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The Legend Maker
For Mason Locke Weems, ex-parson, book salesman, and moralist, tract-writing and biography were all the same thing. George Washington’s image has yet to recover
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
They could be breezy with one another as well. Thus Weems to Carey: “How long, thou eldest born of confusion, how long wilt thou continue to send the books to South James River, and the invoice to the headwaters of the Patomak? Would God thou woudst always suffer the invoice to sleep in peace in the same trunk that contains the books!” Carey, replying, complained: “My Friend and fellow citizen, your volume bearing the date of the twelfth instant and covering a note for 100 dollars (I expected three) I received an hour ago. I am surprised you stayed so short a time and did so little at Fredericksburg.”
During the course of their association Weems quit several times in disgust, whereupon Carey would fire him in a rage, as in October, 1796, when Carey roasted Weems again for not writing.
You are not the first person I have met with, forward to throw the blame of his own misconduct on Guiltless Shoulders. Whatever disappointments you have met with in the requisite supplies, you may charge to a pretty large A/C [account], viz, that of your neglect of writing & informing me of your route. Had you done on the subject as I so often importuned you to do, you would have ample provision everywhere before you. …
The following spring, Carey was fed up and terminated the relationship. “I wish to prevent your journey to Richmond, and any other journey for me as long as you live. I wish no further dealings with a man, who while he can cant for hours about morals and religion is as insatiable and griping as the harpy Shylock. …” The summer, however, found Carey visiting Weems at Dumfries, and the reunion was so pleasant that Weems forgot to discuss some business details, for, he said later, “being in company with Mathew Carey, Esq. I had no faculty but for chat and laughter.” But in January of 1810 they were hard at it again. A speculative venture failed, and Carey blamed Weems. Weems replied:
Now in God Almighty’s name! what ground had I from all this to infer that you were going to borrow so thousand dollars from the bank. … Yes sir, for a long time you have done nothing but slander and trouble me who can now with honest joy defy you in the presence of God to say when did I ever rob you of one penny, or when did I ever hold back one penny of what belonged to you. You are constantly telling me what great wealth I might have made in your employ, but what would be all the wealth in this world made in the service of an unreasonable and inhuman taskmaster who makes no allowances for delays …
Yet, by the end of the month, Weems was admonishing Carey,
this is no time to write intemperate letters. And you ought, and I doubt not, will one day blush for what you have written. You see that notwithstanding your indecent reflections on my “honor” I am constantly sending you monies, and I may add large monies, which it is remembered that I have a very limited variety indeed of your books and of these many not very salable …
And so it went on to a new rupture. But always they renewed their relationship as if nothing had happened.
In this anguished manner Weems made his living, but it was as the author of historical biography that he won immortality. Historians and critics have either turned aside the Parson’s work as unimportant, or have damned it as unreliable, and thus his role in American letters and mythology is little understood. What Weems did was to make national symbols of his subjects, legendary giants of republican virtue and bravery for a hero-starved people, heroes of recent history for a people cut off by their own volition from their heroes of legend.
Heroes represent the ideals of a people—what should be, not what is or was. In 1800 the United States was still a very young nation with as yet only one great national event, the Revolution, an experience shared by the whole country. The republic possessed but few of the symbols that serve to evoke patriotism; it had a flag but no anthem; a Fourth of July, but no other national holiday; no national monuments, no shrines. There were no precedents to follow, no examples that seemed to apply. Americans had to create their own heroes, and for this task Weems was eminently well fitted.