Was George Washington Tall?

Was George Washington Tall?

Mar 19
Was George Washington Tall?

In an earlier posting, I explained that at approximately 5 foot 4 inches tall, Napoleon was not short.  Now let’s go in the other direction.  At approximately 6 foot 3 inches tall, George Washington (1732 – 1799) was not tall.  Well, not that tall.  I stand 5 foot 10 and a half inches, so 6 foot three sure sounds tall to me.  Considering that Washington and Napoleon were more or less contemporaries (separated by a single generation, Napoleon lived from 1769 to 1821), how can it possibly be that Napoleon was not short at 5 foot 4 inches and Washington was not tall at 6 foot 3 inches.

First off, exactly how tall was Washington?  You may remember that there is a certain amount of confusion as to Napoleon’s exact height.  The numbers vary by about 3 inches, ranging from 5 foot 4 inches to 5 foot 7 inches.  Almost the same differential is the confusion about Washington’s height.  When Washington ordered a suit, he placed the order for clothing for a man of 6 feet height.  On the other hand, at his death Washington was measured at 6 foot 3 and a half inches.  Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, Washington was constantly complaining that his pants were too short.  Also, Thomas Jefferson was 6 foot 2 and a half inches tall and Franklin was 6 feet tall.  Franklin was quoted as saying “We always chose him [Washington] to lead us because he was always the tallest man in the room.”

So back to the main question, how is it possible that George Washington was not tall at 6 foot 3 inches?  Well, it turns out that the average height of an American male at the time of the Revolution was 5 foot 9 or 10 inches.  Clearly Washington was taller than the norm, but he would have towered over Napoleon.  It seems strange that the average Frenchman at this time was 5 foot 4 inches and the average American male was 5 foot 9 or 10 inches.  It gets stranger still.

According to studies at Ohio State University, as part of the Global History of Health Project, an initiative of the National Science Foundation, the average height of men today is consistent with the average height of men in the middle ages.  On the other hand, the average height declined in the interim reaching the nadir around the time of the American and French Revolutions.  Somehow, the men of North America escaped this drop in height initially, but not forever.  It is hypothesized that the abundant food supply and lack of urbanization are the reasons why American males were initial spared the drop in stature.  However with the arrival of industrialism coupled with a massive influx of apparently shorter immigrants for the “old world”, the average height of an American male became consistent with that of a European male.  North America eventually caught up, or should I say down, with Europe because the average height of an American male at 1900 was 5 foot 6 inches.  This has been reversed and we are gaining stature again.  Uniforms left over from World War I could not be used mostly in World War II because the average American male had grown back 2 inches.

One last quirky detail, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington was only 5 feet tall, four inches shorter than the average height of an American women in 1776.  So the average American woman was the same height as the average Frenchman.

I guess when we say that the Founding Fathers were larger than life, there is more truth to that statement than one might realize.


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