The Legend Maker

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Without a hint of a change of pace, Weems could write a moral tirade or a biography. Very often he seemed to alternate between the two, but upon close examination it becomes almost absurdly obvious that this is not the case—all of Weems’ works are the same! They are dressed differently and the words are not the same, but under the surface they are all alike in one important respect: they are all moral tracts. And this is precisely what the Parson intended them to be, for he was a bookseller and a minister, not a historian or even a biographer. His purpose was to make money from his work and to furnish his readers with strong arguments and examples for following the paths of virtue and shunning the lures of vice. He was not interested in teaching readers history or in probing the real motivations of the great. He used the lives of famous men, of Washington, Francis Marion, Franklin, and Penn, simply for illustration. By Weems’ simple formula—later adapted by William H. McGuffey in his Readers and Horatio Alger in his rags-to-riches stories—men are successful, in any field of endeavor, only in proportion to the amount of virtue that they display in their everyday living.

Weems picked Benjamin Franklin early as one of his heroes, “the great economist of America” and symbol of monetary success. In 1797 he published a book of selections from Poor Richard’s Almanac called The Immortal Mentor; or Man’s Unerring Guide to a Healthy, Wealthy, and Happy Life , but it wasn’t until 1815 that he published his biography of Franklin. The biography is not very good, not even up to Weems’ standard. Perhaps the worldly side of Franklin was too much even for the Parson.

The Life of William Penn, too, was a later production, in 1822. The clerical biographer portrayed the adventurous Quaker as a pudgy, pious, and benevolent burgher who refuses King Charles II’s offer of soldiers on an expedition to the New World. He displays a stubborn faith that the Indians share the “moral sense” bestowed on all men by the grace of God. Weems records this interesting exchange between Charles II and William Penn when Charles objects, “I fear, friend William, that that grace has never appeared to the Indians of North America.”

“Why not to them as well as to all others!”

“If it had appeared to them, they would hardly have treated my subjects so barbarously as they have done.”

“That’s no proof to the contrary, friend Charles. Thy subjects were the aggressors.” [Penn then describes the Indians as the kindest creatures in the world and explains that he intends to buy their lands, not to seize them.]

[The King, surprised, says,] “Buy their lands of them! why, man, you have already bought them of me.”

“Yes, I know I have; and at a dear rate too: but I did it only to get thy good will, not that I thought thou hadst any right to their lands.”

“Zounds, man! no right to their lands!”

“No, friend Charles, no right at all. What right hast thou to their lands?”

“Why, the right of discovery....”

“The right of discovery !” replied William Penn, half smiling, “a strange kind of right indeed! Now suppose, friend Charles, some canoe loads of these Indians, crossing the sea, and discovering thy island of Great Britain, were to claim it as their own, and set it up for sale over thy head, what wouldst thou think of it?”

“Why—why—why,” replied Charles, blushing, “I must confess I should think it a piece of great impudence in them.”

“Well, then, how canst thou, a CHRISTIAN, and a CHRISTIAN PRINCE too, do that which thou so utterly condemnest in these people whom thou callest SAVAGES?”

The king was “rather too much staggered to make a reply.” Weems quickly points the moral and hopes “that the AMERICAN YOUTH will take notice how very small indeed, a wicked king appears when placed by the side of an honest man.”