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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
Next in merit and popularity to Weems’ Life of Washington is his Life of General Francis Marion, which was actually ghostwritten by Weems. One of Marion’s companions-in-arms, General Peter Horry, had intended to write a biography, but was unable to put it together and gave Weems the material. Later Weems was forced to acknowledge his authorship when the outraged Horry repudiated the published work as a “military romance.” Weems pictured Marion as the courageous, dashingly romantic “Swamp Fox” whose republican virtues enabled him to outwit Britain’s finest generals. The book is as much a tale of the adventures of Marion’s men as of the wily Swamp Fox himself, filled with stories of their feats—tales which have become a part of our Revolutionary tradition ( see “The Elusive Swamp Fox,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1958).
Colorful as the adventures of Marion were, the book never rivaled The Life of Washington in quality or popularity. George Washington as a moral example served Weems’ purposes best. Here was a Virginia aristocrat who had married wealth, increased it through land speculation, won the war, and become first President. Was this not an example seemingly impossible of emulation by the common youth, who could scarcely hope “to be called to direct the storm of war, or to ravish the ears of deeply listening Senates?” But the Parson assured his young audience that it was not these public acts nor the advantages of wealth that made Washington great. No, it was private virtues that exalted him to be “Columbia’s first and greatest son.” And therefore, concluded Weems, “every youth may become a Washington ….”