11 Things You Might Not Know About the Founding Fathers’ Dogs

Some canine history in honor of National Puppy Day

Admiral Penn from Violet Oakley's mural series at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Photo used courtesy of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee and Brian Hunt

Admiral Penn from Violet Oakley’s mural series at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. Photo used courtesy of the Pennsylvania Capitol Preservation Committee and Brian Hunt

Today is National Puppy Day, which is proof, we guess, that every dog has its day, seeing as every dog in the world was once a puppy. We hope you have a pup with which to celebrate. If not, you should adopt one! Meantime, here are stories — some shaggier than others — about our founding fathers and their faithful canine friends.

1. A mural of William Penn with his Great Dane, by Pennsylvania artist Violet Oakley, hangs in the Governor’s Reception Room in the state capitol at Harrisburg. The Great Dane was designated the Pennsylvania state dog in 1965. Who knew?

2. While in France in 1789, Thomas Jefferson paid the equivalent of six dollars for a “chienne bergere big with pup” — a pregnant sheepdog — and boarded a ship for home with her. (She was probably a Briard.) The first of several French hounds brought to Monticello, she gave birth to two pups on the voyage and was ever after known as Bergère. Two years later, Jefferson’s son-in-law brought a wolf to Monticello; Jefferson was interested in interbreeding wolves and dogs. Jefferson was also intensely interested in sheep as part of a scheme to populate the New World with certain Old World species he admired.

Ben Frannklin, Library of Congress; Sir Edwin Henry Landseer's Lion: A Newfoundland Dog

Ben Franklin, Library of Congress; Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s Lion: A Newfoundland Dog

3. Benjamin Franklin’s son William had a black Newfoundland; there are two references to him in correspondence exchanged while Franklin was in France. In the first, a visitor to Franklin’s home promises that “nothing shall tempt me to forget your Newfoundland Dog,” which makes one wonder what mischief the pup visited on him. The second, from a neighbor in Paris, references her having returned the dog after it strayed. Franklin also, of course, noted that those who lie down with dogs get up with fleas.

4. During the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, according to an American soldier, Joseph Martin, a large British bulldog chased after the cannonballs fired at Colonial troops. Martin noted that the American officers wanted to catch the dog, but that “he looked too formidable for any of us to encounter.”

5. Stephen Girard, the French-born Philadelphian whose fortune helped finance the War of 1812, stationed a Newfoundland dog on each of his trading ships, “to keep the sailors company,” he said. Cynics claimed it was because the dogs were cheaper than watchmen. Girard reportedly always had a big, shaggy pup with him in his yellow driving gig.

6. George Washington loved him some foxhounds. Elizabeth Willing Powel, wife of the last Colonial mayor of Philadelphia, recalled the first time she met him:  “His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he was walking with a tall, exceedingly graceful dog of the hound type as he strode down Walnut Street.” Washington introduced her to the hound, who was named Sweet Lips, and boasted that she was a “perfect” specimen that he had bred himself. Among his other foxhounds were Drunkard, Tipler, Tipsy and Vulcan.

7. The Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington seven French hounds during the Revolutionary War in the care of young John Quincy Adams. Adams lost track of the dogs at the dock in New York City; though they were later located and returned to General Washington, the future president never forgave Adams’s sin. Lafayette was also reported to have sent Washington a brace of basset hounds, the first of their breed in America.

8. After the Battle of Germantown in October 1777, Colonial troops found a foxhound whose collar identified him as belonging to the British General William Howe and brought the dog to General Washington. One officer suggested keeping the dog as a mascot, but Washington insisted on cleaning and brushing him, feeding him, and returning him to his rightful owner at Stenton, where Howe was headquartered.

9. Philadelphian Robert Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and financiers of the American Revolution, had a spaniel who was with him in the sickroom when he died. The dog refused to abandon its master, lying down beside Morris’s body as it awaited burial and dying there. Master and dog were buried on the same day.

10. John Adams had a mixed-breed dog named Satan, while his wife Abigail’s pet was Satan’s pup, Juno. Abigail once wrote to her daughter, “If you love me … you must love my dog.” As the Adamses were the first First Family to occupy the White House, their dogs were also the first to live there.

11. General Charles Lee, the second in command to Washington during the Revolution, kept his dogs with him constantly and spoiled them completely. A contemporary wrote of one of Lee’s dogs, a “native of Pomerania,” that “I should have taken for a bear had I seen him in the woods.” Lee wrote to Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush about an incident in which Abigail Adams objected to being introduced to his dog Spada, who was seated at the dinner table, complete with handshake: “I think the strongest proof of a good heart is to love dogs and dislike mankind.”

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