The Legend Maker

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Neither Carey with hardheaded business calculation nor the irrepressible Parson in his most flamboyant dream could have foreseen the success and impact on the American people that Weems’ The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington would achieve. In scarcely more than a century and a half it has gone through eighty-two known editions, including translations into French and German. The last edition appeared in 1927. During the author’s lifetime, eighteen editions were exhausted, six of which disappeared “like flax seed” in the first five years. It was in the fifth edition that Weems added the cherry tree story. In 1806, inspired by the rapid sale of four editions, he revised and enriched his little volume with many “new and valuable anecdotes,” and jacked the price from twenty-five cents to half a dollar a copy. Most of the more famous stories of Washington’s youth first appeared in this edition.

Parson Weems himself is something of a legend, for there are few authentic facts about his early life, and many stories. He was born October 11, 1759, the nineteenth child of David Weems, who lived on his farm, Marshes Seat, near Herring Bay in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He was not long to suffer the chores of farm life, because before he reached his teens his father sent him away to school. The young student was diligent in his courses and early showed a zest for sharing his knowledge. For hours during the week young Weems disappeared from school, and no one knew where he went until he was discovered, not playing hookey, but teaching the poor. He was a born preacher but seems to have tried other professions before he found his vocation. He took several trips on his two older brothers’ trading vessels, but the life of a sailor did not appeal to him. When the Revolution broke out, young Weems was in Edinburgh, Scotland, apparently (for there is no record) studying medicine and surgery. In 1779 his father died, leaving him a part of the estate and some slaves. The story goes that the young student returned to his embattled country long enough to secure his inheritance, free his slaves, and receive a call to the ministry in the Anglican Church.

About 1780 (the date is uncertain) Weems sailed back to England for seminary training, but when he was ready for ordination he ran into difficulty. As a good American he refused to acknowledge the supremacy of King George III, and the English bishops refused to ordain him. With England’s recognition of American independence, however, the Church relented, and the Archbishop of Canterbury ordained Weems without the distasteful oath of supremacy.

As a preacher Weems was highly successful with the people and continually in hot water with disapproving Episcopal clergymen. His methods were unorthodox and his ideas disturbingly liberal. In 1784 he took an appointment as rector of All Hallows Church near his home on Herring Creek. The parish covered a large rural area, and one of Weems’ duties was to minister to the needs of outlying villages. He worked hard, preaching wherever he could gather a crowd, in a field or in a ballroom—“like a Methodist,” some of his colleagues grumbled. He actively opposed slavery, a position not pleasing to some of the wealthy slave-holding vestrymen. His bubbling humor crept into his sermons, which some thought lacked dignity and smacked of sin. He also loved to play the fiddle. In 1789, perhaps for some or all of these reasons, he was relieved of his parish. While he served two others in 1791 and 1792, he now began to reprint and sell volumes of sermons for extra income, and by 1794 had left the ministry as a profession forever—but not before scandalizing a clerical convention by reprinting and selling there a medical pamphlet on abnormal sex habits.

Although Weems could never stop preaching, his primary occupation from 1794 until his death in 1825 was that of bookseller and author. Loaded with books, he rode in his Jersey wagon over the highways and byways of the upper South, undaunted by “roads horrid and suns torrid,” or by the seasons of mud, dust, and snow. He became a familiar figure at village fairs, and welcome company at lonely farms as well as at big plantations. He pictured himself to Mathew Carey, who supplied him with books, as a penniless vagabond but tireless worker, referring to himself as “ragged Mother Carey’s chicken.” Certainly he gave the appearance of a rootless itinerant peddler as he rattled along the rutted roads, a quill pen stuck in his hat, a little inkhorn dangling from the large lapel of his clerical coat, his hair flowing down to his shoulders, and a bookcase sticking up in the wagon behind him. But he was far from the ordinary peddler; as a good southerner, he claimed noble English blood, married Frances Ewell, a well-bred Virginia girl, and settled in a substantial house called Bel Air in Dumfries, Virginia. He traveled much, selling a large share of his cultural merchandise himself, but he also had agents in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia hawking his wares for him.