a bit of a flirt and had excellent family connections. However, she was married to a friend of his. In the evenings George hung around Belvoir, the Fairfax place, dancing and playing cards and staring at Sally until the Fairfaxes got quite cross. Even when he was off soldiering he couldn't stop thinking about her and wrote her such unsuitable letters that her relatives felt obliged to complain. Just before he married Martha, he wrote to Sally promising lifelong devotion, and the year before he died, when she was sixty-eight, he wrote saying that nothing in his career "had been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have enjoyed in your company."
Martha was short and dumpy and had more than the usual number of chins, but she was pleasant enough. Her grandson said she had nice eyes, always the essential compliment for those with little else. By an odd coincidence, she was also the richest widow in Virginia. She liked to putter around the kitchen lifting the lids off the kettles and tasting things and helping the slaves fix George's favorite dinner — cream of peanut soup, Smithfield ham with oyster sauce, mashed sweet potatoes with coconut, string beans with mushrooms, spoonbread, and whiskey cake.
As First Lady, she gave rather stiff parties that ended sharp at nine o'clock, when she blew out the candles and she and George went to bed, guests or no guests. By all reports they grew quite fond of each other. I can't imagine why they weren't blessed with issue.
In the beginning, George was born in a house with a chimney at each end, halfway between Pope's and Bridge's creeks, and he was scared of his mother. Everyone was. She was a vindictive lady with a savage temper and all her children left home just as fast as possible. She refused to go to George's inauguration and said terrible things about him every chance she got.
When George was eleven his father died. I hope you've forgotten the cherry-tree story. It was invented by Parson Weems after George was safely dead and the moral — that you can commit any outrage you like as long as you confess to it afterward — has misled generations of Americans. Most people believed his whole book. Most people will believe anything.
We don't know any true stories about his boyhood because he didn't tell us any. He was trying to forget it. He did write a letter to Richard Henry Lee when they were both nine, thanking him for a book with pictures of elephants. He claimed he could "read 3 or 4 pages sometimes without missing a word," and added that if it didn't rain his mother might let him ride his pony, Hero, over for a visit. (I realize this isn't very exciting stuff but it's all I could find. I suppose you think you could come up with something better.)
He never went to college or learned any Latin or Greek, or got too much further than the book about elephants. In later life he had a nice library with lots of books like Diseases of Horses, A Treatise on Peat Moss, and Mease on the Bite of a Mad Dog, but basically he was more a man of action.
At fourteen he tried to run away to sea, but his mother stopped him, and then when he was sixteen his half-brother got him a job surveying for the Fairfaxes, and so for several years he trudged around measuring the boondocks and rejoicing at getting away from Mother.
When he was twenty-one, Virginia was having some problems with France, and George got commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the militia. He rushed right out and attacked a French scouting party, which was silly, and accidentally started the French and Indian Wars. People forgave him, though, after Braddock's Defeat, which I don't have time to discuss right now. He was never much of a military genius, but he was brave enough and always looked good on a horse, and that was the main thing. A strapping lad (one source calls him "a noble youth"), he was six foot three, with size thirteen boots and big heavy fists with which he sometimes forgot himself and knocked unruly soldiers out cold. He'd inherited his mother's temper. From a distance he may have looked like a frozen halibut, but he spent his life grinding down his dentures and counting to ten to keep from breaking heads. When he was annoyed his language made his secretary shake in his shoes.
By age twenty-three he was a full colonel and defended the Virginia borders against the usual French and Indians. When this was over he went home to take care of Mount Vernon, which he'd inherited from his half-brother, and things were pretty quiet for a long time, but George didn't mind. He liked farming. First he rode around supervising his slaves for a while, and then he sat on the veranda with a tall cool one. Farming can be fun if you have the right kind of help. Sometimes he sent for his hounds, Vulcan, Truelove, Ringwood, Rockwood, Sweetlips, Singer, Forester, and Music, and he and his neighbors chased foxes until it was time for dinner. He always enjoyed dinner in spite of his problem.
You'll want to know about his teeth. Everyone asks. Well, before he was fifty he'd lost most of them, though he did hang on to the lower left premolar until he was sixty-five, and his dentures had a hole punched out for it to stick through. He was sentimental about it, and why not? For the rest, he tried this and that but nothing seemed to work very well. (President Harding's son wrote an article about it for the Journal of Oral Surgery.) One set of dentures had eight human teeth — I don't know whose — screwed in with gold rivets. One set was made with a pound of lead. The set you're thinking of, the one that makes him look so constipated in that Gilbert Stuart portrait, was carved out of hippopotamus ivory and was no good for chewing. It was just for cosmetic purposes. It was held in place by a kind of spring device wedged into his jaws, but it would have fallen out if he'd smiled. It wouldn't have been proper for him to smile anyway. Eisenhower was the first military president who smiled, and that was years later.
In 1775, the First Continental Congress fingered him as commander-in-chief against the British. He hadn't been soldiering in eighteen years and was never exactly Napoleon, but they wanted him because the war was being held in Massachusetts and they needed a Virginian so the South would take an interest in it.
So Washington buckled on his sword and went off to Boston to win the Revolution, with quite a lot of help from Lafayette and his old enemies, the French. He refused to accept a salary. He said he'd just send bills for his expenses instead. Everyone thought this was pretty darned noble of him, and he was so impressed himself that he kept dragging it into the conversation afterward, and even mentioned it in his will. The salary he'd turned down would have come to $48,000; the expenses he billed instead came to $447,220. He did like to set an example for his starving troops, though, and drank only from a pair of very plain sterling silver goblets with nothing engraved on them but his family crest. (His crest appears to be half a duck sitting in a crown, possibly laying an egg.)
There's a pretty story about him kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge, and you're welcome to believe it if you want, but he had a famous aversion to kneeling. When Martha dragged him to church on Sundays, he wouldn't kneel at the customary points in the service. He was a big man and this made him kind of conspicuous, but he didn't care.
After the war he went back to Mount Vernon to lead a simple life being enormously famous. He was our first celebrity and people came swarming from all over the world to make paintings and life masks of him and detailed drawings of everything he wore or ate from or sat on or wrote with during the war. They published miles of poetry calling him "the First of Heroes," "Glory's Deathless Heir," "a second Moses," and other things too embarrassing to repeat.
When he wasn't sitting for portraits, he thought about mules. Mules are the offspring of mares and jackasses, and since we didn't have any jackasses except in the colloquial sense, we couldn't have any mules. Horses are all very well, but sometimes only a mule will fill the bill. The King of Spain sent George an enormous gray jackass called Royal Gift, and Gift meant well but when it came to sex he couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Then Lafayette sent him a black one named Knight of Malta with "the ferocity of a tiger" and testosterone to match, and the mule scheme was off and running.
Then in 1789 George was unanimously elected President of the United States and had to leave for New York.
He was a good President because of being our national hero and nobody wanting to make him mad. When the Pennsylvania farmers rose up in the Whiskey Rebellion, all he had to do was look at them and they fell down apologizing.
He kept saying he wanted to go home to Mount Vernon, but we made him serve a second term anyway.
John Adams was his Vice President, and didn't he just hate it. He called the office "the most insignificant ... that ever the invention of man contrived."
After eight years, Hamilton and Madison wrote the famous "Washington's Farewell Address," and everyone cried. Adams delivered the reply to it and they cried harder. Some say even Adams cried. (Why do I doubt this?)
A couple of years later, George was riding around Mount Vernon thinking about mules and caught a chill, and by the next morning he had a nasty strep throat. Feeling it urgent to get bled as soon as possible, he sent for Mr. Rawlins, one of the overseers, to start the job while they waited for Dr. Craik. Martha thought maybe Rawlins shouldn't take quite so much blood, but the situation called for strong measures. Then Craik arrived and took some more, and tried to make George gargle with vinegar. By eleven he wasn't any better, so Craik bled him again, and at three Dr. Dick was called in and opened a vein the fourth time, in case there was any blood left, but even that didn't help and George was dead before midnight. (If the last word on his lips was "Sally," they wouldn't be likely to tell us.)
Your history teacher told you Washington freed his slaves in his will, but she was lying. He did free his old valet, William, who was doubtless delighted though totally crippled by this time, but freeing slaves wasn't as simple as it looks from here. It wasn't quite like chopping the shackles off three hundred adult male stockbrokers in downtown Manhattan. We're talking about sending a colony of illiterate, semiskilled men, women, and children, with the usual percentage of them infants, elderly, or helpless, off to look for work among plantation owners as eager to hire free blacks as mine owners a hundred years later were eager to hire union organizers.
The neighbors would have broken every window in Mount Vernon.
In any case he couldn't free the slaves since so many of them were either Martha's dower slaves or related to them, and not George's to dispose of. He did say in his will that when Martha died, the slaves that had been George's when they married should be freed, or at least those still young enough to take an interest in freedom. He also left word that they should be taught to read and write, and those of suitable age be trained in carpentry or masonry or something, so as not to starve to death. He knew a lot more about the local job market than your history teacher.
It would be wrong to leave the subject of our first President without recording Washington's Joke. It seems he was sitting at dinner when the fireplace behind him got too hot, and he wanted to move away from it. Someone said merrily that a general should be able to stand fire, and Washington riposted, "But it doesn't look good when he receives it from behind."CHAPTER 2
In the beginning there were Adamses all over the place, and nothing ever satisfied them. They expected a lot of themselves, and each other, and total strangers, and made life difficult for miles around.
It was never easy being an Adams, and marrying them was even worse. It was the kind of family where nobody ever said dumb things like "Hot enough for you?" or "How about those Mets?" They only talked about lofty things like political economy and astronomy and international relations. In every generation a child cracked under the strain and took to drink or suicide, and the ones who survived scarcely knew a carefree moment.
All the Adams men were very bright and had no patience with people who weren't bright enough to see things their way. They even allowed their wives to be bright, so at least one person would see things their way, but this wasn't always enough. The only wife to give full satisfaction was Abigail, and the other wives got pretty fed up with hearing about her.
Harry Truman said Abigail would have made a better president than John, but I don't know. She had a lot more charm and tact, but she was a flaming radical and wanted to free the slaves, educate the children, declare war on France, and tax whiskey. She even mentioned votes for women. John said, "I cannot but laugh, you are so saucey."
John and Abigail met when she was a shy old maid of eighteen, and everyone says she was plain as a boot, but in her portraits she has the alert, considering look of a Jane Austen heroine and certainly didn't frighten the horses. He was no rosebud himself. He was conceited and high-minded and penniless and short and given to fits of rage and depression, but she married him anyway. Nobody else had asked her.
They were married for fifty-four years and just adored each other. Their "Dearest Friend" letters make some of history's happier reading, and when he died she told his son John Quincy that without her he "could not have endured, or even survived." He wrote, "Nothing has contributed so much to support my mind as the choice blessing of a wife whose capacity enabled her to understand, and whose pure virtue obliged her to approve, the views of her husband."
If this sounds pretty pure and intellectual, it wasn't. She wrote saying the thought of him coming home made her shake all over. When she twitted him about being sixty, he wrote saying if he had her within grabbing distance he'd soon convince her he wasn't a minute past forty.
Maybe the Adamses were a nuisance to have around the house, but without them we'd be an extension of Greater Canada right this minute, and you'd be drinking milk in your tea and watching cricket matches that lasted for weeks on end.
John and Abigail and John's cousin Sam were about the only people who thought we should dump England completely. Everyone else figured we could work out something if we just sat down and talked it over like sensible adults, but the Adamses were dead set on divorce. They're the reason you think the whole Revolution happened in Boston.
John and Abigail lived in suburban Braintree on a dear little farm. He chopped wood and practiced law and planted barley and talked politics. She cooked and sewed and had five children and talked politics. They were against the taxes, of course, and so are you, but you get them all muddled up. That's all right. Everyone does.
To start with, England needed some money and thought we were as good a place as any to raise it, so they sent us the Revenue, or Sugar Act of 1764. This was a tax on foreign sugar and silk and linen and Madeira, the preferred tipple of the better sort of colonial. They followed this with the Stamp Act of 1765, which said that we had to pay anywhere from a halfpenny to twenty shillings sterling for stamps to paste on all our newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, licenses, bills, notes and bonds, advertisements, almanacs, leases, and any other flat surface they could think of.
Excerpted from Hail to the Chiefs by Barbara Holland. Copyright © 2003 Barbara Holland. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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Table of Contents
John Quincy Adams,
Martin Van Buren,
William Henry Harrison,
Ulysses S. Grant,
Rutherford B. Hayes,
Chester A. Arthur,
Grover Cleveland Part I,
Grover Cleveland Part II,
William Howard Taft,
Warren G. Harding,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
Harry S. Truman,
Dwight David Eisenhower,
John Fitzgerald Kennedy,
Lyndon Baines Johnson,
Richard Milhaus Nixon,
Gerald Rudolph Ford. Jr.,
George Herbert Walker Bush,
William Jefferson Clinton,
George W. Bush,