Fact or Fiction: Familiar Stories About the Founding Fathers and Past Presidents

historic painting george washington

The Founding Fathers are celebrated and, you might say, revered by most Americans. Americans are naturally interested in the founding of the nation whose flag they wave and hearing stories about the men and women responsible its foundation. Because of this, many familiar stories have been told about them. Some of the stories are true, some of them are apocryphal, but which ones are which?

George Washington and His Wooden Teeth

FALSE. A popular story told about George Washington is that, because of poor dental health, he had wooden dentures late in his life. Although George Washington did wear dentures and did have many health issues, dental and otherwise, he never wore wooden dentures. In fact, dentists of the era did not even use wood to make dentures. They typically used ivory or some metal such as lead or gold.

The Dentist John Greenwood, son of the first native-born American dentist, Isaac Greenwood, made ivory dentures for George Washington. Over time, these ivory dentures became stained so that they appeared brown and grainy. There is even a letter from John Greenwood to George Washington, from 1798, in which he advises the president to regularly clean his dentures to prevent further staining. It is possible that the brown stain made his ivory dentures look like they were made of wood, leading to the myth of wooden dentures.

It is interesting that this story about a president is the only one that highlights a personal weakness, not a personal strength. It is possible that, because of other stories about Washington that make him look larger than life and incapable of wrongdoing, this story was needed to balance out this view of Washington and to remind Americans that Washington was still one of them. He had many seemingly superhuman qualities, but he was still an ordinary man who needed to have dentures.

George Washington and the Cherry Tree

cherry tree framing US monument

FALSE.  The popular story of the cherry tree highlights the common belief that Washington was extraordinarily honest. In this familiar tale, a young George Washington cuts down a cherry tree in someone’s garden. When his father confronts him about it, rather than lying, he exclaims, “I cannot tell a lie!” He then confesses the wrong he has committed and his father gives him a hug and congratulates him on his bravery in being honest.

The story is fictional and originates from the writings of Mason Locke Weems, a writer and minister who lived in the early 19th century and wrote one of the first biographies of George Washington that was published in 1800. The myth appears in the fifth edition of his biography of George Washington, The Life of Washington, published in 1806.

In addition to telling the life of Washington, Weems also wanted to present Washington as an ideal role model for young Americans. The myth was popularized as a children’s story by William Holmes McGuffey, who was a Presbyterian minister and educator who was interested in the moral and religious education of children. He wrote a series of readers called the McGuffey Readers, which included the cherry tree story as a moral lesson about honesty. By the 1830s, this story had become firmly entrenched in American culture.

In 1835, B.T. Barnum purchased an elderly slave woman named Joice Heth and claimed in circus exhibits that she was the slave who had cared for Washington as a boy. This claim is extraordinary, considering that she would have been more than 150 years old at the time if this were true. The stories she told were right out of Weems’ biography, and one of the stories she told was the cherry tree story.

The reason this story is so popular is probably because it makes the president such a good role model even if the historical George Washington was, in fact, able to tell a lie—and did—we prefer the one about the legendary Washington, because he inspires us to be more honest and moral and provides a compelling vision of what it means to be an American.

Abraham Lincoln and His Log Cabin

log cabin built by abraham lincoln

TRUE. Abraham Lincoln lived in a few log cabins, in fact. He was born in a log cabin at Sinking Springs Farm in Hardin County (Now LaRue County) in Kentucky on February 12, 1809. In 1811, his family moved to another cabin at the nearby Knob Creek Farm, where they lived until he was seven years old.

In 1816, his family moved again to another farm in Indiana that included a wooden house. He remained in Indiana until 1830, when he, his father, and stepmother attempted to start a new farm in Logan County, Illinois. They were, however, forced to return to Indiana the following year because of an especially harsh winter. In 1831, at the age of 22, Abraham Lincoln left his family to start his own life.

He eventually got involved in politics, and the rest is history. He was elected president in 1860 and took office in 1861; however, he spent the first 21 years of his life living in log cabins out on the American frontier. There is something quintessentially American about this, that one of the most famous presidents should be from the frontier.

Alexander Hamilton Was Born on an Island in the West Indies

TRUE. Although Alexander Hamilton never became president, though he might have become president had he lived longer, he is still considered one of the Founding Fathers and played a seminal role in the writing the Federalist Papers and the ratification of the current U.S. Constitution. He also has an interesting origin. For one thing, he was not born on the North American continent.

Alexander Hamilton was born in the city of Charlestown on the island of Nevis, an island in the West Indies that today is a part of the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. Alexander Hamilton’s father abandoned him, and, when Hamilton was a teenager, his mother died, leaving him and his brother in the care of a business associate.

The business associate allowed Alexander Hamilton to work for his business in a clerical role. This job is how Hamilton could make income and gain the experience that eventually allowed him to travel to North America, where he attended the College of New Jersey.

It is also in the West Indies where Alexander Hamilton gained the conviction that, to be productive, citizens need to be instilled with an ethic of self-reliance and initiative. The young Hamilton felt the inhabitants of the islands, mostly British and French colonials and their African slaves, at this point, were lazy and dependent, which he believed held the people of the islands back from their true potential.

Leave a Reply