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George Washington was practically born to have his face carved into Mount Rushmore, just picture him a stern mouth, powdered hair, staring firmly into the distance, unsmiling. I mean, he just looks like he belongs on the side of a mountain. Historian Joseph Ellis called him the founding father of them all. On the other hand, his vice president, John Adams, called him too illiterate for his station and reputation. And the Iroquois, who should really have the final say, called Washington Guno Karius, which roughly translates to town destroyer.
Welcome to very presidential, a Spotify original from past. I'm your host, Ashleigh Flowers.
You can find all episodes of very presidential and all other originals from our cast for free on Spotify. This is the final episode. So I'm going to take you all the way back to the beginning with a guy who set the standard for presidential George Washington.
He played the part to a T. I mean, apart from the fact that he named his dog Sweet Lips, there's barely anything fun about him to speak of. He was General Washington commander in chief almost 24/7, because he knew that everything he did would set a precedent for the future. And some of those precedents we're still trying to live down.
All of that and more is coming up. Stay with us. In 1790, John Adams wrote that someday in the future, the history of the American Revolution would be taught like this. Benjamin Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth. An outspoken general Washington. He wasn't far off. No one in American history is as steeped in myth as George Washington. You probably learned a lot about him in elementary school, and probably only half of it is true. Like the story about how when he was six years old, he chopped down his father's cherry tree.
Now, as funny as it is to picture a kindergartner with a hatchet going to town on a cherry tree, there's no evidence that this actually happened. Or the wooden teeth. He had false teeth. Yes, but some of them were made from hippopotamus tusks, not wood. And some of them were most likely pulled from the mouths of his slaves. Other parts of Washington legend are accurate, though.
He really was as serious as the portraits make him out to be. In fact, during the constitutional convention, some of the other founders were gossiping about how cold and reserved he is. Governor Morris was like, that's not true. Washington is perfectly friendly. And Alexander Hamilton says, Oh, yeah, well, I dare you to go up to him and give him a gentle slap on the shoulder. I'll buy you dinner if you do it. So Morris is like challenge accepted.
He goes up to Washington and puts his hand on his shoulder and says, My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well. And Washington just steps back and glares at Morris. The whole room goes silent. Morris just slinks back into the crowd and tells Hamilton, I did it, but I'm never doing that again. So old George wasn't exactly the life of the party, but that no nonsense attitude made him a legend on the battlefield.
You've probably seen that painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River. You know, the one where he's standing on a boat gazing majestically into the horizon while his crew paddles through icy water and an American flag unfurled behind him. That actually happened, although not quite as gloriously as the artist depicted it. But of all the military moments in George Washington's life, it's a little strange that this is the one we remember most. There's another battle that's practically never talked about, even though it might be Washington's biggest contribution to world history.
It's 1754 a couple decades before the revolution. Washington is a 22 year old lieutenant colonel, and he's on a mission for the British army. They've heard reports of French troops gathering in British territory near the Ohio River. Washington's job is to go out there and see what's going on. Don't attack, just act defensively. He was allowed to fight back if and only if the French tried to interfere with their settlements. But as Washington and his troops are making their way through the wilderness, this settler tracks them down and is like, you won't believe what just happened.
About 50 French soldiers just broke into my cabin and threatened to kill my cow and smash all my furniture immediately. Washington snaps into battle mode. He is going to find these French troops and show them what happens when you mess with the British colonists. Later that night, he gets a message from Tanach Harrison, the chief of the local Seneca Tribe. He's just seen a band of about 50 French soldiers camping out a few miles away. Washington figures this must be the same group.
He immediately rounds up his soldiers and marches off to meet up with the Seneca. It takes until dawn for them to find the French camp in a small clearing in the woods. There are only about thirty five men and most of them are asleep. Washington decides to ambush them immediately. While they have the element of surprise, he'll bring his troops in from one side Tanach. Harrison will bring his guys around the opposite side. They'll have them surrounded.
They all get in their positions in the woods. Washington gives the signal and his men go in guns blazing and start shooting everyone. They see the French scramble a week and duck for cover. Then a man comes forward and he's like, Wait, don't shoot. We're here on a diplomatic mission. I have an important message. He pulls out a document and starts reading from it. And then Tanach Harrison comes up behind him and splits his head open with a hatchet.
At least that's the British version of events. The French report claimed he was killed by a musket shot, which means it had to have been Washington's troops. Either way, though, this was a disaster. By the time the dust cleared, at least ten French soldiers were dead. Twenty one more were taken prisoner. And it turns out that guy with the document was Joseph Kunlun, the German view. He was a French military commander and he really was just there to deliver a message he had no intention of fighting.
Here's the real kicker, though. Washington didn't even seem to grasp how badly he'd screwed up. The next day, he writes a letter to the royal governor who sent him on the mission. And amazingly, the first eight paragraphs are spent whining about his salary. And then once all that was out of the way, he casually drops the bomb that he killed ten French soldiers. Oh, yeah. And one of them was Zhu Monville. Obviously, when the French army found out about this, they launched a counterattack.
Pretty soon it escalated into an all out war between France and Britain. Then their allies got involved Prussia, Spain, Sweden, Russia, Austria, colonies from Africa to the Philippines.
It probably could have been called the First World War, but it's usually known as the Seven Years War because it lasted seven years and it was all because of twenty two year old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington.
What's astounding is that this little incident didn't ruin Washington's reputation, it actually launched him to fame. See, the British didn't want to take the blame for starting the war, so they claimed that Washington had done nothing wrong. His journals from the expedition were published to stir up animosity against the French. He even got promoted to colonel. All in all, he sent the globe into a tailspin and got off completely scot free. But as we know, Washington isn't famous for commanding the British army over the next two decades.
He completely switched loyalties. It all started with that little issue about the salary. Apparently, the British army officers were routinely paid more than the colonial officers like Washington, and he couldn't stand that. He was so insulted by how little he was making that he was like, you know what? Just don't pay me anything. I'd rather serve as a volunteer that helps his ego, but it's not helping pay the bills. So when he's 26, he resigns and returns to civilian life, where prospects are looking a lot brighter.
The very next month, he married Martha Custis, one of the richest women in Virginia. And the moment Washington signed his name on the marriage certificate, Martha's share of the twenty eight square mile family estate belonged to him. A few extra people came along with the marriage to Martha's four year old son, Jackie, and her three year old daughter, Patsy, and 84 enslaved people. The newlyweds and their dozens of slaves settled down at Mount Vernon, Washington's massive estate on the banks of the Potomac.
Washington had a lot of land to his name, by the way. He was a land surveyor before he joined the army. And after resigning, he came up with a plot to scam his fellow veterans out of the land. The royal governor had promised them as bounty 42 square miles, to be exact. That's about twice the size of Manhattan.
But he actually had to do something with the land to make money, so it was time for phase two of Washington's career. He became a gentleman farmer, a.k.a. a plantation owner. Once again, though, the British were getting in the way of Washington's hard earned profits. He was convinced that the merchants in London were trying to rip him off. They paid too little for his tobacco and charged too much for crappy farming equipment that, in Washington's words, could only have been used by our forefathers in the days of yore.
And then, of course, there's the taxes. The British start taxing almost everything that's coming into the colonies. Paper, paint, glass, tea. The merchants are not happy. If you made it through high school history class, you probably remember the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party. But there's another hugely important event that we never talk about. The Somerset verse Stuart decision in 1772. A British court rules that slavery isn't legal under English law, but slightly different than slavery being illegal.
But it's still a huge win for abolitionists. And over in the colonies, plantation owners are freaking out. If slavery is outlawed, they're all screwed financially. This is the last straw for a lot of the Southern elites. They're ready to get out from under the British parliament and create their own government, one where slavery is legally protected. So don't get it twisted. This country wasn't founded on freedom and human rights. It was founded by white men like Washington who actually said that Britain was trying to, quote, fix the shackles of slavery upon us, us, meaning the colonial slave owners.
Even at the time, people saw the hypocrisy in this, the British writer Samuel Johnson wrote, How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes? End quote. The truth is, from the beginning, the idea of American liberty only meant liberty for some, and everyone knew it, which became a problem for Washington when he was put in charge of the Continental Army. Coming up, Washington struggles through the revolution, his inauguration and several years of awkward state dinners.
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Superstitions airs every Wednesday free on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts to hear more podcasts shows search Sparkasse network in the Spotify search bar and find a growing slate of thrilling new series to enjoy. Now back to the story. When the Revolutionary War breaks out, George Washington is the top candidate for commander in chief. He has military experience. He's a respected member of the Continental Congress. And this is the biggest selling point he's willing to serve without pay. The rest of his troops aren't quite so committed.
When the war started, the Continental Army had an influx of volunteers from every corner of society. But Washington predicted that once the fighting actually started, most of them would turn around and go home. He was right. The truth is, the majority of the colonists don't really care about the revolution either way. I mean, to the average person, a tax on tea isn't worth dying over. And as for freedom from tyranny, 80 to 90 percent of the colonists couldn't even vote for the colonial government.
If you're a woman, African-American, Catholic, Jewish, Quaker or even a white man who doesn't own property, there's practically no difference between the British parliament and the Continental Congress.
You don't get to say either way. And there was no reason to believe things would be different after the revolution. So the Continental Army has a bit of a recruitment problem. They had to lure in soldiers with promises of paychecks, warm meals and land grants. Once the war was over, that was the only thing that could motivate them. But pretty soon they found out that General Washington couldn't make good on those promises.
As they get further into the war, the paychecks don't come. There isn't enough food. Thousands of soldiers don't even have shoes. During the long winter at Valley Forge, one sixth of the army dies of disease and thousands more. Just desert camp and go home. But not George Washington. He has the honor to keep fighting without pay, even if it means starving. Shoeless in the cold. Oh, wait a minute. That's not true. Seems a little suspicious that a guy who's so uptight about money would agree to risk his life for zero dollars, right?
Well, the thing is, he agreed to serve without a salary. All he wanted was his expenses reimbursed. But let's look at those expense reports, six thousand dollars on alcohol over the span of six months, three thousand seven hundred seventy six dollars on sundry expenses while the army was retreating from a failed campaign. Thousands on personal groceries. We're talking ducks', veal, mutton, fruits and vegetables. And at one point four hundred limes, by the end of the war, Washington had gained 30 pounds.
While his soldiers were on the verge of starvation, his final bill came to almost four hundred fifty thousand dollars with inflation that would be worth eight point five million today. It's hard to say whether he was actually spending over a million dollars a year on personal expenses or if he was inflating the numbers. Because here's the thing. He didn't turn in any receipts. There was no explanation as to where all the money was going. His account books are full of vague entries like etc.
and ditto. It's pretty bold for a guy who wasn't even very good at his job. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Washington, quote, lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history, end quote. In his defense, the Continental Army was untrained, outnumbered and extremely low on weapons. It's truly amazing that he managed to eke out a single victory, but he did. After eight years of battle, the British finally give up and surrender.
And Washington becomes an American hero. Like the most famous man on the continent. Crowds follow him on the street. Random visitors are even constantly dropping by Mount Vernon to meet him. And once the Constitution is drafted, everybody's like, hey, George, you have to be president. You're the only one who can do it. But Washington isn't up for it. He's about to turn 57 and his eight years in the war were not kind to him.
His hair is gray. He has rheumatism. His teeth are falling out. He just wants to stay home and call it a career.
But the other founders are like, no, really, you have to. We only voted to create the office of the president because we thought you were going to do it. We don't have a backup option. It takes months of back and forth letters and two visits from James Madison. But Washington finally agrees to put his name on the ballot. Yet the father of America has to be bullied into running for president. Regardless, he's elected with 100 percent of the electoral vote.
If you're wondering how he felt about it, he said, quote, I feel very much like a man who is condemned to death does when the time of his execution draws nigh and quote, You've got to feel for him, because when he got to the capital, which was Philadelphia, at this point, nobody had any idea what the president was supposed to do without an established precedent. If he messed up, the whole country would probably dissolve into chaos.
So no brush. Even with the most mundane little details, the stress is cranked up to an 11. For example, the inauguration ceremony. Washington was up bright and early that morning waiting for the coach to arrive to take him to federal hall. He waits all morning, noon passes. Still no sign of it. Turns out over at Federal Hall, the senators are wrapped up in a very heated argument about what they should do when the president walks in.
Do they sit? Do they stand? I mean, how do they do it in the British parliament? Should we even care how the British do it? Finally, they stop and realize, wait a minute, no one went to pick up Washington. Oops. By the time they get the president to federal hall, they're already more than an hour behind schedule. A crowd of 10000 people are gathered in the street. And as Washington passes through, they notice he doesn't look thrilled to be there.
One senator said he looked more agitated than if he had a gun pointed at him. Washington goes out on to the second floor balcony to take the oath of office in front of the crowd, they can't hear a word he's saying because he's mumbling so quietly. It's basically inaudible. Turns out the new president hates public speaking. He has his hand on a Bible which was borrowed last minute from the Masonic Lodge across the street. When he's done with the oath, the guy holding the Bible raises it up a little bit and Washington leans in and kisses it.
So much for separation of church and state, huh? Then for his inaugural address, he mumbles to the hopeful nation that nothing could have filled him with greater anxiety than finding out he'd been elected president. He's old and in bad health, but he was chosen. So here he is performing his duty. So things aren't off to a great start. He's going to need a little more enthusiasm to get through the next four years or maybe at least a little more financial motivation.
When he took office, Washington offered to serve without a salary. All he wanted was his expenses reimbursed. But Congress was like, no way, sir. We remember how that worked out during the war. If you really need four hundred lines for Marguerita Monday, you can fit that into your own budget this time. So Washington settles for a salary which shakes out to be over seven hundred thirty eight thousand dollars a year in today's money. That's nearly twice what the President makes now, and it's five times as much as the vice president John Adams was making, which probably didn't help tensions between the two of them.
Washington had never really trusted Adams, he had a reputation for being pompous and temperamental, which he confirmed when he suggested that the president should be addressed as his highness, the president of the United States of America and protector of the rights of the same. And Washington's like, yeah, no thanks, Mr. President will do just fine. From that point on, he didn't take his VP advice on basically anything, and Adams wasn't happy about being sidelined. In his opinion, Washington didn't deserve the hero worship he got.
Years later, Adams wrote a letter to a friend counting all of Washington's talents as a leader. He's handsome, tall, rich. He knows when to shut up. He has good self-control. And when he does lose his temper, everyone either loves or fears him too much to say anything about it. Harsh, yeah, but also a pretty accurate description of Washington's character. His teeth might not have been wooden, but his personality sure was. He was like if an etiquette guide came to life always proper, never quite human.
Some of his close friends insisted that beneath the chilly facade, he was full of fiery passion.
But we're just going to have to take their word for it because Washington went out of his way to make sure no one ever saw him having emotions. Unfortunately for Mr. Antisocial, being president means a lot of public engagements, speeches, celebrations and talking to strangers, all of which he hated. From day one, there are visitors pounding on his front door from sunup to sundown. He doesn't really want to talk to these people, but he can't stop taking guests entirely or he'll seem a little too cold and distant.
So he comes up with a solution. He'll only accept visitors on Tuesdays for exactly one hour from three to four p.m. The secretary would open the door at three o'clock on the dot and Washington would be standing next to the fireplace looking stately, holding a hat or a sword so he wouldn't have to shake anyone's hand. He hated being touched. He would make his way around the room and chat briefly with each of the visitors. When he was done, he would resume his pose by the fireplace and one by one the guests would bow and leave.
Obviously, this made any kind of serious conversation impossible, which is probably what Washington was going for when he did have to sit through an actual social occasion. He usually wasn't a hit. For example, he often had dinner with indigenous leaders to wheedle them into giving up their land. A Cherokee chief walked away from one of these meetings and declared, General Washington is a liar. On another occasion, Washington met with the new Seneca leader, corn planter, who remembered the president's old nickname.
But it had a different connotation. Now, see, during the revolution, Washington had sent his troops on a rampage that destroyed forty villages belonging to the Iroquois Six Nations, which includes the Seneca Tribe. Corn Planter told Washington. When your army entered the country of the Six Nations, we called you the town destroyer. And to this day, when that name is heard, our women look behind them and turn pale and our children cling close to the neck of their mothers.
Clearly, the treaty negotiations, we're going to have mixed results. But if Washington didn't get what he wanted, he had no problem taking it by force. It says it all that he put his secretary of war in charge of dealing with Native American relations. And speaking of secretaries, that was another mess for Washington to sort out. When he took office, the Treasury, State Department and all that hadn't even been officially created yet, so it was up to Washington to figure out who's in charge of the different departments and what exactly they do for Treasury secretary.
He chose Alexander Hamilton, his trusted secretary from during the war. Secretary of state is Thomas Jefferson. We've talked about him before, two pretty solid choices on their professional merits. The problem is their personalities. At first, Jefferson and Hamilton get along OK because they barely know each other and they never have to see each other. But about halfway through his first term, Washington gets the idea of holding cabinet meetings, you know, calling all the advisers together at once in one room.
And that's when things start to go off the rails. Jefferson compared the cabinet meetings to cockfights with Washington, essentially playing referee.
Hamilton has a habit of referring to the whole executive branch as my administration, when he doesn't get his way, he's bitter. At one point, he writes a letter to Washington that's like, Have you noticed that whenever you side with Jefferson?
He, like, smirks at me from across the table just to rub it in.
And when the president sides with Hamilton, Jefferson goes off the deep and into paranoid conspiracy theories. He starts to believe that Washington is a puppet and Hamilton's deep state is really running the country. He even secretly funds a newspaper that trash talks every policy Washington makes. Yeah, and he's doing this while he is still serving as secretary of state. Hamilton knows that Jefferson is behind these articles. He starts getting paranoia, too. He writes all his letters in code so that no one can intercept them.
Obviously, for Washington, this is a living nightmare. Eventually, he has to step in and write a strongly worded letter to both of them, basically saying, settle down and do your jobs or you're going to ruin the country.
Hamilton writes back that, of course, even though Jefferson has so deeply wronged him, he'll be the bigger person and let the few die. Jefferson writes back to but he says, I've done nothing wrong. Everything is Hamilton's fault. I had nothing to do with those newspapers either, by the way. And consider this my resignation.
With the next election approaching, you think Washington would be ready to resign to on an emotional level? He definitely is, but he begrudgingly agrees to a second term because he's terrified that if he steps down and lets these guys run the show, it'll lead to the unthinkable political parties. Yep. For the first few years, there were no official parties. Everyone was on the same team. Even if that team was full of infighting and being a military man, that's Washington's ideal.
They all have to stick together for the common cause. Maybe what he really needed was another battle for everyone to rally around a return to his military glory days. And in term number two, he would get it. Only this battle wasn't against a foreign country. It was against his own citizens. Coming up, Washington rallies the troops for a war on whiskey. Now back to the story. At the beginning of Washington's first term, everyone in America loved him, except maybe John Adams, but by the time he left eight years later, he was one of the most divisive figures on the continent.
There are a lot of reasons why that happened. But there's one incident that really sums up how his reputation was tanking the Whiskey Rebellion. See, the nation was in a lot of debt after the Revolutionary War, not the least because of Washington's massive expense reports.
So to balance the budget, the federal government creates a tax on whiskey, a bold move since the whole revolution was about not having to pay taxes. And because for small farmers out on the frontier, whiskey is their most profitable product.
It's basically the backbone of their economy.
So imagine how they feel when they find out about this new whiskey tax and when they find out that because of some technicalities, big distilling companies actually have to pay less tax per gallon than the little guys. Obviously, there's an uproar. The distillers start protesting when a tax collector shows up in rural Pennsylvania, he's tarred and feathered.
There are shootouts, buildings are burnt down. Some of the locals are calling for guillotines. I mean, it's bad. Over in Philadelphia, the federal government is watching in horror. But Washington was like, don't worry, I got this. He calls up a tailor to make him a replica of the uniform he wore during the revolution. He's gotten a little pudgy around the middle in the past 10 years so the old one doesn't fit. Then he rounds up thirteen thousand militiamen, gets on his horse and personally leads them out to the frontier to put down the rebellion.
To this day, Washington is the only commander in chief to actually ride out into battle and against his own citizens, no less.
It's probably a good thing this one didn't become a tradition.
Hamilton goes with him because there's no one that'll calm the people down, like the Treasury secretary who's responsible for this tax in the first place.
And when they're almost there, Washington apparently has a change of heart and realizes he doesn't personally need to be there. It's a little overkill. So he turns around. But delegates Alexander Hamilton to run the expedition in his place.
The Treasury secretary marches his troops all the way into western Pennsylvania and there's no insurrection to be seen.
Rebels had obviously heard that half of the executive branch was on their way and the leaders of the riots had all fled.
Now, the army can't just go home empty handed or they'll look like idiots, so they arrest hundreds of random locals as quote unquote, suspects anyway, no warrants or anything.
Soldiers just barge into people's homes in the middle of the night and round them up at gunpoint after days of brutal interrogations.
It's clear most of these people were not involved in the riots at all. And in the end, only two of them were ever convicted. In hindsight, this whole thing looks like a massive failure.
But to Washington and his supporters, it was a big success. He proved that the federal government is able to scare away a rebellion.
But to the people on the frontier, anyone who doesn't like taxes and anyone who's afraid of government overreach, this is a bad sign. And if they can't fight unfair policy in the streets, they'll have to fight it from the inside those political parties. Washington was so worried about while they're here, it would take another few years for the split to become official. But two factions were already crystallizing the Federalists, led by Washington, Hamilton and the forgotten vice president John Adams, and the Republicans led by former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
When Washington retires after his second term, he gives a farewell speech talking about the dangers of partisan division. Whoever comes after him has to be the president for everyone, not just for one side or the other. The creation of political parties would be the single greatest threat to the union. But it was useless at that point. Washington is so far the only president in U.S. history who didn't belong to a political party. Less than three years after leaving office, Washington died at age 67.
It was the end of an era for the United States. But two centuries later, it's safe to say that Washington's legacy will never die because for all his talk about unity, the government in Washington helped create never represented the whole country. The system was built on divisions between black and white men and women, rich and poor, and it was built on Washington's worst tendency, taking as much as you can for yourself, no matter who is cheated or hurt in the process.
Mt. Rushmore, where Washington's face is immortalized, was taken from the Lakota in a military campaign that led to the Wounded Knee massacre in that one infamous day. It's estimated that at least 250 people were killed by the U.S. Army and half of them were women and children. If Washington knew about this, he'd probably approve. And that might be the most important standard Washington set for future presidents. They're not perfect. A lot of them have blood on their hands.
We can still venerate their achievements, sure. But we also have to look at the dark side hidden underneath.
All that being said, there's a possible universe where Washington is still alive to critique other presidents for himself. The morning after Washington died, a visitor showed up at his house. William Thornton, an architect, physician and apparently aspiring mad scientist. Thornton says, hold on, don't put his body in the ground yet. I know how to bring Washington back to life. We're going to wrap him up in blankets put in by the fire to warm him up.
And we'll do a tracheotomy and pump air into his lungs and then jump start his heart with an infusion of trust me on this lamb's blood. Martha Washington was like, thanks, but no thanks. We should just let him rest. So thanks, Martha, for narrowly saving us from the first zombie president. As we've learned from this entire series, it's probably for the best that these men remain in memory alone. Thanks for listening, if you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find them all for free on Spotify.
Very presidential stars Ashley Flowers and is a Spotify original from Park Cast, it was created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers and is executive produced by Max Keller, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Aaron Larson. This episode of Very Presidential was written by Kate Gallagher. To hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio Chuck Originals.
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