In David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1776, he writes of the astonishing physical prowess of our first president, something that was never mentioned to me during those sleepy afternoons in the fourth grade. At 6′ 2″ and 190 lbs (the average height of a man in this era was 5’9″), people at the time wrote of his imposing physical stature and commanding presence.

Stories were told of extraordinary feats of strength — how, for example, Washington had thrown a stone from the bed of a stream to the top of Virginia’s famous Natural Bridge, a height of 215 feet. The Philadelphia artist Charles Wilson Peale, who had been a guest at Mount Vernon in 1772, while painting Washington’s portrait, described how he and several other young men were on the lawn throwing an iron bar for sport, when Washington appeared and, without bothering to remove his coat, took a turn, throwing it ‘far, very far beyond our utmost limit.’

-David McCullough, 1776

George Washington rode up and down the column urging his men forward. Suddenly the general’s horse slipped and started to fall on a steep and icy slope. “While passing a Slanting Slippery bank,” Lieutenant Bostwick remembered, “his excellency’s horse[‘s] hind feet both slip’d from under him.” The animal began to go down. Elisha Bostwick watched in fascination as Washington locked his fingers in the animal’s mane and hauled up its heavy head by brute force. He shifted its balance backward just enough to allow the horse to regain its hind footing on the treacherous road. Bostwick wrote that the general “seiz’d his horses Mane and the Horse recovered.” It was an extraordinary feat of strength, skill and timing; and another reason why his soldiers stood in awe of this man.

-David Hakett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing

Earliest portrait of Washington, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale

Earliest portrait of Washington, painted in 1772 by Charles Willson Peale, shows Washington