The Legend Maker

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There is no more famous American legend than the story of George Washington and the cherry tree that first appeared in 1806 in a little book on Washington by Mason Locke Weems. According to Weems, one day little George, armed with a new hatchet, “unluckily tried the edge … on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked … terribly.” The next morning his father discovered the tragedy, and the “old gentleman” demanded “with much warmth” the name of the culprit.

“George,” said his father, “do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?” This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment: hut quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa: you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”—“Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his father in transports, “run to my arms: glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold.”

Thus George escaped a whipping, the country gained a national legend, and parents were armed with an impeccable example of honesty, the purpose which the author hoped it would serve. This story for decades has been the favorite target of debunkers and sophisticates; yet it is the most durable of Weems’ anecdotes about Washington, and no scholar has succeeded in proving it false. Generations of Americans, if they knew little else about their heritage, knew that George Washington never lied and that he was the brave, honorable, and supremely virtuous father of his country —the portrait that Weems created. For decades teachers, historians, and biographers have labored, largely in vain, to substitute a more lifelike and credible image in the public mind and to lay forever some of the apocryphal anecdotes related by the good Parson Weems.

Whether George actually cut down the cherry tree or not is of little consequence; but the fact that the story endures, along with the image of our first President that Parson Weems popularized, tells a great deal about the character of the American people then and now. In order to understand a little better the durability of the legend, one must become acquainted with Mason Locke Weems, his times, his people, and his work. Weems did a far greater service to his country than simply originating a famous anecdote. He created a national symbol and a model hero for a democracy.

At the time Parson Weems wrote his life of Washington (1799—1800), the United States was sixteen years old and had survived just ten years under the Constitution. The new republic was still an unproven experiment in democracy, and many thoughtful men doubted that it would survive much longer as a single nation. States boldly continued to question the sovereignty of the federal government, and at times even threatened secession. There was no national literature, no common heritage except that of England, which had been renounced. Congressmen still had difficulty acting as servants of a nation rather than as delegates to an international conference. Men still referred to their state as their “country.” State historians were busily bolstering local loyalty with formal histories, claiming a full share of the glories won by native sons. Virginia was about to reclaim Washington as a state hero, but Parson Weems, by virtue of writing the first biography, and by far the most popular one, insured that Washington would remain forever an American first, a Virginian second.

Mason Locke Weems’ motives for writing were not, however, overwhelmingly patriotic. One day in June, 1799, he wrote a letter to his employer, the prominent Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey. The Reverend Mr. Weems, an irrepressibly jocular minister-turned-book-peddler and an ardent admirer of the dollar, had a scheme. “I have nearly ready for the press,” he reported eagerly, “a piece christend, or to be christend, ‘The Beauties of Washington.’ Tis artfully drawn up, enlivend with anecdotes, and in my humble opinion, marvelously fitted, ‘ad captandum—gustum populi Americani!!!!’ What say you to printing it …?”

Here for the first time Weems mentioned the project that was to rocket him to fame if not to fortune. When he planned his book, Washington was very much alive, living in uneasy retirement at Mount Vernon and expecting momentarily to be called back to the service of his country should the current diplomatic crisis between France and the United States end in war. The irreverent little Parson saw in the ex-President’s continued popularity a chance to make some money. In the same letter Weems suggested that Carey decorate the proposed volume with a copperplate frontispiece of “that Heroe,” under which might be engraved, he advised, “something in this way. George Washington Esqr. The Guardian Angel of his Country. ‘Go thy way old George. Die when thou wilt we shall never look upon thy like again.’” To clinch his case, Weems scrawled a postscript assuring Carey that “it will sell like flax seed at a quarter of a dollar. I cou’d make you a world of pence and popularity by it.”