December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
Back home at Mount Vernon after the Revolution, George Washington turned his energies toward increasing his plantation’s yield and reducing expenses. Among other projects, he wanted to replace farm horses with mules, which he prized for “their longevity and cheap keeping.” Most American mules, however, were too small to pull heavy wagons and farm implements.
The General had heard of jackasses in Spain of such size and strength that a royal edict prohibited their exportation for breeding. But the king, Charles III, learned of Washington’s interest through a diplomat, and in August, 1785, he sent a fine specimen as a gift to the American hero.
Washington was delighted with the Spanish jackass’s size and conformation: “about 15 hands high, his body and limbs very large in proportion to his height.” Awaiting this paragon, whom the General named Royal Gift, was a harem of thirty-three mares and fillies.
After an appropriate period of rest and acclimatization, Royal Gift was led to his first assignation. His behavior dismayed Washington: he haughtily disdained the proffered mare, and indeed no one of the available females seemed to strike his fancy any better.
But Washington was a determined man. It occurred to him that with the right provocation Royal Gift might yet be induced to sire mules out of Mount Vernon’s herd of mares. He procured an attractive jenny, and in June, 1786, described the result in a letter to a friend:
A female ass which I have obtained lately, has excited desires in the Jack to which he almost seemed a stranger; making use of her as an excitement, I have been able to get several mares served.
Royal Gift, however, was still no donkey Don Juan, as Washington made clear in a wry note to his old comrade Lafayette:
The Jack which I have already received from Spain, in appearance is fine. But his late royal master, tho’ past the grand climactiric, 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.
Lafayette responded with a gift of another jackass and two jennies from Malta, so that Washington now had an international herd. He was pleased with the consequences: “The Spanish Jack,” he wrote in 1788, “seems calculated to breed heavy, slow draught; the other for Saddle or lighter carriages. From them, altogether, I hope to secure a race of extraordinary goodness, which will stock the country.”
We know that Royal Gift survived into the 1790’5, when Washington, despite the pressure of presidential duties, was still writing notes about his proper handling when he was in his “slothful humours.” Some have nominated Royal Gift as the ultimate source of the big, strong mules that provided primary power for southern farmers for over a century in the Delta and elsewhere. To have accomplished that, of course, he would have had to cover a multitude of jennies whose asinine progeny in turn would have had to sire many mules. Royal Gift’s proclivities seem to have been otherwise. But if he was not, like his master, the Father of his Country, he at least demonstrated a sound genetic proposition: a good mule is a chip off the old jack.