Fact-Checking Presidential Myths

Bruce Crumley sets the record straight on some of the biggest myths and legends surrounding George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

As candidates, politicians, and at times merely as hacked-off regular types, American presidents have periodically accused opponents and detractors of bending facts – or even outright lying – and heard those allegations directed right back at them.

Yet probably more whoppers are recounted about US leaders than they’ve ever uttered themselves. Some of those embellishments have become part of the mythical lore surrounding certain presidential biographies.

Here is a list of some of the more popular inaccuracies associated with two favorite American presidents – with the more likely version of events.

George Washington, 1797 Gilbert Stuart (From the collection of The White House)

George Washington

The Cherry Tree

“Father, I cannot tell a lie” is the famous phrase six-year-old George Washington supposedly said in admitting his guilt for chopping down the family cherry tree. The quote and anecdote came to serve as Exhibit A for educators, amateur history buffs, schoolchildren and Washington fans of the superhuman honesty central to the president’s irreproachable character.

Alas, virtually all historians agree that the entire tale was made up by Washington’s first biographer, Mason Locke Weems. Seeking to write a captivating life story of the adored, recently-deceased first president, Weems attempted to deify the man as well as his public service through several fabricated anecdotes he figured ravenously curious readers would pay top dollar for. Experts now describe the cherry tree yarn – and windfall Weens made with it – as the first and most tenacious of presidential fables.

Parson Weems' Fable, 1939, Grant Wood (From the Amon Carter Museum of American Art collection)

The Silver Dollar and the Potomac River

Another enduring Washingtonian legend has a young George throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac River as evidence of his precocious strength. Possible, perhaps, if Washington’s arm was a cannon: the Potomac was over a mile wide.

Many observers discount the tale as more Washington glorification, while others note it could have happened on the Rappahannock River, over which George and his chums heaved rocks while waiting to cross on a ferry. Some estimates put the Rappahannock at around 300-feet wide there – 14 feet shorter than an on-the-fly throw from the right field wall to home in Yankee Stadium.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze1(From the collection ofThe James Monroe Museum)

Wooden Teeth?

Though Washington’s writings make it clear his decaying teeth caused him terrible suffering from the age of 22 onwards, the attendant factoid that he wore wooden dentures has one foot in fiction.

Washington did wear dentures, but as surviving pairs prove, most were made of brass, gold, screws, wire and carved hippo ivory. Some models also included – gulp – human teeth. Though historians say discoloring could have turned his choppers the same hue as wood, Washington always had higher-tech orthodontia.

George Washington’s Dentures (From the collection of George Washington’s Mount Vernon)

Abraham Lincoln

A Simple, Country Lawyer

Born and raised in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln is typically described as having been a simple country lawyer prior to his swift political rise to the presidency. Though Lincoln may have compromised his treatment by legal posterity for having urged people to “discourage litigation,” the view of him as a hick (and in some accounts lazy) attorney isn’t accurate.

Abraham Lincoln's reconstructed childhood home (From the LIFE photo collection)

Lincoln’s own papers indicate he’d become a busy and thriving attorney before taking his first steps in a political career in 1854. In addition to representing railroad companies in legal cases, he also established an esteemed reputation as one of Illinois’ best – and most well paid – appeal lawyers.

Courthouse where Lincoln tried cases (From the collection of The Henry Ford)

Slave Owner?

Similar to certain critics of Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln “the Emancipator” has occasionally been denounced for having at one time owned slaves. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate Lincoln or even his father was ever a slave-owner – it just wasn’t so.

It is true, however, that family members of Lincoln’s future wife Mary were slave-owners in Kentucky. But that detail appears to have pre-dated Lincoln meeting Mary – and at any rate hardly relates to his own actions.

Photograph of Mary Lincoln (From the collection of Ford's Theatre)

The Gettysburg Address on an Envelope

Another oft-heard Lincoln tale is that he was so hard-pressed to write the Gettysburg Address that he scribbled it out on the back of an envelope. Too incredible to be true, it turns out.

Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address (From the collection of House Divided Project at Dickinson College)

Scholars of the five-known manuscripts of the address don’t reject the possibility that Lincoln could have been so short on time that might have written what is arguably the most famous speech of his life – and possibly US history -- on the train en route to the address. But none give any credence to claims it was scrawled on a plucked-up envelope.

The Gettysburg Address written in Abraham Lincoln's handwriting (From the collection of The White House)

Learn more about the presidency and American Democracy.

Words by Bruce Crumley
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