Quick Study: George Washington

Illustration taken from a Gilbert Stuart portrait.
Illustration taken from a Gilbert Stuart portrait.
Beyond the fact that George Washington was the first president, he remains the most admired man in American history. He died 215 years ago this week.

      Some statues depict Washington as downright godly, and clearly, he had ambition, character and ability. But read enough about Washington and a picture of the flesh-and-blood man emerges. Here are fast facts about our first commander in chief:

Born: Feb. 22, 1732.

Died: Dec. 14, 1799 (age 67).


  • He began his career as a surveyor, writes William A. DeGregorio in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (Barricade Books; 1993). His first military appointment was in the Virginia militia in 1752. He fought in the French and Indian War. He was a member of the House of Burgesses and later a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was chosen commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution (1775-1783).
  • He took the oath of office as first president April 30, 1789. He was re-elected in 1792.


  • He had mom-issues: Her name was Mary Ball Washington, and she could be a royal pain. She complained constantly of not having enough money. Frustrated, Washington finally suggested that if she was so short of money she should sell her house. “He quickly added that this was not an invitation to Mount Vernon,” where Washington lived, recounted James Thomas Flexner in the book Washington, The Indispensable Man (Little Brown & Company; 1969).
  • Generally speaking, he was in good shape:  In 1760, when Washington was 28, he stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 175 pounds, according to Capt. George Mercer, Washington’s aide in the Virginia militia, as recounted in the book, Founding Father, Rediscovering George Washington, by Richard Brookhiser (The Free Press; 1996). By today’s standards, a man of that description has a body-mass index of 22 – a normal, healthy size, according to the National Institutes of Health body-mass index calculator.  In later years, Washington may have weighed up to 200 pounds, according to DeGregorio.  (Alas, this takes his body mass index up to 25 – overweight!)
  • Call him Big Foot: Washington wore a size 13 shoe, according to DeGregorio.
  • He married money: In 1759, at age 26, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, 27, a wealthy widow. Her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, was a “prominent planter of more than 17,000 acres,” DeGregorio writes.
  • Trivial Pursuit Question:  At the time of her courtship with George Washington, Martha’s estate in Williamsburg, Virginia, was known as A) Monticello; B) White House; C) Buckingham. Answer: B) White House.
  • He was probably sterile: Martha had given birth four times during her first marriage (two of the children survived to young adulthood). She and George never had children together, leading historians to conclude that the father of our country was sterile. After their marriage he parented her two orphaned children. Later, he and Martha raised two grandchildren.


  • It started as a chill. During a five-hour horseback ride Dec. 12, snow turned to sleet, then rain and then back to snow, DeGregorio writes. Once home, Washington didn’t immediately change out of those wet clothes, but took care of correspondence and ate dinner. In the days that followed, doctors were called to his side.
  • Doctors treated him through bloodletting. They cut a vein and allowed the patient to bleed. This was a standard practice of the time, and it probably made things worse. Washington died Dec. 14 at his home, Mount Vernon.
  • Washington's will: In his will, Washington stated that his slaves would be free upon Martha’s death. Read about that here.

     Quick Study is compiled by YT&T editors using these references:

     The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents by William A. DeGregorio, (Barricade Books; 1993).

     Washington, The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner, (Little Brown & Company; 1969).

     Founding Father, Rediscovering George Washington, by Richard Brookhiser, (The Free Press; 1996).


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