George Washington, 1732–1799

Q: Was Washington born at Mount Vernon?
A: No. He was born February 11, 1732, near Bridges Creek, on an estate later called Wakefield (probably named by Washington’s nephew William Augustine Washington), in Westmoreland County, Virginia, about forty miles south of Mount Vernon.

Q: When did Washington die and what ailment caused his death?
A: Washington died at Mount Vernon in the late evening on December 14, 1799 from a throat infection called epiglottitis. On December 18 he was buried in the family vault at Mount Vernon. 

Q: Were all the pall bearers at President Washington’s funeral Masons?
A: Mrs. Washington designated the Masonic Fraternity to take charge of the funeral. She requested, however, that Colonel Philip Marsteller, who was not a Mason, be a pall bearer. The five remaining pall bearers were all Masons.

Q: When and where was the first celebration of Washington’s birthday?
A: The first public celebration, of which there is record, was at Valley Forge, February 22, 1778, when Proctor’s Continental Artillery band serenaded Washington. The first public celebration as a holiday was by order of Comte Rochambeau, February 12, 1781, when the French Army in Rhode Island was granted a holiday on that day, Monday. February 11th, 1781, Washington’s birthday by the Julian Calendar, happened to fall on Sunday.

An old-fashioned George Washington joke from the Charlottesville (Virginia) Chronicle, 25 May 1883:
“When did George Washington die?” asked a teacher of a large boy. “Is he dead?” was the astonished reply. “Why, it is not more than six months ago that they were celebrating his brithday, and now he is dead. Its a bad year on children. I reckon his folks let him eat something that didn’t agree with him.”

Q: Why is Washington’s birthday celebrated on February 22 when he was born on February 11th?
A: February 11th was GW’s birthday according to the Julian (Old Style) calendar, but in 1752, the corrections of the Gregorian (New Style) Calendar were adopted by England, Ireland, and the colonies, and GW’s birthday became 22 February [Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. VI, January 1790–December 1799 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1979) 282.]

Under England’s interpretation of the Julian Calendar the new year began on 25 March. Because the year under the Julian Calendar was 365 days 6 hours, by the sixteenth century a considerable surplus had accumulated, moving the vernal equinox from 21 to 11 March. The error was corrected in 1582 by the Gregorian Calendar (New Style), adopted by most European countries. By 1752, when Great Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar, the displacement was 11 days.[Donald Jackson, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, vol. I, 1748-65 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 6.]

Q: What was George Washington’s middle name?
A: According to the record of his birth in the family bible, Washington was not given a middle name.

Q: Who were Washington’s parents?
A: George Washington was the son of Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington. Few people know of George’s father, because Augustine died when George was only eleven and he rarely spoke of him. But many people knew of his mother, Mary Ball Washington. She lived to be 82, and saw her son elected first President of the United States in 1789. (courtesy Mount Vernon)

Q: Did George Washington have any brothers or sisters?
A: Washington had five brothers and one sister who reached maturity: Lawrence, Augustine, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles and Betty. The first two were half-brothers. There were also a half-brother and half-sister and a full sister who died young. 

Q: How tall was George Washington?
A: To the best of our knowledge Washington was about six feet in height. There are records which show his measurement to have been between six feet and six feet two inches at various times. He registered six feet three and one-half inches when measured for his coffin.

Q: Did George Washington wear a wig?
A: No. He wore his own hair which was light brown in color, tied in a queue and powdered. The queue was sometimes worn in a small black silk bag.

Q: Did George Washington have wooden teeth?
A: He had several sets of false teeth over the years, but they were not made of wood. For at least one set, Washington’s dentist, Dr. John Greenwood, used a cow’s tooth, one of Washington’s teeth, hippopotamus ivory, metal and springs. The teeth fit poorly. (courtesy Mount Vernon)

Q: Where are George Washington’s false teeth?
A: One set is in the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, one set in possession of Joseph R. Greenwood of New York, and another set at Mount Vernon.

Q: Did George Washington chop down a cherry tree? 
A: Probably not. The story was likely invented by a man named Mason Weems shortly after Washington’s death. Ironically, the story was intended to show how honest Washington was: George confesses to his father saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” 

Q: Did George Washington own slaves?
A: Yes. At age eleven he inherited ten slaves from his father. By the end of Washington’s life, over three-hundred African-American slaves lived at Mount Vernon. (courtesy Mount Vernon).

Q: Did Washington free his slaves?
A: Yes. Washington’s attitude towards slavery changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for liberty in the Revolution. He emancipated his slaves in his will and his estate paid pensions to the older African Americans for decades.

Q: Which portrait of George Washington appears on the Dollar Bill?
A: The picture on the Dollar Bill was taken from the “Athenaeum” Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. The original was painted in 1796.

Q: How many times did George Washington actually sit to different painters for his portraits?
A: There are nineteen artists of which there is little doubt that Washington sat for portraits. For some of these he sat more than once. Washington also sat for sculptors Houdon and Ceracchi.

Q: Was Robert E. Lee related to George Washington?
A: Robert E. Lee married the granddaughter of Jackie Custis who was Washington’s stepson. Lee is also GW’s third cousin, twice removed, since both men are descended from Augustine Warner, Sr., and Mary Towneley Warner (GW by way of their son, Augustine, Jr., and Lee by way of their daughter, Sarah). (courtesy Frank Grizzard)

Q: Which states or future states did Washington visit in his lifetime?
A: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is not unlikely that he was within the bounds of Vermont during his trip to Lake Champlain in 1783.

Q: Did Washington ever leave the United States?
A: The only trip George Washington made outside of his own country was when he accompanied his half-brother Lawrence to the Barbados (1751–1752).

Q: Was Washington ever awarded a college degree?
A: Washington was not a college graduate but he received an honorary LL.D. from five educational institutions: Harvard, 1776; Yale, 1781; University of Pennsylvania, 1783; Washington College (Maryland), 1789; Brown, 1790. Although he did not complete college, Washington did maintain a large library at Mount Vernon.

Q: Did Washington ever practice law or did he ever appear in court as an attorney?
A: No. Washington acquired much legal training incidentally in connection with his duties as guardian and the many trusteeships and executorships which he assumed. He was, moreover, for years a justice of the peace of Fairfax County and not only heard minor cases, but also was a member of the County Court, which had an extended jurisdiction in equity as well as in civil and criminal law. In colonial days the justices were the county gentlemen, not trained lawyers, but the service was an excellent training in legal knowledge.

Q: How many letters did George Washington write during his lifetime?
A: Only a rough estimate can be given. The best authorities have estimated the total to be between 18,000 and 20,000. Of these, considerably fewer than half are in Washington’s own hand writing.

Q: What was the last letter that George Washington wrote?
A: The last letter that George Washington wrote was to his farm manager on December 13, 1799, the day before he died. He wrote Alexander Hamilton on the proposed Military Academy, on December 12.

Q: To whom did Washington leave his public and private letters and papers?
A: To his nephew, Bushrod Washington.

Q: When did the first direct ancestor of George Washington land in America?
A: John Washington, according to the best accounts available, landed in America early in the year 1657. His father had been a follower of Charles I during the civil war in England and had lost his benefice by order of Parliament, and evidently the young man was on his own very early. He was probably about 25 years old when he immigrated. George Washington was a direct descendant of John Washington, the immigrant.

Q: Did Washington actually write the Rules of Civility?
A: No. In fact “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” have been traced back to the sixteenth century. Some of the maxims were so fully exemplified in Washington’s life that biographers came to regard them as formative influences on his character.

Questions and Answers taken from: History of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration, Volume II, Literature Series (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1932), 643-688. (unless otherwise noted)