Monday, February 21, 2022

Quote of the Day (Alexis Coe, on George Washington’s Teeth)

“At best, we can say Washington had a poacher's smile. His dentists took chunks of ivory from hippopotamuses, walruses and elephants, sculpted them down, and affixed them to dentures using brass screws.”— American presidential historian and podcast host Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (2020)

After 12 years of elementary and high school, most American kids don’t know much about George Washington. What they think they know turns out to be a good deal less, or at least more complicated, than they anticipate—and certainly in the case of three matters.

Yes, Washington owned slaves. But, as noted by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James Thomas Flexner, he became, unlike Southern planters of his age (including Jefferson), more rather than less bothered by the so-called “peculiar institution” over time.

He not only provided in his will for his slaves’ eventual manumission, but rented most of Mount Vernon to avoid the debt that increasingly encumbered fellow plantation aristocrats and limited their ability to free their own slaves.

And yes, as commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington crossed the Delaware River to attack British forces at Trenton.

But, as I learned in a visit to Highland, the Virginia home of another President in that crossing, James Monroe (then a junior soldier), Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s iconic 1851 painting got almost everything about that event wrong.

(Most obviously, that pose on the edge of the rowboat? It wasn’t a rowboat but a flat boat, and one strong wave would have sent Washington, leaning forward precariously in front, plunging into the river’s icy depths, never to emerge alive.)

Which brings us to the third—and dumbest—item: George’s teeth. It’s always fascinated me how endlessly and boringly fixated Americans are about his choppers. (When I visited Mount Vernon several years ago, this was among the most frequently asked questions the staff encountered.)

Gilbert Stuart’s endlessly reproduced image of the first President concentrated attention on this facial defect—even though the painter tried to downplay George’s sunken cheeks around the teeth by stuffing his mouth with cotton for what certainly must have been a long, uncomfortable portrait sitting.

As you’ll see in the image accompanying this post, the teeth were not, for sure, the kind of pearly whites that celebrities flash from the red carpet.

But it wasn’t until the 19th century—after poor George had died—that America had its significant “firsts” in dentistry: a book on the subject published here (1801), a dentist recommending dental floss (1815), a dental school (1840), and a public demonstration of ether anesthesia (1846). So what did you expect in his time?

And another thing: while George had only one of his original teeth by the time of his death, and the dentures he did have caused him tons of discomfort, they weren’t wooden, okay? They were, as Ms. Coe notes, primarily ivory.

The rather exotic animal sources that she mentions were supplemented by gold, lead, and human teeth that Washington paid for—including those of his own slaves.

I get it that Americans want to know something about heroes like Washington (and the other great February President honored this day, Lincoln) that reveal them as human beings rather than statues, with all kinds of imperfections just like you and me. Nobody could be that good.

But I also wish kids (and yes, their parents) remember what gets lost in our time of trivia and revisionism—why Washington’s contemporaries turned to him for leadership, and why we continue to honor him:

*A lifelong commitment to learn and maintain good manners (the better to restrain a ferocious temper);

*A willingness to serve his country when called to duty;

*Sacrifices he shared with his common soldiers;

*Heeding others when they had better ideas than his own;

*Spotting and encouraging smart younger men like Alexander Hamilton;

*Telling the truth and not stealing from the public purse; and,

*Yielding power willingly, without resort to violence or corruption—virtually unheard of among world leaders at the time, and, as even Americans know all too well since January 6, 2021, not to be taken for granted even here now, as we near 250 years since Washington staked everything he had—including his life—for a new republican experiment. 

(See Adam Littlestone Luria’s excellent New York University Law Review blog post on the “stable and enduring politics” that Washington sought to create.)

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