Sunday, September 26, 2010

* George's Tongue and His Cheek

Jill Lepore's brilliant article on the biographies of Washington ("His Highness", The New Yorker, 9/27/10), and, in the process, the vanity  and scholarly recklessness of a Harvard president; and finally (and poetically), about the futility of fame itself:  has a facinating bit of trivia in it - - - the kind of image which makes history come alive for me:

"The mar to his [Washington's] beauty was his terrible teeth, which were replaced by unsuccessful transplant surgery and by dentures made from ivory and from teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves." (Lepore, p. 27)

So, not only is the cherry tree a lie, so too are the wooden teeth.


It turns out (also from Lepore's article) that Washington couldn't put two words together on paper with any beauty, and his Inaugural Address and his Farewell Address were written by others  (Madison, Hamilton) but spoken  (which apparently he executed with great effect on all occasions) through the teeth of slaves.

Our original orator, our prime president, our foundingest of fathers, spoke through  ivory imposters imprisoned TWICE: once on George's plantation, Mt. Vernon, and a SECOND time in George's mouth.

Yes, upon his death Washington did free his slaves in a directive in his will, perhaps (Lepore suggests), hoping to set a precedent.

"It didn't."

(she says in a colossal understatement, including six decades, four MILLION human souls, and the Civil War)

One only hopes that when he "freed" their teeth, Washington waited until they NEEDED to be extracted, before appropriating their use to his presidential purposes.

Lincoln said,"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."

Washington manged to be both.

And one wonders what it does to American history to know that its most famous founding orations were  delivered with the tongue of a master and the teeth of a slave?

1 Corinthians 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of ...

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