Washington's World - 18th Century America - George Washington portrayed by Carl Closs

Washington's World: 18th Century America

George Washington (1732-1799) lived his entire life in the 18th Century. While the passage of 200 some odd years since his death is a relatively brief period in the context of human evolution, a present-day American stepping through a time portal into the 1700s would find most aspects of life shockingly primitive compared to what he or she experiences today.

On the most pedestrian level, for example, footwear in the 1700s was constructed with a straight last -- both shoes or boots in a pair were constructed to fit either foot. Alcohol consumption was massive, and modern day re-enactors sometimes quip "people drank heavily in the 18th Century because their feet hurt all the time." Medical care was primitive, painful and often did more harm than good. Limbs were amputated without anesthesia, wounds were probed with dirty fingers (the discovery of germs would come much later) and already weak patients were routinely bled to release "bad humors" from the body. Washington, for example, was bled three times on the day he died.

Society was considerably less enlightened than it is in the present day United States. Women's rights were exceedingly limited. In some of the original 13 colonies a woman could not legally own property. Women were actually prevented from bringing lawsuit to court in some colonies. And discrimination was not limited to women. Even after the colonies gained independence from Britain, the right-to vote was generally conferred only to property owning males, so large numbers of men were disenfranchised. Slavery, which is so anathema to today's sensibilities, existed throughout the world in the 1700's.

Despite the primitive technologies and massive social inequities that existed in 18th Century America, the period produced a crop of truly outstanding leaders and intellectuals. The founders of the new nation -- among them John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson -- have yet to be eclipsed in capability, brilliance and foresight by any of our leaders in the following 200-plus years. Probably the most telling endorsement of George Washington's greatness is he walked among these giants ... and they selected him again and again to be their leader.