1. Washington had only a grade-school education.
The first president’s formal schooling ended when he was 11 years old, after his father died. That event cut young George off from the opportunity to be educated abroad in England, a privilege that had been afforded to his older half-brothers. Washington’s mother never remarried, forcing the adolescent to shoulder weighty burdens at a young age, as the oldest child of six from his father’s second family. She taught him how to run a tobacco farm, and at the age of 16 he took his first job as a land surveyor. For the rest of his life, Washington would be embarrassed by his stunted schooling.
2. At age 22, Washington led a disastrous military skirmish that sparked a world war.
As France and Britain fought for territory at the edges of the North American colonies, Virginia sided with the British. As an officer in the Virginia militia, Washington was sent to the Ohio Valley (now western Pennsylvania) with some 150 troops, to help repel any attacks by the French. Warned by local Native American allies that a small French force has set up camp within several miles of his position, he led an attack with 40 of his soldiers, along with a dozen native warriors.
Who fired the first shot remains in dispute, but at the end of the 15-minute skirmish, at least 10 French soldiers and one Virginian were dead—including, most notably, a minor French noble, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, who the French later said was on a diplomatic mission. Jumonville’s death enraged the French, who called Washington an assassin. The conflict between the French and the British escalated into the French and Indian War, and soon spread worldwide in what became known as the Seven Years’ War.
3. Washington was really into his animals.
Washington wasn’t just America’s first president, he was also its first mule breeder. (Mules=a mix of horse and donkey.) Recognizing the value of the mule for farmers, Washington is believed responsible for creating the mule stock that powered American agriculture in the South for generations.
And mules weren’t the only animals he bred. In addition to many varieties of birds, Washington kept many canine breeds at Mount Vernon, including Dalmatians, English foxhounds, French hounds, Greyhounds, Italian Greyhounds, mastiffs, Newfoundlands, pointers, spaniels and terriers. A huge dog lover, he selectively bred hunting dogs for speed over the years and gave them endearing names like Sweet Lips, Venus, Trulove, Taster, Tippler, Drunkard and Madame Moose.
4. Washington’s first love was the wife of one of his best friends.
“The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you when I want to conceal it,” Washington wrote weeks before his wedding. The letter wasn’t sent to his fiancée Martha Custis—but to Sally Fairfax, who was married to one of his best friends and patrons, George Fairfax, son of one of Virginia’s largest landowners. Described as an intelligent, “dark-eyed beauty,” Sally befriended Washington when he was still an awkward teen. Historians credit her with helping to smooth his rough edges socially, teaching him how to behave and converse among the wealthy and powerful, and even how to dance the minuet. It’s unclear whether romance actually blossomed between the two.
5. About those teeth: No, they weren’t wooden.
Washington ruined his teeth using them to crack walnut shells. The dentures he had were made out of lots of things, but not wood. Instead, they came largely from human teeth, pulled from the mouths of the poor and his enslaved workers. They also came from ivory, cow teeth and lead. He had a little spring inside the dentures that helped them open and close.
The fake teeth caused him great discomfort, and were one of the reasons he rarely smiled. He had to have his morning hoe cakes and syrup (chosen for their softness) cut into tiny pieces to make them easier to eat.
6. Washington wasn’t always a great general, but he was an excellent spymaster.
Washington struggled mightily to win the Revolutionary War with an army that was perpetually undermanned, undertrained and undersupplied. So to triumph over one of the world’s most powerful military forces, he relied increasingly on his unseen weapon: a secret intelligence network. Throughout the conflict, Washington’s spies helped him make bold, canny decisions that would turn the tide of the conflict—and in some instances, even save his life.
The story of Washington’s underground spy network, and how it helped Americans win their revolution, is replete with intrigue: There were letters written in invisible ink, a rare female agent who went by the mysterious moniker Agent 355, an African-American double agent, a patriot tailor who collected dirt while making clothes for British officers—and the gruesome execution of the spy Nathan Hale. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, “General Washington was more deeply involved in intelligence operations than any American general-in-chief until Dwight Eisenhower during World War II.”
7. When he stepped down as commander-in-chief, he didn’t want to run the country.
After eight years on the battlefield, Washington was more than ready to return home—to Mount Vernon, to his family, to his animals and his crops. Before he stepped back, though, he had some hard-earned wisdom he felt compelled to share with the fledgling nation. So in the summer of 1783, he drafted his “Circular Letter to the States,” in which he detailed what he believed it would take for the American experiment to succeed. In many ways, it was a precursor to his famed Farewell Address 13 years later, a prescient warning to the country of the most likely political pitfalls. In the letter, Washington establishes four things he felt would help guide America forward.
8. He had no biological children, but he was a father figure to many.
It’s never been definitively established why the Washingtons couldn’t conceive—theories range from George’s early bouts with smallpox or tuberculosis to Martha’s case of measles. But when Washington married Martha Custis, a wealthy young widow, he became the legal guardian of her two younger children: four-year-old John Parke Custis (known as Jacky) and two-year-old Martha Parke Custis (known as Patsy). He was extremely fond of them and was bereft when 17-year-old Patsy died of an epileptic seizure.
As a father figure, he was especially fond of dispensing advice via letters—on everything from education to romance. He nagged his stepson to have more discipline with his studies, and warned his granddaughter against marrying for the wrong reasons: "Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying,” he wrote, adding that it is “too dainty a food to live upon alone.”
9. Washington was pretty cagey when it came to his religious beliefs.
When it comes to his personal religious beliefs, Washington was tough to read. With so few accounts to draw from, historians are mostly limited to analyzing what Washington did, to try to understand what he may have believed.
The trouble is, even his most straightforward actions can, at times, appear contradictory. The first president encouraged his fellow Americans to show up for worship, for instance, but sometimes struggled to attend church himself for weeks at a time. For many years, he served as a dedicated vestryman and church warden, but left services instead of taking communion. And while he peppered his writings with references to Providence, there’s comparatively little mention of God or Jesus Christ.
10. He had a complicated relationship with slavery.
Washington’s contradictory attitudes toward slavery are one of the great mysteries of his life and legacy. Like nearly all wealthy Virginia landowners, he owned enslaved people who worked his land. He received the first enslaved people of his own when his father died in 1743. Washington, just 11 years old at the time, was willed 10 enslaved people. By the time he married Martha Custis in 1759 (who came to the marriage with her own enslaved people), he had purchased at least eight more.
Over the years, Washington’s thinking on slavery evolved. During the Revolutionary War, he became more uncomfortable with the thought of purchasing and owning other human beings. While he supported abolition in theory, he never tried it in practice. His plantation, his wealth and his position in society depended on enslaved people to work as laborers. When one of Martha’s enslaved people fled to freedom in 1796, Washington spent the last three years of his life trying to force her to return. But when it came time to make his will, it contained an order to free his slaves—with the stipulation that they remain with Martha for the rest of her life.
11. Washington was a tough man to kill.
A tall and robust man, Washington survived multiple life-threatening situations. At various points, Washington had diptheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, dysentery, Quinsy, carbuncle and pneumonia. He survived near drowning in an ice-clogged river. He survived the burning and massacre of Fort Necessity. He survived two horses being shot out from under him and four bullets passing close enough to pierce his clothing—all in one battle.
Ironically, it was a cold that did him in. Technically, it was epiglottitis, an infection of the back of the throat that would be curable with antibiotics today. While he lay dying, his doctors effectively tortured him—burning him to remove the sickness and draining him of a full 40 percent of his blood. Washington was fearful of being buried alive, as he was convinced others in history had been. He directed that his body not be buried for three days after his death, just in case.