George Washington's Superhero Origin Story

It's electric.

George Washington's sonogram [citation needed]
George Washington was a legend in his own time. His invincible folk hero status and improbable victory in the Revolutionary War made him so popular that the United States might not have united under any other leader. He was the closest thing America had to superhero.

Every great superhero needs a great origin story. As it turns out, George Washington’s is electifying.

It all started one dark and stormy night (really) in Virginia in 1731. Augustine Washington and a very pregnant Mary Ball Washington were hosting some church friends for dinner while a thunderstorm raged outside. As they dug into their dinner, the house was struck by lightning.

The bolt came in through the chimney and struck a young girl, zapping her to death so hard her knife and fork fused together.

Let me make that clear: the lightning bolt was so hot and powerful it WELDED her cutlery together. But the electricity didn’t stop at the poor girl’s silverware, or her charred meal. It continued along the table and sent a terrifying jolt through the pregnant Mary.
Mary Ball Washington, mother of George Washington and survivor of the worst dinner party ever.
Mary feared the worst and was thrilled when George was born healthy, apparently unaffected by the incident. Apparently. How could she know the lightning bolt permeated her womb and infused little George with liberty-granting superpowers?

Was it mere chance lightning struck that house, that night, that Founding Fetus? Or was there a supernatural, superheroic force chiseling out this monumental leader?

There are three distinct possibilities.

The first is the “divine providence” Washington felt guiding him when he said, "Divine providence, which wisely orders the affairs of men, will enable us to discharge [our duty] with fidelity and success." Perhaps it was this divine providence that discharged lightning into George’s mother. The thing is, that doesn’t exactly fit the Christian God’s M.O – he preferred sending angels to tell pregnant Marys about their superbabies. (Although how much more exciting would Christmas pageants be if he'd sent a billion volts instead?)

The second possibility harkens back to Greco-Roman history, a subject of great interest to the founders. Washington welcomed comparisons to one particular Roman farmer-turned-hero, Cincinnatus, and his favorite play was Cato, based on the Roman senator. So who better to zap a budding demigod with lightning than the king of gods himself, Zeus? That guy all about lightning! All he had to do to recreate a Greek democracy was wait patiently for thousands of years until the right leader was brewing and then ZAP! Instant democracy, just add firebolt.

This massive statue of Washington posed like Zeus was commissioned by Congress but deemed too off-putting for the Capitol. )Some said it looked like Washington was reaching for a towel after a bath.) Today it lives in Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, just down the hall from Elmo.
The third and strongest possibility is someone else entirely. A fellow revolutionary. A mad scientist. Someone who could harness the power of lightning. None other than Benjamin Franklin.

I'm not going to let the pesky fact that Franklin's experiments with lightning didn’t take place for another 20 years get in the way of this theory. We know for a fact he invented both the lightning rod and the flux capacitor flexible catheter, so if anybody could maneuver lightning back in time, down a chimney and up a cervix, it was Ben Fucking Franklin.

Only the inventor of bifocals could have the foresight to literally jumpstart George Washington in utero, infusing his DNA with the superhuman abilities to dodge bullets, inspire awe, and get thirteen disparate colonies to sign off on an enduring Constitution.

Though Ben Franklin was against slavery, he may have owned several angels.
Obviously I can’t prove any of this. Franklin was far too smart to leave behind any evidence. Illegitimate children? Sure. Evidence of time traveling lightning? Sadly, no.

But it doesn't matter if the lightning bolt was sent by God or Zeus or (most likely) Time-Traveling Ben Franklin. Putting aside all supernatural speculation, that real bolt of lightning still had earth-shattering consequences.

According to biographer Willard Sterne Randall, Mary Ball Washington “never fully recovered from the shock she had seen and felt” that night. The experience changed her and she became fearful and overprotective, averse to the young George taking any risks. That kind of stronghold caused him to rebel against both his mother and his motherland, England.

That bolt shaped his childhood and the world. Joining the military against his mother's wishes, Washington’s early incompetence caused the French and Indian War which led to the taxation that started the American Revolution, which lit the spark for the French Revolution, which in turn inspired revolutions across the world.

We have that electrical discharge to thank for setting off a wildfire of democracy. And the young girl who absorbed most of the voltage. Unlike George Washington, that little surge protector’s name is lost to history.

George Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall

Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!

George Washington Did WHAT to Prostitutes?!

George Washington wenched.
As a young general during the French and Indian War, George Washington very likely paid for sex. According to biographer James Thomas Flexner:
“Although he drank and gambled and (we gather) wenched as did his officers, he was known as a stern disciplinarian in military matters.”
First, thank you, James Thomas Flexner, for slipping in that salacious supposition in a subordinate clause like it’s the most matter-of-fact thing in the world that the father of our country had hookers. But what the hell does "we gather" mean? Who is “we” and how did we gather that?

Maybe this is what I get for reading Flexner's one-volume consolidation instead of his four-volume epic Washington biography. Maybe I'm missing out on supporting details, like a diary entry from Washington saying “Warring with these French and Indians makes me weary. Nothing, save wenching, improves my demeanor.” Maybe one of the four volumes is entirely devoted to Washington's wenching. I'll never know.

What struck me most here was not that Washington wenched. Why wouldn’t he? He was 26 years old, single, and his deism didn’t include strict religious scruples against it. Nothing about his wenching changes the strong leader and husband he went on to be.

No, what struck me most was Flexner's use of the word “wenched.” Where has this term been all my life? Such a perfect word that turns a noun into a verb with no need for a direct object. Few words so succinctly answer the questions “what did he do and with whom?” Usually when nouns are verbified they take on the action of doing what their noun does, e.g, “The whore whored.” But the wench didn't wench -- the wencher wenched!
I don’t want to sound sexist here – I believe anyone can be a wench if they put their mind to it. And anyone paying for those services has the right to be referred to as concisely as possible.

So I propose we bring back the verb “wench” in all its forms to honor the late James Thomas Flexner. And George Washington. And America. I’m not asking you to wench yourself or do anything that makes you uncomfortable; I’m simply proposing that when circumstances call for it, you refer to wenchers and wenching by the best words possible. I get that this might not come up in conversation very often, so I’m taking my case to someone who can bring this word to the masses.

Who, you ask, could throw out this word in an appropriate situation and get it to catch fire?
That’s right. Rapper and actor Ice-T, star of Law & Order: SVU.

Based on my gut, approximately 25% of SVU episodes contain references to soliciting prostitutes. All I’m asking you to do, Ice-T (or writers of Ice-T’s dialogue), is to slip in a wenching. One time. See how it feels.

Here’s an example:
ICE-T: We caught him wenching in Queens.
It sounds like a real term used by a real elite squad!

Here’s another:
OLIVIA BENSON: The perp was brought in for solicitation last April. 
ICE-T: Yeah, he wenched all right. It was especially heinous.
Other cast members can participate too!
ELLIOTT STABLER: I’ve come back for you, Liv. I’ve always loved you.
OLIVIA BENSON : Oh, El. Let me book this perp for wenching and then let’s get some coffee together forever. 
It sounds so natural!
Please, if you or someone you know works on Law & Order: SVU, or if you happen to be Ice-T, help me out with this wenching thing. For James, for George, for johns, and for (we gather) America.

Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!

George Washington's Disappointing Stepson

Jacky Parke Custis was "ineducable."
Before starting this biography project, I didn't know George Washington never had any children of his own. What he did have were two stepchildren from Martha's previous marriage. One was a girl he adored, Patsy, who died of epilepsy at 17. The other, to be honest, was utter crap.

Actually, that's not fair since Washington was a huge proponent of manure as fertilizer and at times might have preferred real dookie over his stepson.

Jacky and the Preacher

Just four-years-old when Washington adopted him, John Parke Custis, or "Jacky," was already wealthier and higher class than his stepfather. At 14 he was terribly spoiled by his mother and not absorbing much from his tutor, so Washington sent him away to study under a clergyman, Reverend Jonathan Boucher.

Letters between the stepfather and teacher show, as biographer James Thomas Flexner stated, “the boy proved ineducable.” They also showed how much the preacher enjoyed making young Jacky miserable.

In a letter to Washington, Reverend Boucher didn't show much compassion after Jacky had an accident:
"He will himself inform you of ye accident he lately met with; and as he seems to be very apprehensive of your displeasure...I would urge you and his mamma to spare him rebukes, as much as he certainly deserves them... He seemed to expect me to employ a doctor, but as he met with ye accident by his own indiscretion and as I saw there was no danger, I thought it not amiss not to indulge him."    
Translation: Jacky thinks he hurt himself. Please don’t beat him although I think you should probably beat him.
Later, Boucher included this bit at the end of a letter to Washington:
"Probably, ere long, you will find that he has lost his watch; and he deserves to be severely reprimanded for his carelessness. I have the watch, but do not care soon to put him out of pain."    
Translation: I stole your son’s watch. Please beat him. 
Jonathan Boucher: clergyman, teacher, watch thief.
After two years with the preacher, Jacky was making zero gains. It's as if his spoiled little brain was physically rejecting knowledge. Washington wasn't happy with the boy's lack of progress at such great expense.

He wrote to Boucher stating that Jacky's mind was "more than ever turned to dogs, horses, and guns" instead of school books, and he urged Boucher not to let Jacky spend the night with untrusted friends or "allow him to be rambling about at nights in company with those who do not care how debauched and vicious his conduct may be." Washington seemed to know the feral creature they called Jacky was incapable of learning – their best hope was to contain him.

The preacher-teacher finally admitted the kid was lazy and stupid, saying, "I never did in my life know a youth so exceedingly indolent, or so surprisingly voluptuous. One would suppose nature had intended him for some Asiatic prince." Nothing could have been more disappointing for Washington, who never had more than a grade school level formal education but voraciously sought out books and knowledge to make up for it. He wanted his stepson to be "fit for more useful purposes than a horse racer." But according to his teacher, Jacky just "does not much like books."

If only they had shown Jacky this book, he might have loved reading.
Today the idea of a young boy sent off to live with a preacher might raise red flags. I couldn't find any evidence of anything nefarious in their relationship, unless you can convict a man for using disturbing metaphors. This is how Boucher described Jacky's passions:
"I consider his rising passions as some little streamlet, swelling by successive showers into something like a torrent: You will in vain oppose its course by dams, banks, or mounds, and the only certain means to prevent its becoming mischievous is to lead it gently along by a variety of canals, lessening its force by dividing it."

Translation: You can totally trust me with your hormonal 16-year-old's geysers.
There's also the fact that Boucher really wanted to take Jacky to Europe. I'm not sure if he wanted to awaken the boy’s thirst for knowledge, remove him from bad influences in America, bilk his estate for more money, or just try siphoning the boy’s streamlets in the City of Love. Washington was against the trip, unwilling to spend even more of the child’s money on something that wasn’t working.

At 18 years old, Jacky (now Jack) managed to meet a girl under the clergyman's watchful eye, and surprised everyone by announcing their engagement. That was enough to get him whisked out of Boucher's care and put into college, which he dropped out of a year later to get married.

The Face of Disappointment

Two portraits of Jacky show very different visions of the stepchild. The first shows a handsome young man with a promising future:

John Parke Custis's Glamour Shot
Look at that well-coiffed lad with his milky white skin and thick flowing hair! The potential for greatness just oozes out of the portrait. His expression may seem cold or aloof, but that's just his eyes reflecting your own insecurity as they penetrate your very soul.

Then there is this miniature portrait below which I believe shows the real Jacky.
Is that America’s first mullet? I’m not sure what drugs were around back then, but it looks like Jacky was doing all of them. Is it even possible to get such undefined shoulders without slave labor? He looks like a Far Side comic, or like Michael Cera and Danny McBride had a kid.

Michael Cera + Danny McBride = John "Jacky" Parke Custis

Jacky's End

The whole Revolutionary War thing wasn’t Jacky’s cup of tea, until 1781 when he heard his stepdad was headed to Yorktown to hobnob with some aristocratic French officers. Not one to miss a party, Jacky set himself up as a volunteer aide-de-camp. 26-years-old and never having been exposed to much of anything, he promptly contracted camp fever and died. 

With no children of his own, Jacky had been Washington's closest thing to a progeny. As it turns out, he did have one positive impact on the first president and his legacy. 

The fertile little turd left behind four children. The Washingtons raised two of those children themselves, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis, and George Washington "Wash" Parke Custis. Like his dad, young Wash was a terrible student, but he went on to lead a productive life and write a very useful memoir about growing up with George Washington.
The Washingtons with Jacky Custis's children Nelly and Wash, who both inherited their father's mullet. In the background, a slave portraitbombs the painting.

Maybe the "crap" metaphor is apt, because like the manure George Washington lauded, the best thing Jacky did was pave the way for better things to come.

Plodding Through The Presidents on Facebook for more like this!