George Washington is always depicted as a solemn individual. From the dollar bill to the National Portrait Gallery, Washington is consistently precisely dressed, masculinely posed, and practically frowning.
He was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”1 He was our first president and arguably most famous American. He secured a place in American folklore, like the Cherry Tree myth where a six-year-old Washington, wiser than his years, proclaims “I cannot tell a lie.”2
But his place in American legend fogs the fact that Washington was a person like us, one with flaws, imperfections, and sometimes questionable tastes. Through his quirky sense of humor, we can strip away the glossy veneer of Washington: the historical figure and get better acquainted with Washington: the man. For, like many of us, he had at times a slapstick, situational, lowbrow, and deadpan sense of humor, sometimes coarse, cutting, and sometimes cringe-worthy.
He didn’t refrain from laughing at lewd jokes or the physical pain of others. Sometimes he was the center of a comedic situation simply because of his good nature, the brawny Washington an awkward if not comical sight when performing acts of genuine kindness to others unexpectedly, appearing, if only for a few moments, a mere mortal instead of a living legend.
You can tell a lot about a person by what makes them laugh. You can also tell a lot about a person by how they make others laugh.
When people respond to a comedic situation, they let their guard down; they reveal what brings them pleasure, how the world affects them, how they view the world around them. When it comes to Washington, most anecdotes of his humor take place in peacetime. For those that take place in wartime, his fits of laughter were rare, like small bursts that boiled to the surface. He was clearly a man more at ease managing the affairs of a large plantation than those of a standing army.
While there is plenty of evidence that Washington enjoyed his fair share of well-timed zingers, quick quips, and bouts hearty laughter during war,3 it is not an aspect of his persona that fits particularly well with the narrative we tell of him: the dignified gentleman-farmer turned Revolutionary War hero turned morally guided father of a fledgling nation.
There is little room for humor when honor is thrust front-and-center. But when Washington dropped his grim military facade, he made himself susceptible to humor. As shown in the following sketches, it is what made him human then. It is what makes him relatable today.
Pitching the Bar
Leading up to the Revolution, Washington had acquired considerable wealth, a veteran’s respect, and a reputation for chivalry. He was also renown for his athleticism. A noted dancer and horseback rider, Washington also possessed Herculean strength that, on occasion, proved him to be an athletic specimen. Needless to say, Washington strutted around with a confident swagger.
The painter Charles Willson Peale recorded an amateur competition at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Peale and fellow visitors, coats stripped and shirtsleeves rolled up, were playing a game called “pitching the bar” where participants hurled an iron bar to see who could throw it the furthest.
According to Peale, Washington, so confident in his own ability to dominate, “requested to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts; then, smiling, and without putting off his coat, held out his hand for the missle. No sooner…did the heavy iron bar feel the grasp of his mighty hand than it lost the power of gravitation, and whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits.”
Teasing them he jeered, “When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I’ll try again.”4
Wartime is a bleak time, amplifying funny situations against the backdrop of battle. No doubt the disillusionment of war provided Washington a lens through which matters of irony were heightened. Such was the case with Israel Putnam.
Like Washington at the onset of the Revolution, Putnam enjoyed a reputation as a military man. He had even supposedly rid Connecticut of its wolf population, killing the last one in the state after seventy dead sheep were discovered dead.5 Also like Washington, he was thought as a robust, masculine, no-nonsense man.
By October 1775, the Americans had endured Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and a failed invasion of Canada. Tensions were high. It came to light that Dr. Benjamin Church, a surgeon-general, was exchanging correspondence with the British. Church sent a letter to the British which was intercepted by a lover of the recipient who was, in turn, captured by Putnam and brought to Washington.
Sight of the mighty Putnam sharing his horse with the “stout lady” riding valiantly into camp, like a hunter returning with his big-game catch, was too much for Washington to contain himself.
“Not even the Commander-in chief could keep from laughing at that ludicrous sight presented by the sturdy ‘Wolf-hunter’ and his prize: and he hardly had time to recover his gravity before the front door was thrown open and the culprit made to enter the hall by the strong arm of her escort.”6
A Bowl of Hot Tea
This next sketch is a situation involving Washington made funny by the juxtaposition of the scene: A massive figure evoking comedy by a small, simple act of kindness. It is like reading an account of an elephant dancing ballet.
During Washington’s short retirement, prior to being elected president, he hosted guests almost daily at Mount Vernon. In 1785, one such guest, Elkanah Watson, paid Washington a visit. Watson was suffering from a cold. Through and after dinner, Washington insisted on providing some kind of remedy.
“As usual after retiring, my coughing increased. When some time had elapsed, the door of my room was gently opened, and on my drawing my bed-curtains, to my utter astonishment, I beheld Washington himself, standing at my bedside, with a bowl of hot tea in his hand. I was mortified and distressed beyond expression.”7
It must have been quite a moment seeing the hulking Washington tiptoeing through the halls of Mount Vernon, decked out in his swankiest pajamas, holding a candle and cup of tea that, in his large hands, must’ve looked like toys.
During the first year of his first term as America’s first president, Washington came down with fever. Abigail Adams, married to Washington’s vice president, John Adams, had occasion in July 1789 to call on Martha Washington. Laid out on a sofa resting nearby, Washington bade welcome to Abigail but, always the gentleman, endeavored to pay her proper respect.
The next day, Washington rode out with Martha to call on Abigail at her invitation. Surely she did not expect what came next.
Still stricken with fever, Washington’s impressive transport, drawn by six horses and fitting four servants along with his wife and himself, carried him to the Adams home at Richmond Hill, only Washington was lying in bed. He had ordered his carriage be specially outfitted to accommodate his illness, and the solution was to merely place a bed in the back.
Imagine seeing George Washington riding about the crowded streets of New York City, coughing, sneezing, and wiping his nose in a bed in the back of a fancy ride.8
I came across two more funny George Washington stories that I’m including here because I’m unable to confirm the source. In an abridged edition of Washington Irving’s Life of George Washington, the following instances are cited by Irving from Notes of the Rev. Mr. Tuttle and Life of Judge J. Smith, respectively. In my own digging I was unable to unearth either, so I cannot confirm from where Irving sourced them. That being said, I thought these sketches too rich, and Irving’s sarcastic retelling too biting, to exclude:
At camp at Morristown, New Jersey, Washington had acquired a young, bucking horse.
“A braggadocio of the army, vain in his horsemanship, asked the privilege of breaking it in.”
Washington was peeved by cocky behavior like this. He seemed to relish in moments when braggarts got what what they deserved, especially in a situation like this were he could without protest claim a higher equestrian aptitude.
“Washington gave his consent, and with some of his officers attended to see the horse receive his first lesson. After much preparation, the pretender to equitation mounted into the saddle and was making a great display of his science, when the horse suddenly planted his forefeet, threw up his heels, and gave the unlucky Gambado a somerset over his head.”
Washington, a skilled horseman in his own right, and quick to give an egoist his due, “was so convulsed with laughter that, we are told, the tears ran down his cheeks.”9
The second story involves Chief Justice John Marshall and Washington’s nephew, Associate Justice Bushrod Washington. The pair was en route to Mount Vernon along with a black servant carrying a trunk of clothing.
The group stopped to dig a ditch for bathroom purposes and became quite dusty and dirty in the process. Marshall and Bushrod removed their clothes, expecting to change into fresh garb, when the servant opened up the trunk.
“Out flew cakes of windsor soap and fancy articles of all kinds. The man by mistake had changed their portmanteau at the last stopping place for one which resembled it, belonging to a Scotch pedlar. The consternation of the negro, and their own dismantled state, struck them so ludicrously as to produce loud and repeated bursts of laughter. Washington, who happened to be out upon his grounds, was attracted by the noise, and so overcome by the strange plight of his friends and the whimsicality of the whole scene, that he is said to have actually rolled on the grass with laughter.”10
1 Annals of Congress, Senate, 6th Congress, 1st Session (1799), 16.
2 Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington the Great (Augusta, GA: George P. Randolph, 1806), 8-9
3 Joseph Manca, “George Washington’s Use of Humor During the Revolutionary War,” Journal of the American Revolution (2015), Accessed April 21, 2018 https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/02/george-washingtons-use-of-humor-during-the-revolutionary-war/
4 John P. Kaminski, “Charles Wilson Peale, Recollection of December 28, 1773” The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the American Revolutionary Era, (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press), 470.
5 Gene Procknow, “General Israel Putnam: Reputation Revisited,” Journal of the American Revolution, (2016), Accessed April 21, 2018, https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/general-israel-putnam-reputation-revisited/
6 William Livingston Farrand, “Israel Putnam: Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General,1718-1790,” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York & London, The Knickerbocker Press), 258.
7 Elkanah Watson, Men and the Times of the Revolution; or Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, (New York, NY: Dana and Company, Publishers), 242.
8 Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, July 12, 1789, Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 8, TheAdams Papers Digital Editions, http://www.masshist.org/publications/apde2/view?id=ADMS-04-08-02-0210
9 Washington Irving, George Washington: A Biography, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 633-634
10 Irving, George Washington, 634-635