Karen Ocamb

The Truth About George Washington

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 22, 2011 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: George Washington, Martha Washington, Presidents Day, sterility, Tony Perkins

I was reading Family Research Council President Tony Perkin's newsletter this President's Day in which he and FRC's "resident historian" Bob Morrison wax poetic about George Washington:

"[O]ur first president, the Father of our Country. George Washington has been described as “the gentlest of Christendom’s captains.”.... Washington was an inspiration to virtually all the presidents who came after him.

Ronald Reagan surely admired George Washington. When Ed Meese, Reagan’s loyal lieutenant, was informed several years ago that Americans in an online poll had voted Reagan the greatest of all Americans, Mr. Meese was stunned. “He didn’t think so,” the former Attorney General said, “Ronald Reagan thought George Washington was the greatest American.”

The father of our country was also sterile.

At least that's what Nancy Cott, PhD and Jonathan Trumble Professor of American History at Harvard testified during the American Foundation for Equal Right's challenge to Prop 8 testified in District Court. (Professor Cott's testimony begins on page 181 of the transcript of Day One of the Trial.)

Most trial watchers were a little taken aback when she brought up George Washington in response to ProtectMarriage attorney Charles Cooper's contention that procreation is the "central and ... defining purpose of marriage." Not really, Cott testified:

"There has never been a requirement that a couple produce children in order to have a valid marriage. Of course, people beyond procreative age have always been allowed to marry. And known sterility or barrenness in a woman has never been a reason not to allow a marriage. In fact, it's a surprise to many people to learn that George Washington, who is often called the father of our country, was sterile."

Others have reported that, too, including this website that looks at th health and medical history of the first president and just how sickly and ill the very tall and "masculine" Washington often was:

"Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. He was 26. She was a 28 year old widow who had borne four children during her eight year marriage to Daniel Custis [14a]. Yet Martha never became pregnant during her 40-year marriage to Washington. Given her previous fertility,

- it could well be concluded that the difficulty was not in her but in her husband. However, [Washington,] the magnificent athlete, who possessed in abundance every other physical prowess, could not altogether admit to himself that he was sterile. He believed, even when approaching old age, that if Martha died and he became remarried to a “girl,” he might father an heir. In the meanwhile, his lack was a grievous one. [7d] -

Given the way the Custis children turned out [More], Washington may have been lucky. The United States may have been lucky, too. The lack of an heir made it difficult to anoint Washington as King, which some elements favored at the time [2c]. There is speculation that the lack of an heir made it difficult for Washington to accept an offer of Kingship [13b].

Given the list of illnesses and ailments Washington endured – including malaria and depression – while he was being such a stunning leader, he really does serve as a beacon of hope for those of us who sometimes just struggle getting through the day.

But if you’re interested in how the founders and the new nation dealt with Washington’s inability to procreate, you can ask Professor Cott herself when she appears on Thursday, Feb. 24 with AFER's excellent attorney David Boies and the Williams Institute's estimable Research Director M.V. Lee Badgett. They will be discussing "Same Sex Marriage: Past, Present, and Future" from 4:00-6:00pm in the California Room at the UCLA Faculty Center, California Room. Click here to RSVP or for more information.

Also coming up on Monday, Feb. 28 (6:30-8:00 at the UCLA School of Law) is a panel featuring Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division, at the US Department of Justice. The topic: Civil Rights Enforcement in the Obama Era. Click here to RSVP.

AND the Williams Institute will celebrate its 10th Anniversary with three days of events from April 7-April 10, culminating with the free 10th Annual Update Conference. Click here for more info.

(Crossposted at LGBT POV)


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There have also been accounts that Washington was bi-sexual, and had an intimate relationship over years with the young Alexander Hamilton.

Washington did not refuse a Kingship because he lacked an heir. He refused a Kingship for the same reason he bowed to so many misguided directives from Congress throughout the war: he knew that nothing was more important to the new nation than the subordination of his command -- whether that of General or President -- to Congress.

Yes, speculation about Washington's sterility is not to the point when one is discussing his rejection of kingship. His model was an idealized Roman Republic, and the storied examples of men like Cincinnatus. This was not unusual for men of his class and time. Hence the Society of the Cincinnati, founded by Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, of officers from the Continental Army and Navy.

Jesse Monteagudo | February 23, 2011 10:34 AM

Unlike most leaders, George Washington knew when to stop. After eight years as President, Washington left office and retired to Mount Vernon. On the other hand, French General Napoleon Bonaparte made himself First Consul, then Emperor, and then almost destroyed Europe trying to conquer it.

I think it's funny that most of the comments have been about Washington's offer of kingship instead of the "family values" nutjobs trying to use him as a model for anti-gay rhetoric.