Arrrr, Matey! Is That George Washington?

Who was George Washington Illustration“Did George Washington really wear stuff like this?” My seven-year-old daughter points to an illustration in Roberta Edwards’ Who Was George Washington?*

“Yeah,” I reply, not that I know the ins and outs of 18th Century colonial male fashion.

She frowns. “He looks kind of piratey.”

The “American Gentleman’s Outfit” is missing an eyepatch and a saber–two items commonly associated with pirates– but I see what she means.

Whatever real-life pirates of the Atlantic actually wore, it’s interesting that my daughter thinks our esteemed first President should’ve dressed differently. It wasn’t long ago that she, her twin sister, and their friends imagined they were pirates, invariably portrayed as swashbuckling men who hang out on ships and hide treasure on remote island beaches. But she doesn’t seem to respect those seafaring bandits the way she did in the past. “They weren’t good guys,” she explains.

No, I guess not, depending on how you look at them. Were they ruthless criminals or morally justified anti-establishment protesters? Or something in-between?

According to Anthropologists Shannon Lee Dawdy and Joe Bonni in Towards a General Theory of Piracy,** which discusses the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730):

“The pirates of the Caribbean explicitly opposed the often violent control of labor and goods by nationalist mercantile companies and what they viewed as ‘tyrannical’ inequalities.”


“In addition to the usual hunt for booty, pirates often took captives and sold them into slavery (if infidels) or held them for ransom.”


“Most scholars agree that mercantilism was one of the major conditions that helped create piracy by dislocating maritime workers from their familiar ports, keeping smaller traders out of the shipping business, and making economic survival in the colonies even more difficult when the import of foodstuffs or other deemed necessities were strictly controlled.”

The economic conditions that fostered piracy also contributed, at least in part, to the revolutionary spirit in the colonies, suggesting that George Washington may have had more in common with pirates than his “cocked hat.”

Plus, pirates and patriots were rule-breakers who challenged the establishment, some to a greater extent than others.

Zinn coverAs historian Howard Zinn argued in A People’s History of the United States, George Washington was part of an elite group of colonists who wanted to defeat Britain “without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history.”

Unsurprisingly, the book my daughter picked out, Who Was George Washington?, does not criticize our “founding fathers” the way Zinn does. But, to its credit, it presents the man who would become our first President as a complicated human being, a wealthy slave-owner who was initially reserved in his protest of British policies in the late colonial era.

For example:

Who Was George Washington CoverOn Washington’s stance on the Stamp Act, a tax Britain imposed on the colonists to pay expenses related to the French and Indian War, Edwards writes: “He thought it was wrong, but he didn’t join in the protests.”

As for the tax on tea, Edwards says, “[It] made everyone mad… including George Washington. Rather than pay the tax on tea, he switched to coffee,” as his rebellious spirit stirred.

There seem to be a handful of inaccuracies in Edwards’ book. For instance, the timeline at the end says “1776–George signs the Declaration of Independence,” when he did not. But overall, the book largely comports with my lay understanding of late colonial American history.

So what are the lessons for my children in all of this? In my opinion, the purpose of learning about George Washington isn’t to memorize whether he signed the Declaration of Independence or not. It’s to understand larger concepts.

I hope my children take away at least two messages from our discussions about this topic:

First, that historical figures, whether it’s George Washington or Blackbeard, are complicated individuals who were not all “good” or all “bad”; and second, that within reason, it’s good to question authority, whether it’s a book, the government, or even their mother.


*Illustrated by True Kelley.

**For a more thorough explanation of “pirate culture(s),” see Shannon Lee Dawdy & Joe Bonni, Towards a General Theory of Piracy, Anthropological Quarterly 85, 673 (2012).

***Did pirates really say “Arrr”?


  1. Brilliant, as usual. I never thought of GW’s look as piratey, but now I can’t un-see it. Insightful youngsters you’ve got there. I’m sure they’ll absorb all your fabulous life lessons. The gray areas of life are complicated, good to hear you’re trying to impart such wisdom!

  2. Ohhh I thought “Who Was George Washington” sounded familiar – I recognize the cover from the series’ display at B&N. I have a feeling that book will be a huge hit in our house! 🙂

  3. Here’s another view of George Washington in the children’s book, Famous Phonies by Brianna DuMont. From the title, you’ll guess it’s not the most flattering view of the man but fun reading.

    1. Sorry hit post too soon! Textbooks cant treat historical figures the way trade books can, so those are better for getting the nuances. Off on a tangent. The office building I work in is on boston’s freedom trail. Sometimes we go out for lunch to a very old tavern that I call “George Washington drank here.” At least the menu says he did once!

      1. Oh yes, I remember my extremely patriotic American history high school textbook! Assigned reading in college was a breath of fresh air in comparison. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Thank you for referencing Howard Zinn and his fabulous book. I hope you will have the twins look at it when they are several years older. It gives a better analysis of our country than any school textbook can, where worship of “great men” is still the basis for study.

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