Although it’s commonly understood as a day to honor the lives of all U.S. Presidents, the third Monday of February is still officially “Washington’s Birthday” according to its designation as a federal holiday. Irrespective of its national status, the majority of states in the Union also recognize some form of this holiday, as we do in California with the observance of “Presidents Day” (apostrophe optional depending on who you ask). Whatever you choose to call it, we’ve taken this opportunity to gather some interesting facts on our country’s first three chief executives, including some snippets of their own complex and often less-than-congenial relationships with one another.
Before he was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army for the American War of Independence, George Washington made a living as a land surveyor, which led to a lucrative land speculating enterprise. Washington also became a colony distributor of liquor, and held one of the largest whiskey distilleries in the U.S. at his Mount Vernon estate. As an officer, Washington was a vehement advocate for vaccinations, specifically smallpox, and he made certain that the soldiers in his command were immunized. In 1789, he became the first and only U.S. president to receive a unanimous vote of the Electoral College.
In “Top scandals and controversies of each United States president,” the Deseret News points out that Washington’s relationship with Congress was often heated and contentious. In particular, the Jeffersonian party reacted belligerently to his approval of the Jay Treaty, which provided favorable trade status for Great Britain in an attempt to improve relations in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson even accused Washington of treason, a point Washington had planned to refute in his farewell address, but later abandoned to instead focus on the dangers of political parties.
The second president of the United States was an active member of the Sons of Liberty, a group which operated in secrecy and generally under the cloak of darkness to advance the rights of the European colonists and to fight excessive taxation by the British government. But Adams was also highly committed to the right to council and the presumption of innocence. After the killing of five colonists in the March 1770 Boston Massacre, Adams agreed to defend the eight British soldiers charged to ensure that they received a fair trial. He even managed to get six of the accused acquitted, while the other two were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to branding on their hand. For more insight on why Adams agreed to defend these men, visit the John Adams Historical Society’s website here.
Once elected as the country’s chief executive, Adams was the only one of the first five presidents not to hold slaves. His prolific letter writing can be credited for much of what is known about that period in U.S. history. In addition to correspondence with friends and family, more than 1,100 missives were exchanged between him and his beloved wife Abigail. Adams was the first president to reside at the White House, having moved in with his family and dogs, Juno and Satan, before the building was completed.
In addition to being unpopular with the public during his presidency, Adams faced political isolation and opposition even from within his own cabinet. It didn’t help that he had participated in what is still considered one of the ugliest mudslinging campaigns in history, against Thomas Jefferson.
When the third president took office on March 4, 1801, John Adams refused to attend the inauguration. Despite a colorful exchange of malicious accusations between supporters of the two statesmen at the time, Jefferson and Adams would go on to become lifelong correspondents. In an odd twist, the two even died on the same day of July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Born in Virginia, Jefferson was known to have spoken six different languages including English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin. A voracious reader, he also owned books in Welsh, German, Gaelic and Arabic. Reportedly, he also wrote more than 19,000 letters in his lifetime. His many creative talents also extended to architecture. He not only designed his home Monticello, but he was also a leading architect for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia and the Virginia State Capitol.
Jefferson was instrumental in banning slave importation in Virginia in 1778 and during his presidency he led the effort to criminalize the international slave trade. But his personal relationship with the institution was much more complex. Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves throughout his adult life, including Sally Hemings, with whom he had a long-term relationship after the death of his wife, and with whom he likely fathered several children. Hemings may have also been half-sister to Jefferson’s wife, Martha Skelton Jefferson (née Wayles). Although Jefferson supported the gradual emancipation of slaves in the U.S., he also had mounting debts and only freed a few of his slaves during his lifetime, of which two were likely his own offspring. In his will, Jefferson freed just five of his slaves, which again included several of his alleged children. The remaining 130 slaves of his household were sold off upon his death to settle his estate.
To many historians, these presidential anecdotes offer important glimpses into the failings of these leaders as well as their humanity. But even as we attempt to set the record straight about the flesh and blood Americans that held our government’s highest elected office, there are few of us who haven’t, at one point or another, indulged in some of the half-truths, near-truths or even completely false information that persists about these men. For those with any lingering need to separate fact versus fiction, check out “10 Common Myths About US Presidents.”