Presidents’ Day, occurring every third Monday of February, is often recognized as a dedication to the birthdays of United States' former Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This day honors all United States presidents, but it specifically acknowledges both Washington and Lincoln for their unique and momentous contributions to United States history. Here are some things you may not know about these legends of American history:
- George Washington’s teeth were not wooden—they were human teeth.
Washington is known for having “wooden teeth.” While it's difficult to know what material constructed each of Washington’s dentures, they did include human teeth. These teeth belonged to the people Washington enslaved. A set of his dentures can be seen at Mt. Vernon, and they include human teeth. His ledgers, preserved in the Library of Congress, indicate some may have been forcefully purchased at an extremely low price from enslaved people. The University of Virginia notes that it was legal for plantation owners in Virginia at this time to take teeth from enslaved individuals.
- Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service on the day of his assassination.
Earlier in the day on April 14, 1865, Lincoln signed legislation to create the Secret Service. At the time, this was intended to prevent the production and circulation of counterfeit money. The Secret Service became the personal protection of the President in 1901. Coincidentally, the Secret Service prevented graverobbers from taking Lincoln’s body out of its grave in Springfield, Illinois.
- At the time of his death, Washington owned 317 enslaved people.
Washington’s father gifted him his first enslaved person at eleven years old. When Washington passed away, he owned 317 people. He quietly struggled with the idea of slavery for most of his life, and he freed the slaves he personally owned in his will, which occurred after his wife’s death. However, this decision freed less than half of the 317 individuals, and many families were separated among other estates in the process of determining each inheritance to other members of Washington’s family.
Presidents’ Day was set aside to honor Washington and Lincoln in particular. However, we don't often examine their complicated, interesting and controversial histories. While they each are recognized for specific contributions to American history, they affected politics and culture in ways we continue to experience today.