Part One - Founding Fathers
It’s not often that you will hear George Washington described as a quirky person. Yet Washington possessed several character traits that you may find peculiar. For example, prior to 1776 George Washington ordered his clothes from a London tailor to whom he sent incorrect measurements.
That’s right, on more than one occasion George Washington wrote his suit maker that he was only 6 feet tall, rather than his correct height of 6 feet 2 inches tall and described himself to be of small build. When his ill-fitting clothes arrived, Washington fired off an angry letter complaining that his clothes did not fit.
It may have been a quirky trait, but perhaps not as trivial as we might think. It is fairly well documented that Washington was quite unhappy with the economic dependence the colonies had on Great Britain. Could it be that he was expressing his deep-seeded frustration in a passive-aggressive way?
Here is a second example of what you might consider a quirky view that Washington held. What do you think was likely to be Washington’s view of the formation of political parties? If you are like me, you might believe that he saw them as necessary for the newly established democratic American republic.
Instead, he said, “They spread nefarious doctrines and poison the minds of the people.”
Finally, regarding the practice of slavery, Washington's actions were at odds with his practice. By 1786 Washington stated that "I never mean to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the Legislature, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees." How peculiar and unsettling it is then to read a letter of his which stated that "The running off of my cook has been almost inconvenient thing to this family, and what renders it more disagreeable, is, that I had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase, but this resolution I fear I must break.”
How much more odd is that the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, did not stipulate that his slaves be freed even upon his death. In fact, his wife’s half-sister, Sally Hemmings, was a house slave who, after his wife's death, became his mistress. Hemmings was sold for $50 when when Jefferson died.
This is the same man who exclaimed that when thinking about the immorality of keeping slaves, that, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” It is hard to believe that it is the same man who wrote that he recognized the hypocrisy of fighting the Revolutionary War to the death in order to secure freedom from the misery of tyranny, while at the same time allowing slavery to cause others even greater suffering. Rather than identifying it as hypocrisy, I would much rather believe that it reflected an oddity of personality.
With regards to John Adams, quirkiness was a central feature of his identity. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “He is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes absolutely out of his senses.”
About this blogger: Dr. Avi Isseroff is creator of Who Said What in the White House a game of presidential quotes and trivia. The game can be purchased online or at major museum gift shops including Old Sturbridge Village, Fords Theater and the Newseum in Washindton DC, The New York Historical Society in New York City and Independence Hall in Philadedelphia.