10 Things George Washington Loved

Today is George Washington's birthday, but it feels like my birthday because I just got the greatest present ever - a supercool George Washington G.I. Joe action figure.

Li'l George and I celebrated his birthday by illustrating ten things he loved.


Part of what made George such a great leader was his ability to learn from his mistakes, like the time he accidentally started the French and Indian War. He reflected for years on his failures and never again started the French and Indian War.


George Washington was the Michael Jordan of retiring, except he retired even more than Jordan. You just couldn’t keep Ol’ Wash away for long.

Washington very publicly "retired" from the public scene to spend the rest of his days as a planter. He did this after the French and Indian War...and the Revolutionary War...and then again after his presidency. But when President John Adams called on him to once again command the US forces against a brewing war with France, the 67-year-old Washington unretired again. He was waiting for the fancy new uniform he designed to arrive when he died.


George was a man of few words. Maybe because he only had one remaining tooth when he became president and a mouthful of ill-fitting (but not wooden) dentures. It often hurt him to talk, so he put thought into everything he deemed worthy of saying. Lucky for him, he pulled off the strong silent type.


During his frequent retirements, George loved living the life of a planter. He grew tobacco and wheat and experimented with different fertilizers like manure. He farmed over 3000 acres and ran the largest whiskey distillery in America, with the help of over 300 slaves. 

Unlike Adams and Jefferson, Washington never expressed a wish to abolish slavery. Unlike Jefferson, however, Washington freed his slaves after his death. He couldn’t legally free the ones Martha owned, but he stipulated their freedom upon her death. Not wanting to give them any ideas about speeding up her demise, she freed them herself.


Washington loved the theatre, whether attending it in person or reading Shakespeare in his library. Congress banned the performance of plays during the Revolutionary War, but that didn't stop Washington. After a famously harsh winter at Valley Forge, he had his men put on a performance of his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s “Cato” about a Roman soldier going up against the tyrant OJ Simpson Julius Caesar.  


Washington lost more battles than he won, but he was a ninja when it came to stealthy escapes. That's what made him famous in the deadly Battle of the Monongahela in the French and Indian War, and that's what saved his ass time and again in the Revolutionary War. In the fog, in the middle of the night, over hills…George Washington knew how to get out of a sticky situation.


George was a voracious reader with an extensive library of more than 1200 books. Unlike other founding fathers, he didn’t have any formal secondary education. Books were his university and they provided him guidance on his military, political, and agricultural pursuits. It was particularly devastating to him when his stepson’s teacher reported that the boy “does not much like books.”


George loved dogs. Foxes, not so much. To create a superior dog for his beloved fox hunts, he imported French hounds to breed with Virginia hounds, in time creating the American foxhound. It’s easy to think of Washington as formal and stuffy (because he often was), but how dignified could he be when he gave his dogs awesome names like Venus, Truelove, Drunkard, and Sweet Lips?


George loved assembly balls and could dance for hours without stopping. Ladies loved to dance with him, if only so they could “get a touch of him.”


This well-read, dancing farmer was no pacifist. In case there was any doubt, Washington's G.I. Joe figure came equipped with a pistol and a sword. And a telescope, so he could look ahead at all the ass he was about to kick.

After his first battle at 21 years old Washington was hooked, saying there was “something charming in the sound” of bullets whistling. When the British military wouldn’t accept him during the French and Indian War, he volunteered just to get back into the action. Years later, he showed up to the Continental Congress in his old (too-tight) war uniform, ready to kick some Redcoat butt. He was either an adrenaline junkie or he just liked shooting people. 

You might think he had to step back from the action as president, but he disagreed. It had been 13 years since he got to shoot anybody, so when farmers in western Pennsylvania were unwilling to pay a new whiskey tax, the 62-year-old President jumped on his horse and personally led 13,000 troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Fortunately for the country, his heavy-handed response established the strength and sovereignty of the federal government and probably prevented (or postponed) a civil war. 

Unfortunately for his bloodlust, the Whiskey Rebellion ended peacefully.  

This post is bittersweet for me, as it's my last focused on the first president. I'll miss you, George... you'll always be my first. But now it's time for me to plod through to John Adams, who might be cool but definitely does not have his own G.I. Joe.

For more presidential passions, check out:
8 Things John Adams Loved
10 Things Thomas Jefferson Loved 
8 Things James Madison Loved 
10 Things James Monroe Loved

Sources: Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, mountvernon.org 

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Washington's Mortifying Mother (and My Own)

After reading about George Washington and the rocky relationship he had with his mother, I realized how lucky I was to have a mother whose maddening guilt trips were at least the normal kind of batshit crazy. 
When it came to humiliating and tormenting her son, Mary Ball Washington was in a class by herself.

I don’t mean embarrassing in normal mom ways like showing naked baby paintings of him to his girlfriends or (like my mother) acting bewildered and insulted if a waiter offered her Diet Coke instead of Diet Pepsi like they were out to bamboozle her. No, Mary Ball’s embarrassments were epic, growing greater in excess as her son rose higher in success.

Do Me a Favor

No matter how old you are, you’ll always be your parents’ child. That’s just how the English language works, impressing on offspring a sense of hierarchy and duty inherent in its monarchical culture. This was even truer in Washington’s time when being a dutiful son was compulsory, even if those duties were stupid.

In the wilderness of the Ohio Country at war with the French and Indians, Washington received a letter from his dear old mum. Did she write to express her love and concern, or to tell him how proud she was of his bravery? No. She wanted him to pick up some butter. He was off in the middle of nowhere where roads didn't even exist, and she asked if he could please send her butter. Oh, and a Dutchman, too – she wondered if he could find her a literal human being from Holland to be her indentured servant.

When he read her letter, presumably with muskets firing and tomahawks flying all around him, it was the first time in history someone said “Are you fucking kidding me?” [citation needed]

I’m tempted to cut her some slack because butter is awesome, but there had to be an easier way for her to get her hands on some. Or maybe there wasn’t – this was 1755 and she should've been happy it was even discovered. The worst part is that her request was not only selfish, but it totally trivialized his war efforts. “You’re obviously not doing anything important, George, so can you stop by the Piggly-Wiggly for some butter and a slave?”

Many of my requests from my mom came in the form of voicemails listing which Janet Evanovich and Jonathan Kellerman books to order her from Amazon, since her experiences with computers and the internet only ended in screaming and tears (usually mine). That was probably for the best, since it shielded her from reams of emails in her inbox claiming Obama wanted to use her railroad retirement to fund Michelle’s lavish vacations. I say "reams" because that’s what old people do with emails, they print them out. Most conversations with my mother when she had the internet went like this:

     MOM: I can’t get this email to print!  
     ME: Why? Why do you need this to happen?
     MOM: Oh, just forget it.

For her, the internet was a big scary box where for every exciting new pot roast recipe there was a frightening secret threatening to destroy the country.

If I were away at war like Washington was, my mom would probably have wanted a magnet shaped like the country and a mug with the name of the war on it. She was convinced the best way to show off your son's devotion is with souvenirs you can put on the fridge and drink tea from. Not having these tchotchkes would only vindicate her fears that she was utterly unloved.

On one hand I would have moved mountains for my mother. On the other, I could barely muster lifting a finger. I was endowed upon birth with an extremely low tolerance for her lesser needs. My brain was hard-wired to find nothing more annoying and less of a priority than the random tasks my mother assigned me.

It's a coping mechanism to be annoyed at the drop of a hat by your mother. I believe nature ensured a balance to counteract a child's overwhelming love and indebtedness, because otherwise there would just be an unhealthy amount of hugging and crying and no one would ever leave home.

I imagine it’s the same way for new parents with babies. I would dote myself silly over my kid and live in a state of constant paralyzing fear for its safety…but nature will make sure I’m far too fucking tired keeping the little shit alive for any of that. See? A balance.

Leaving Home

Mary raised George alone after his father died when he was 11. My dad died when I was 7, so I get what it’s like to grow up with an anxious, protective mother. I never went off to lead any dangerous wars or become president of a fledgling republic, but I did something almost as daunting for a kid from the Midwest – I moved to California. 

Living clear across the country meant I could only afford to visit once a year. She struggled with depression anyway, and having her youngest son so far away didn't make it any easier. Even though she couldn't help making me feel guilty for not writing or visiting enough, she never made me feel guilty for moving to The Golden State. She always supported me. One thing she was truly excited about was how close I would be to where they made Days of Our Lives and Wheel of Fortune.
There was no maternal support from Mary Ball Washington when George wanted to leave home and join the military. On the day he was to meet with General Braddock about joining the French and Indian War, she showed up at his door warning him it would be dangerous and (more importantly) that she would be neglected if he left. He dutifully listened to every word until she wore herself out, and he missed his appointment with the General. Her concerns for his safety may have been valid, but that wouldn't stop him from pursuing his dreams. In his career as a military hero, she was his first battle.

Only one letter from Mary to her son still exists. It’s a little burned around the edges and some words are missing, but enough remains to remind me of the complicated feelings my mom could bring out in me with only a few words:
“I was truly un[ea]sy my not being at [home] when you went throu Fredericksburg. It was an unlucky thing for me now I am afraid I never shall have that pleasure agin[.] I am soe very unwell & this trip over the mountins has almost kill’d me[.] I got the 20 five ginnes you was soe kind to send me & am greatly abliged to you for it…”
Washington saw his mother even less than once a year, and the thought that she missed his visit kills me. The thought of any lonely older woman's sadness...I can't take it. Just imagining a random lady dropping her groceries or not knowing how to restart her cable box in time to watch her "stories" is enough to make my eyes swell with tears like I'm watching a Budweiser Clydesdale commercial on the Super Bowl. Somehow Mary's spelling makes it even sadder.

That letter reminds me of my own visits home, arguing with my mom about how she thought nobody cared enough to visit her. My very presence in her kitchen wasn't enough to convince her otherwise, and she insisted I was only there because I had to be. I yelled about how stupid that was and how I was there because I loved her. Why couldn't she understand that obligation and love co-exist?

She'd inevitably calm down after her daily cry and a Xanax nap and she'd bring me a ham sandwich and we would watch Game Show Network together. In those moments I saw she was so happy to have me home with her, but already dreading being alone again when I left.

But like a mother, Mary Ball had to ruin a perfectly heartfelt moment with a reminder that she has unrealistic needs. Later in that same letter, right after saying how much she loves George, misses him, and appreciates the money he sent, she passive-aggressively mentions how nice it would be to have a house on the other side of the mountains, if he could arrange that, “some little hous of my one if it is only twelve foot squar.” Even if it were only 12 square feet? Like…the exact size of a coffin? Yikes. I thought only my mother could mix love with not-so-subtle sides of guilt and fatalistic woe.

Political Combatants

I learned long ago that families are supposed to fight about politics. Family Ties taught me that it's normal for hippie parents to beget a Reagan-loving Alex P. Keaton.

My first political disagreement with my mom was purely generational. I was 12 and she was somehow involved in Iowa senator Tom Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign. I think she made buttons or sewed stuff let's just assume she was his personal Betsy Ross. Her heart belonged to Harkin but I was casting my (mock election) vote for Bill Clinton because he could play the saxophone and was just plain cool. Looks like I won that round.

My mother revealed her own Washingtonian isolationist policies to me in high school when I told her I was writing a paper on euthanasia and she responded, “Why can't you write about youth in America?” I explained the definition and she nodded knowingly, like she'd had to mercy kill a lot of people back in her day.

In later years, she became susceptible to fear campaigns and I realized that sometimes you just have to accept that your Thanksgiving turkey comes with a side of Obama being a Muslim.

But those differences were nothing compared to Washington and his mother. How opposed were their beliefs? Even though her own son was commanding the American forces in The Revolutionary War, she rooted for the British. The great American leader’s mother was a straight-up Loyalist who must have thought George and his buddies were traitors. Her Tory beliefs would have gotten her run out of the country or imprisoned if her son wasn’t so damn beloved.

It’s not hard to imagine why he visited her so rarely.

The Ultimate Embarrassment

Even though George bought his mother a house and did everything he could to make sure she was provided for – without actually having to see her much – she still felt destitute. He was busy commanding the American forces, so she decided to take her case to the public. She petitioned the Virginia legislature to make it a law that the mother of the commander in chief of the armed forces be provided for financially. She might as well have announced to the world, “Your fearless leader is a piece of shit who won’t take care of his own mother.”

Washington’s friend in the Virginia House of Delegates, Benjamin Harrison, let him know about his mother’s actions. George responded by saying, “Thanks be to ye, Ben, for bringing this distressing news to my attention! Rest assured I shall make sure your son and great-grandson both serve as president someday if only for a month or so.” [citation needed]

Washington put a stop to his mother’s extortion attempts right away, either by paying her more guineas, reminding her she was only avoiding jail or deportation because of him, or God forbid by visiting her.

My mom never called my boss to complain about how I was treating her. She would never. Except maybe if I went on a business trip that didn't yield any mugs or magnets.


At 80 years old, Mary Ball Washington died just a few months after her son was inaugurated the first president of the United States of America. Washington said there was consolation in knowing she lived to “an age beyond which few attain.” My own mother only made it to 70 after a painful six month descent the doctors never figured out. My mom's diagnosis would have been perfect for Mary Ball’s perpetual feelings of neglect – broken heart syndrome. A heart problem that’s usually treatable, it can be brought on by great feelings of depression or trauma.

I flew home to visit her in the hospital a week before she passed, and even in her fragile state she was able to trigger all those complicated feelings. I felt guilt for not living nearby. I felt outpourings of love as we watched Wheel of Fortune and she told me how much it meant when I took her to a taping of the show. And I felt angry and worthless when she kept taking off her oxygen mask because it was uncomfortable or refused to eat because it hurt I couldn't understand why she wasn't doing everything she could to live for us. No one knew exactly what was happening or how far it would go. It's a shame, really. One of her tiny pleasures was dishing out guilt and pity, and she never got to do that with the extra oomph of knowing she was dying. 

Following Mary Ball's death, Washington said, “When I was last at Fredericksburg, I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more” indicating he knew it was the last time he would ever see her. That must have been heartbreaking for him, even if she did root for his defeat and publicly accuse him of being a terrible son. She still had an untold effect on him becoming the man he did and he knew it, referring to her as "my reverend mother, by whose maternal hand, early deprived of a father, I was led to manhood." 

Maybe the maternal instinct isn’t just about birthing and nurturing. Perhaps there's also an element of being a pain in the ass that’s necessary to propel a child into adulthood, or at least teach them survival instincts like coping and avoidance. And Mary Ball was such an epic pain in the ass that the British army was child's play compared to her.

I’m glad I visited my mother a week before she died, and I’m glad I didn’t know it was the last time I would see her. It would have been too painful to say goodbye, and I probably would have made promises I could never keep about cleaning my boxes out of the garage.  

Sources: Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, american-presidents.org
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