The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Monday, 3 November 2008

38. i) The largest hands ever seen on a man

The heart of Barleycorn Towers is set to glow with the unearthly radiance of the cathode-ray tube throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, as the presidential contest in our former colonies is followed through all the baroque twists and turns of its final, decisive (barring lawyerly appeals to the Supreme Court) hours. What better way to join the frenzy of excitement than by taking a look at the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica's portraits of some of the more notable past occupants of the throne of democracy? And where better to begin than with the wooden-toothed and giant-handed father of the nation himself?

"WASHINGTON, GEORGE (1732-1799), the first president of the United States, was born in Westmoreland county, Virginia, February 22 (Old Style, Feb. 11), 1732. One lawless genealogist has traced his ancestry back to Odin. [...]

"[H]is diaries show comparatively little reading, a minutely methodical conduct of business, a wide acquaintance with the leading men of the country, but no strong indications of what is usually considered to be "greatness." As in the case of Lincoln, he was educated into greatness by the increasing weight of his responsibilities and the manner in which he met them. [...]

"It is not easy to see how Washington survived the year 1775 ; the colonial poverty, the exasperating annoyances, the selfishness or stupidity which cropped out again and again from the most patriotic of his coadjutors, were enough to have broken down most men. They completed his training. The change in this one winter is very evident. If he was not a great man when he went to Cambridge, he was a general and a statesman in the best sense when he the British out of Boston in March 1776. From that time until his death he was the foremost man of the continent. [...]

"When the Federal Convention met at Philadelphia in May 1787 to frame the present constitution he was present as a delegate from Virginia, though much against his will; and a unanimous vote at once made him its presiding officer. He took no part in the debates, however, beyond such suggestive hints as his proposal to amend a restriction of the standing army to 5000 men by forbidding any enemy to invade the United States with more than 3000. He approved the constitution which was decided upon, believing, as he said, "that it was the best constitution which could be obtained at that epoch, and that this or a dissolution awaits our choice, and is the only alternative." [...]

" All the accounts agree that Washington was of imposing presence. He measured just 6 feet when prepared for burial ; but his height in his prime, as given in his orders for clothes from London, was 3 inches more. La Fayette says that his hands were "the largest he ever saw on a man." Custis says that his complexion was "fair, but considerably florid," His weight was about 220 lb. The various and widely-differing portraits of him find exhaustive treatment in the seventh volume of Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of the United States. The editor thinks that "the favourite profile has been unquestionably Houdon’s, with Stuart’s canvas for the full face, and probably Trumbull’s for the figure." Stuart’s face, however, gives the popular notion of Washington, though it has always been a subject of curious speculation to some minds how much of the calm and benign expression of the face was due to the shape of Washington’s false teeth. [...]

"Washington’s disorder was an aedematous affection of the wind-pipe, contracted by careless exposure during a ride in a snow-storm, and aggravated by neglect afterwards, and by such contemporary remedies as excessive bleeding, gargles of "molasses, vinegar, and butter" and "vinegar and sage tea," which "almost suffocated him," and a blister of cantharides on the throat. He died without theatrical adieus ; his last words were only business directions, affectionate remembrances to relatives, and repeated apologies to the physicians and attendants for the trouble he was giving them. Just before he died, says his secretary, Mr Lear, he felt own pulse ; his countenance changed ; the attending physicians placed his hands over the eyes of the dying man, "and he expired without a struggle or a sigh.""

This article, by Alex. Johnston, Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy, Princeton College, N. J., is available in its entirety at

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