George Washington, whose birthday is today, didn’t go in for wigs. But he did powder his hair white. Most men did in his day, including the other major figures of the American Revolution. Yet this innocuous fact of fashion, according to recent research, may be coloring our perception more than 200 years later, when white hair implies extreme old age, the winter of life.
In fact, the revolutionaries were spring chickens—the millennials of their day. Thomas Jefferson was 33 in 1776. Alexander Hamilton was only 21. Betsy Ross, 24, was more like Etsy Ross. Benjamin Franklin, who may have had wigs older than his fellow freedom fighters, was the only genuinely wizened one, at 70.
Washington, at 44, was older than most (but still, the same age as Ben Affleck). Yet he, too, has prematurely aged in the popular imagination. Famous portraits like those by Gilbert Stuart, a copy of which is on display at Mia, haven’t helped. They invariably portray the founding fathers in later years, when the republic was firmly established and they were a more, well, fatherly age.
But perhaps the misperception was inevitable. We think of the founders as wise. And wisdom, we say, comes with age. We may have to adjust to the fact—as Hamilton the musical so adroitly reveals—that the founders were wiser but not older.