George Washington was a legend in his own time. His invincible folk hero status and improbable victory in the Revolutionary War made him so popular that it’s possible the United States might not have united under any other leader. He was the closest thing America had to superhero.
Every great superhero needs a great origin story. As it turns out, George Washington has an electrifying one.
As the most likely apocryphal legend goes [see update below], it all started one dark and stormy night (really) in Virginia in 1731. Augustine Washington and his very pregnant wife Mary Ball Washington were hosting some church friends for dinner while a thunderstorm raged outside. As they dug into their dinner, the house was struck by lightning.
The bolt came in through the chimney and struck a young girl, zapping her to death with such force that her knife and fork fused together.
Let me make that clear: the lightning bolt was so hot and powerful it WELDED her cutlery together. But the electricity didn’t stop at the poor girl’s silverware, or her charred meal. It continued along the table and sent a terrifying jolt through the pregnant Mary.
Mary feared the worst and was thrilled when George was born healthy, apparently unaffected by the incident. Apparently. How could she know the lightning bolt permeated her womb and infused little George with liberty-granting superpowers?
Was it mere chance lightning struck that house, that night, that Founding Fetus? Or was there a supernatural, superheroic force chiseling out this monumental leader?
There are three distinct possibilities.
The first is the “divine providence” Washington felt guiding him when he said, “Divine providence, which wisely orders the affairs of men, will enable us to discharge [our duty] with fidelity and success.” Perhaps it was this divine providence that discharged lightning into George’s mother. The thing is, that doesn’t exactly fit the Christian God’s M.O – he preferred sending angels to tell pregnant Marys about their superbabies. (Although how much more exciting would Christmas pageants be if he’d sent a billion volts instead?)
The second possibility harkens back to Greco-Roman history, a subject of great interest to the founders. Washington welcomed comparisons to one particular Roman farmer-turned-hero, Cincinnatus, and his favorite play was Cato, based on the Roman senator. So who better to zap a budding demigod with lightning than the king of gods himself, Zeus? That guy all about lightning! All he had to do to recreate a Greek democracy was wait patiently for thousands of years until the right leader was brewing and then ZAP! Instant democracy, just add firebolt.
The third and strongest possibility is someone else entirely. A fellow revolutionary. A mad scientist. Someone who could harness the power of lightning. None other than Benjamin Franklin.
I’m not going to let the pesky fact that Franklin’s experiments with lightning didn’t take place for another 20 years get in the way of this theory. We know for a fact he invented both the lightning rod and the flux capacitor flexible catheter, so if anybody could maneuver lightning back in time, down a chimney and up a cervix, it was Ben Fucking Franklin.
Only the inventor of bifocals could have the foresight to literally jumpstart George Washington in utero, infusing his DNA with the superhuman abilities to dodge bullets, inspire awe, and get thirteen disparate colonies to sign off on an enduring Constitution.
Obviously I can’t prove any of this. Franklin was far too smart to leave behind any evidence. Illegitimate children? Sure. Evidence of time traveling lightning? Sadly, no.
But it doesn’t matter if the lightning bolt was sent by God or Zeus or (most likely) Time-Traveling Ben Franklin. Putting aside all supernatural speculation, that real bolt of lightning still had earth-shattering consequences.
According to biographer Willard Sterne Randall, Mary Ball Washington “never fully recovered from the shock she had seen and felt” that night. The experience changed her and she became fearful and overprotective, averse to the young George taking any risks. That kind of stronghold caused him to rebel against both his mother and his motherland, England.
That bolt shaped his childhood and the world. Joining the military against his mother’s wishes, Washington’s early incompetence caused the French and Indian War which led to the taxation that started the American Revolution, which lit the spark for the French Revolution, which in turn inspired revolutions across the world.
We have that electrical discharge to thank for setting off a wildfire of democracy. And the young girl who absorbed most of the voltage. Unlike George Washington, that unfortunate little surge protector’s name is lost to history.
UPDATE 10/27/2019: Mary Ball Washington likely had a traumatic lightning bolt in her past, but some recent research makes it’s very hard to connect it to her pregnancy. See my full update at Facts, Firebolts, and A Founding Fetus: An Update.”
Source: George Washington: A Life by Willard Sterne Randall