1785 Two Hundred Years Ago

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George Washington received a jackass from the King of Spain this month. His Highness didn’t intend it as an affront, nor did the retired general interpret it as one; in fact, Washington was delighted. The master of Mount Vernon had learned of the “longevity and cheap keeping” of mules and, being an avid experimenter, had decided to breed a strain that would render the farm horse obsolete. Because most American mules were uselessly small, the stock for the animal Washington envisioned would have to come from abroad, and from Spain, if possible, where there existed a variety of jackass so prized for its size and strength that exporting it for breeding was forbidden by a royal edict.

Of course such prohibitions didn’t apply to the king himself, and when Charles III heard of Washington’s interest, he shipped over two fine specimens from his own stables, one of which died en route. Royal Gift, as the surviving jackass was named upon its arrival at Mount Vernon, was just what Washington hoped for; it stood “about 15 hands high.” Washington readied thirty-three mares for Royal Gift’s attentions.

But when Royal Gift was first led to stud, he didn’t condescend to notice the mare; over the following months, none of the others proved able to arouse his interest either. Perhaps the beast’s aristocratic heritage prevented him from partaking of “republican enjoyments,” Washington commented; the jack seemed “too full of royalty to have anything to do with a plebeian race.” In fact, the general knew that Spanish jackasses due to be exported are often damaged to make them unfit for breeding. If Royal Gift had been tampered with, he remarked, “I shall have no disinclination to present His Catholic Majesty with as valuable a present as I received from him.”

By June 1786, however, Washington had devised a means to jolt the jackass from its indifference: “A female ass which I have obtained lately, has excited desires in the Jack to which he almost seemed a stranger,” he wrote to a friend. “Making use of her as an excitement, I have been able to get several mares served.”

Not until another year had passed would Washington be able to say of Royal Gift: “He never fails.” During those months, the animal’s fastidiousness caused continuing problems. Washington dryly noted them in a letter to Lafayette: “The Jack which I have already received from Spain, in appearance is fine. But his late royal master, tho’ past the grand climactiric [ sic ], cannot be less moved by female allurements than he is. Or when prompted, can proceed with more deliberation and majestic solemnity to the work of procreation.”

Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Royal Gift would one day be credited by some as the source of the large mules upon which Southern agriculture depended for over a century.