How Washington grew with time & telling

by Dan Shippey & Michael Burns

We have all heard that legends grow with time and telling. Who can forget the classic moment in 1995’s Braveheart when William Wallace rides out before the Scottish army?

Wallace: Sons of Scotland! I am William Wallace.

Young Soldier: William Wallace is seven feet tall!

Wallace: Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds. And if HE were here, he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes.

We like our heroes to be giants.  It’s almost as if we need to believe that people who accomplish much are super-powered demigods with abilities beyond our own. In a testament to our admiration of stature, just since the TV age began our Presidential elections have given the most votes to the taller candidate 11 out of 15 times.  Studies suggest that someone who is 6 feet tall earns, on average, nearly $166,000 more during a 30-year career than someone who is 5 feet 5 inches. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the leading “giants” of our history stand taller than average. Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and of course the first conspicuous leader with vertical advantage, Washington. But when you go to ask the question of just how tall Washington was, you find a problem--no two sources agree.

     Washington was six foot four, six foot two, six foot three and a half. The short John Adams is quoted by historian Joseph J. Ellis as saying “Washington was always selected by deliberative bodies to lead, whatever the cause, because he was always the tallest man in the room.” Of course at 5 ft 7 inches Adams may not have been the best judge of tall, and he may also have been more than a bit jealous of Washington.

In 1760 Washington’s friend George Mercer wrote,

"He may be described as being straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings and weighing 175 pounds.” Upon his death in 1799, Washington’s aide Tobias Lear measured his body as "six feet three and a half inches." In recent times author David McCullough wrote, “Powerfully built, he stood nearly a head taller than Adams- six feet four in his boots, taller than almost anyone of the day.” But the one person who had good reason to give correct measurements of the man was George Washington himself. After all, when you order your clothes from London and must wait up to 6 months to get them you are unlikely to inflate the numbers. Washington claimed to be...6 feet tall. Now that is still a tall man in the mid 18th century, but it seems to leave a lot of people scratching their heads.   


     So how is it that a man of 6 feet by his own admission was always thought of as being the tallest man around? Legend and reputation could possibly play some part. The infamous Tory outlaw Claudius Smith was described in a wanted poster as a stunning 7 ft tall! Smith’s service record from the French & Indian War clearly lists him as 5’9”. We can assume that Washington’s renown may have caused some elevation, and he was certainly not hurt by the fact that he was often in riding boots. But it’s my belief that there was something else that added to his perceived height, his secret weapon...deportment. Almost all of the accounts of Washington describe him as standing perfectly straight, martial in nature, and in the continuing words of George Mercer,

“His demeanor are at all times composed and dignified. His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic.”

The man practically defined gravitas.

     Washington’s deportment was no mistake. Washington had spent a lifetime reshaping his raw material into a specific image, much as he would reshape a modest farmhouse into the Mount Vernon mansion.

He studied proper behavior, skills, conversation, emotional control and volumes of book knowledge to become the very picture of the man he aspired to be. He added perfect posture and controlled countenance to this list. In this way he was a self made man who succeeded in the elevation of his station from the 3rd son of a middle class farmer to a commanding General, a wealthy farmer and the father of his country. In short, I believe Washington gained his extra height by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. 
Today there are hundreds of jokes about action hero Chuck Norris that are vastly popular with his fans in the armed forces. In all of these jokes Chuck Norris  is elevated to superhuman status.


   Chuck Norris does not style his hair. It stays in place out of sheer terror.

    Chuck Norris can blow bubbles with beef jerky

    When the boogyman goes to sleep at night he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

     I believe in the same vein I can explain why George Washington’s height is so often over-reported.

     It’s not that George Washington was always the tallest man in the room. It’s just that when George Washington was in the room, everyone else was smaller. 



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