I’m writing this week’s article about George Washington because President’s Day this year is celebrated on Feb. 17.
However, the focus of my article is not so much him but his teeth. Correction- “my” enslaved ancestors’ teeth!
Let’s start with some pertinent background info. President’s (not Presidents’) Day is officially called George Washington’s Birthday, according to federal legislation created in 1885 to honor the man born 288 years ago on Feb. 22, 1732. This is the same man who enslaved 316 Black human beings at his Mt. Vernon, Va. plantation and who transported nine of them beginning in 1790 to America’s first “White House” located right here in Philly at Sixth and Market St.
Let’s now proceed to the teeth. In 1784, Washington had some teeth from enslaved Black adults “transplanted into” his mouth. You want proof? Read “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America” written by award-winning author, historian, and Library of Virginia board of trustees member Henry Wiencek.
Five years later in 1789, a dentist in Philadelphia made Washington’s first set of total dentures from teeth that were “yanked from the heads of his slaves.” You want more proof? Read “George Washington’s Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century” written by award-winning author, cultural historian, professor, American Historical Association president, Harvard University Library director, and New York Public Library board of trustees member Robert Darnton.
Oh, by the way, after centuries of flat-out denials and/or evasive responses, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA)- an official organization founded in 1853 “to educate... people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington...”- finally admitted a few years ago that his teeth weren’t wooden. But the MVLA incredibly claimed that he had “paid six shillings to [enslaved] Negroes for nine teeth” on May 8, 1784. In other words, the MVLA claims he paid slaves for stuff! Paid slaves! Who does that? Who says that?
Realizing how ridiculous that claim is, the association backtracked by conceding, “It is important to note that ‘while Washington paid these enslaved people for their teeth,’ it does not mean they had a real option to refuse his request.” Whutchu talkin’ bout, Willis- I mean Washington? That makes absolutely no sense.
If the enslaved Black people couldn’t refuse having their teeth “yanked” out, how could they demand or even expect payment for them? What were they gonna do if he didn’t pay? Sue him? I don’t think so. Since he didn’t pay them for their labor, he certainly wouldn’t pay them for their teeth. So stop lyin.’
Furthermore, one of Washington’s personal dentists, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, would often advertise in newspapers across the country for the purchase of teeth to be used by his various wealthy clients. While in Richmond, Dr. Le Mayeur’s advertisement offered “two guineas [which equals around five pounds] each for good front teeth” but added “slaves excepted.” What does that mean? It obviously means that everybody “except slaves” would be paid for their teeth.
But if you still don’t believe it and still think Washington wouldn’t have done such a despicable thing and that such barbarism was beneath him, please continue reading this article.
From age eleven, in 1743, until his death at sixty-seven in 1799, Washington (and his wife Martha) enslaved Africans and their descendants.
And he had a habit of being not only a miser but an unsanitary miser who, at Mt. Vernon, issued to his enslaved Blacks for use as their garments “dirty,” “fouled,” and “manure” — soaked wool from the stomach of sheep.
Similarly, many of those enslaved Black laborers had to resort to rummaging for “coarse burlap bags” to wear because Washington refused to adequately clothe them. As Wiencek stated during a 2003 radio interview, Washington’s “slaves were miserably clothed…[In fact, they] were so badly clothed that they were ‘stealing’ the wheat sacks made of the cheapest, roughest burlap to repair their own clothes… Otherwise, [they] would go around in rags.”
In providing so-called shelter, Washington’s treatment of enslaved Blacks was just as bad. Consistent with Wiencek’s statement that Washington’s enslaved Black workforce was “miserably housed… (in) a very harsh place” is the observation of Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish poet who resided at Mt. Vernon for two weeks in 1798 and who described the living conditions of many of the enslaved population:
“We entered some negroes’ huts, for their habitations cannot be called houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and his wife sleep on a miserable bed, the children on the floor. A very poor chimney, a little kitchen furniture amid this misery—a teakettle and cups. A boy about fifteen was lying on the floor with an attack of dreadful convulsions....”
Simply stated, Washington was a miserly, cheap, and heartless racist who didn’t and wouldn’t pay his enslaved human “property” even a single penny for anything.
I hope the readers of this article accept the irrefutable proof that I have presented. However, I do realize that getting people to accept harsh truth is often difficult. In other words, it’s sometimes like pulling — or, better stated, yanking — teeth.