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Thinking About George Washington's Teeth on MLK, Jr. Day

I wonder if we are all taught the story about the wooden teeth to cover up the story of the slaves' teeth. Perhaps Washington himself, ashamed of the truth, promoted the wooden teeth story.

President George Washington's teeth were not made of wood. Some of them were ivory. Others were the real teeth taken from the mouths of his slaves. (Photo: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

I was having dinner a few nights ago with friends when one of them mentioned she was reading Jill Lepore's new book, These Truths: A History of the United States.

My friend was only 150 pages into the book and proceeding, like me, at a pace of about 20 pages at a sitting because any more was overload. She said she had to put the book down and stop reading for a while after learning about George Washington's teeth. Yeah, I said, I remembered being stunned by that revelation, too, but had not really processed it fully.

Washington's teeth, as every kid knows, were wood. Right? Did he take poor care of the originals, eat too much candy, practice poor hygiene? Actually he took good care of his teeth, but lost them anyway—the first when he was twenty-four and the last before his second inauguration. We've also been taught that Washington’'s wooden teeth were a great embarrassment to him and excruciatingly painful.

"Perhaps if one were allowed one, only one, illustration of the blatant racial hypocrisy of this country, this would be it. The man who leads the war for freedom and inalienable rights, keeps his  slaves and pulls their teeth to replace his own rotten ones."

The pain was real but the wooden teeth were not. In the book, Lepore reports that Washington had dentures carved out of ivory plus nine teeth pulled from the mouths of living slaves. (You heard that right—his teeth were pulled from slaves.) The next sentence in her paragraph describes Washington as representing, for most people, all that was noblest in the republic, and the resignation of his military command at the end of the Revolutionary War proved his enormous civic virtue: he could have been king. One wonders how highly esteemed he was by the slaves whose teeth were pulled to decorate his mouth?

Perhaps if one were allowed one, only one, illustration of the blatant racial hypocrisy of this country, this would be it. The man who leads the war for freedom and inalienable rights, keeps his  slaves and pulls their teeth to replace his own rotten ones. What was really rotten here was not acknowledged and could neither be pulled nor replaced.

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I wonder if we are all taught the story about the wooden teeth to cover up the story of the slaves' teeth. Perhaps Washington himself, ashamed of the truth, promoted the wooden teeth story. Perhaps even to him what he had done was literally distasteful. I imagine him touring his plantation, and from the height of his horse Blueskin, looking into the forced smiles of his slaves, prospecting for teeth. What did he feel?  Did he see his slaves as a living junkyard of replacement parts? Did he see any irony that the slaves who grew his beans and corn would vicariously chew it for him? It's true that Washington, as he aged, grew more and more uneasy with the morality of slavery. He freed his slaves on his deathbed in 1799. How different would our history be if he had done that in 1776?

Lepore does not mention it, but it  is reported that Washington paid the slaves for the nine teeth. The fact of a monetary transaction colors the story differently. He did not simply order the extractions, he paid for them. The money, though, accentuates the power and poverty disparity. Who would sell his own teeth for a few shillings unless one's situation were absolutely dire?

Lepore does report that forty-seven of Washington's unhappy slaves—over many years—either escaped from his plantation or attempted to. One of them, Harry Washington—his slave name the same as a son's would be—became quite prominent.

Harry fled during the revolutionary war and enlisted with the British against the Americans, to fight against his former owner. I think of Harry as a healthy tooth determined to muckle onto a rotten system. Harry Washington eventually emigrated to Sierra Leone and was elected leader of  the rebels who fought a battle for independence against oppression. Like father like son? Harry becomes the illegitimate step-father of this country, the history we are inescapably married to, George's shadow who haunts all our racial hypocrisies, another proof of our ethics being determined by economy rather than morality

I'm writing this on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s holiday in the year 2019. I'm picturing Dr. King's beautiful smile, imagining how coveted his teeth would have been by our first president! How Dr. King is heir to Harry not George.  Harry took George's unrealized values to Sierra Leone and tried to make them real. Dr. King died to do that here. George Washington declined to be king. Meanwhile, Harry Washington became Dr. King.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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