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Dispelling Three Ongoing Myths About George Washington

by Paul Combs 7 months ago in opinion
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These Have Stuck Around Long Enough

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to dispute that over the nearly 250 years since America became a nation George Washington has moved squarely from the realm of historical figure to legendary icon. Numerous cities, one state, and our nation’s capital are all named after him. His image is ubiquitous, from our currency to ads for the latest gadget. That’s what you get when you are known as the Father of the Nation, when every president from John Adams to Joe Biden is compared to you.

What you also get is a lot of myths, and these myths need correcting. Some of the myths surrounding George Washington are so outrageous that they’re easy to spot (and most were debunked long ago). He did not chop down a cherry tree as a child and then confess to his father; the “I cannot tell a lie” quote was invented by one of his first biographers in 1800, a year after Washington died. He didn’t visit Betsy Ross in 1776 to ask that she sew the first American flag; there is no record that they ever even met.

Another easily dispelled myth is that he was the first president to live in the White House in the city that bore his name. This was simply not historically possible, because while Washington did approve the plans for the new capital’s construction it was not completed until after he left office. His successor, John Adams, was the first to live in the White House; during his two terms George Washington lived first in New York City and later in Philadelphia. Ironically, he is the only president who never lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

One last crazy myth about Washington is that he once skipped a silver dollar all the way across the surface of the Potomac River. Given that the Potomac is over a mile wide at his home at Mount Vernon, unless the river was frozen this was simply impossible. Captain America might have been able to do it, but not Washington.

There are a few myths about him, however, that are both persistent and hard to debunk easily. Let’s look at some of those:

1. George Washington was a Deist. Though he has been claimed as a member by numerous denominations over the centuries, including some that are diametrically opposed to each other, the most common view of Washington’s religious beliefs is that he was a Deist. This stems mainly from the fact that he was a Freemason, and Masonic beliefs are essentially Deist.

However, the historical record shows that while he was as private about his religious beliefs as he was about many other things, Washington was born, raised, and essentially remained an Anglican throughout his life. He even held non-ministerial positions in his Anglican parish for over 20 years. Still, there is one possible reason many faiths try to lay claim to Washington as one of their own.

Throughout his life, while always remaining Anglican, Washington would stop at whatever church was nearby on a Sunday whenever he was traveling (which was often). He is known to have attended Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, and even Roman Catholic services during his life, the last one being unusual for an Anglican at that time. Washington believed in the free exercise of religion in the new nation, and he demonstrated it with an all-inclusive approach himself.

2. George Washington was a great general. I know it will anger some people that I call this a myth, but hear me out because the terms used here are important. That George Washington was great leader is beyond dispute; as the commanding general during the Revolution it was his charisma and sheer force of will that inspired his men to press on in the face of hardship and numerous defeats. Perhaps no one else could have held the ragtag Continental Army together until victory was assured.

This does not, however, make him a great general. Neither his strategies nor his tactics are studied by military leaders today in the way those of Caesar, Napoleon, Grant, and Patton are. He had no great open-field victories, his biggest success being the Siege of Yorktown which was helped greatly by the French Navy. He spent much of his time fighting a defensive war, which was the right approach in the end but will never get you included in the Generals’ Hall of Fame.

3. George Washington was the greatest president in American history. This one is one is perhaps more subjective opinion than myth but still needs to be addressed. Washington is considered by many to be our greatest president, and given his lifetime of service, his role in the Revolution, and his status as the first president this is an understandable view. I also think it’s incorrect.

If we look only at the person’s time spent as president, the historical facts clearly show that Abraham Lincoln, the man who preserved what Washington helped create, was our greatest president. None of the other men who have held this office could have navigated the Civil War, the bloodiest and most divisive period in our history, in the way Lincoln did. Personally, I would put Washington second with FDR third, but Lincoln stands alone.

Setting the record straight on these myths in no way diminishes George Washington’s legacy or importance to our country. And surely the “man who could not tell a lie” would want history to tell the truth about him.

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About the author

Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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