Founding Father Fables & Folklore
I received three gifts from the Ages of Enlightenment (1700-1800) and Reform
(1830-1850). My family tree revealed that I am descended from three distinguished founding fathers — our first, third, and 12th presidents:
George Washington (1732-1799)
My 6th paternal great-granduncle was Virginia’s Robert Bolling IV. His wife, Sally Washington, was the niece of the first president of the United States, George Washington, making me a relative of the “Father of our Country”, however distant. George is said to have received a hatchet for a gift, hacked at a cherry tree, and confessed to his father, Augustine, “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down that cherry tree.” His father praised six-year-old George for his honesty and hugged him. Nearly all historians agree that the entire tale was made up by Washington’s first biographer, Mason Locke Weems. Here’s another interesting tidbit about my “Uncle George,” At one time, he was the nation’s largest whiskey producer making 11,000 gallons in 1799.
Another enduring and glorifying legend has a young George throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River as evidence of his precocious strength. Only possible if Washington’s arm was a cannon: the Potomac was over a mile wide. Others have said it might have happened on the Rappahannock River, while George and his chums tossed rocks while waiting for a ferry. (Estimates put the Rappahannock at around 300-feet wide there – 14 feet shorter than a throw from the right field wall to home plate in today’s Yankee Stadium (314 feet).
And finally, Washington’s writings make it clear his decaying teeth caused him terrible suffering from the age of 22 onwards. In fact, the president had lost all but one of his teeth by the time he was elected in 1789, but unlike the common belief, his dentures weren’t made of wood. (Wood wasn’t often used to make dentures during this period). However, Washington may have worn several sets of false choppers during his lifetime. These teeth were likely made of materials like ivory, horse teeth, brass, gold screws, and silver alloy. Over time, his stained dentures may have taken on a brownish color, resembling wood.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
As a child growing up on a Goochland, Virginia plantation, my 2nd paternal cousin (7X removed) was Thomas Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence). He roamed the woods and studied his books. Jefferson furthered his studies at the renowned William and Mary College; excelling in classical languages, and also studying science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. Thomas Jefferson “Sage of Monticello,” and “Man on the People,” emerged as perhaps the nation’s best-read lawyer by the time he was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1767.
In 1800, after a bitterly contested election with federalist John Adams, a tie vote in the Electoral College, and a protracted deadlock in the House of Representatives, Jefferson finally emerged as the winner and became our nation’s Third President; he remained in office for two terms. Thanks, in part, to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which gave states with large slave populations additional votes. In his inaugural address, Jefferson pled for national unity in an attempt to heal the wounds of a vicious campaign and to gain support from the Federalist-controlled Congress. This story deeply resonates within me after our country’s exasperatingly vicious political campaigns, divisiveness and wounds yet unhealed.
Zachary Scott Taylor (1784-1850)
Nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” he was my paternal 2nd cousin, (7X removed) and the 12th President of our United States. His life story also mentions cherries. After attending Fourth of July celebrations for most of the day, Zachary Taylor walked along the Potomac River before returning to the White House. Hot and tired, he drank iced water and consumed lots of cherries and other fruits. For the next five days he suffered severe stomach pains, diarrhea, and dehydration before his passing on July 9, 1850. Taylor had been given slivers of ice (believed to have been chilled with contaminated water) which led to his sudden death.