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This Week in Freudenfreude: Happy Birthday to an American Idol

Yesterday was George Washington's birthday. We're not ever going to be able to give him the obituary treatment, since—and you might not know this—he's been dead for 225 years. So, we thought we'd take this opportunity to share 10 stories about the first president that you might not know:

  1. Duel Loyalty: During the 1754 elections for the Virginia legislature, Washington had a disagreement with a man named William Payne, as the two men supported different candidates. Washington said something indecorous, and Payne hauled off and decked the future president. The next day, Payne received an invitation to a local pub from Washington. He assumed a duel was in the offing, but when he arrived, there was a carafe of wine and two glasses set up on a table. "Mr. Payne," Washington said, "to err is nature; to rectify error is glory. I believe I was wrong yesterday; you have already had some satisfaction, and if you deem that sufficient, here is my hand, let us be friends." Payne was a firm supporter of Washington from that point forward.

  2. Rear Guard: Washington was known in his day, albeit not in ours, for his sense of humor. On one occasion, when the stove he was sitting in front of got too hot, he moved to another part of the room. Someone observed that a general really ought to be able to withstand a little incoming fire. "Not from behind," remarked Washington.

  3. Risky Bet: Alexander Hamilton was one of the few people who was not intimidated by Washington. One day, Hamilton proposed to Pennsylvania politician Gouverneur Morris that if he (Morris) were to approach Washington, slap the General on the back, and congratulate him on his good health, then a full dinner would be provided for Morris and 12 of his friends. Morris took the bait, did as instructed, and was rewarded with a frown and an angry glare from Washington. "I have won the bet," said Morris ruefully, "but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it!"

  4. Strength in Numbers: The fellows who wrote the Constitution were leery of standing armies, and so discussed the possibility of limiting the size of the U.S. Army to no more than 5,000 soldiers. Washington, who presided over the proceedings, did not often speak, as the chair could not offer motions. But he did mutter under his breath that the conventioneers better also add a rule that foreign invaders were not allowed to bring more than 3,000 troops.

  5. For the Dogs: Washington was one of the biggest dog lovers ever to occupy the presidency, and throughout his life he was master to dozens of dogs, generally giving them imaginative names like Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove, Ragman, Sweetlips and Vulcan. None of them ever bit a Secret Service agent, especially since the USSS didn't exist at that time. However, Vulcan was notorious for stealing food, and once grabbed a whole ham from the family table and made off with it.

  6. On the Clock: The first president was known for being punctual, and for expecting the same from his guests. At one dinner, a member of Congress arrived late, and found Washington and the rest of the invitees already dining. "We are obliged to be punctual here," the President advised. "My cook never asks whether the company has arrived, but whether the hour has."

  7. Mouthy: Washington was compelled to sit for portraits on occasion, and he hated it. While sitting for the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart, the painter tried to lighten things up by declaring: "Now, sir, you must let me forget that you are General Washington and I am Stuart the painter." Washington, apparently annoyed, replied: "Mr. Stuart need never feel the need for forgetting who he is and who General Washington is." This offended the painter, and in response, he reportedly exaggerated Washington's mouth to make him look more dour. That portrayal, appearing on billions of $1 bills as it does, has had a profound influence on Americans' perceptions of Washington and his temperament.

  8. The Art of Diplomacy: In 1797, Frenchman Constantin Volney visited Washington and asked for a letter of recommendation. Washington did not wish to insult Volney, but also did not want to give his support to a man known to have radical ideas. He solved the problem by writing "C. Volney needs no recommendation from Geo. Washington."

  9. On Fire: Washington was fascinated by fire, and was an enthusiastic amateur fireman. Shortly before his death, a fire broke out in the city of Alexandria while he was passing through. The former general rallied the citizenry, and oversaw the successful effort to extinguish the blaze. It was, in effect, his final battle.

  10. Make Mine Freedom: We recognize, of course, that this is a laudatory piece about a man who was a slaveowner. It was, of course, a different time, and abolitionism was barely known in Washington's day. However, he was personally uncomfortable with the institution. There were some pretty strict limits placed on what he could do, but he did free many enslaved people in his will, and his wife freed more when she died (in each case, enslaved people could only be freed by the person in whose name they were owned, and even then only when that person died). Both Washingtons also provided that freedpeople who were too elderly or infirm to care for themselves would be supported by the residue of the estate for the remainders of their lives.

And there you have it, a portrait of the Father of his Country. Happy 292nd birthday, Mr. President. You don't look a day over 280. (Z)

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