- Historic Sites
Mason Weems, Bibliopolist
To mark the birthdays of our two great Presidents, a new look at the legends that surround their memory … An admiring re-appraisal of the Cherry Tree Fable and its author, by Garry Wills , together with the Curious Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Love Letters, by Don E. Fehrenbacher
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Benjamin Franklin wrote what could be called America s first self-improvement manual. But Franklin trod the world stage, and his autobiography is a classic expression of Enlightenment ideals, too grand a thing to count Dale Carnegie’s books among its offspring. The true father of Carnegie, or of Norman Vincent Peale, was Mason Weems (1759–1825), the itinerant preacher and bibliopolist—he had the salesman’s trick of dignifying his trade with fancy names.
Though Weems is best known for his life of Washington, he also wrote popular biographies of Franklin himself, of William Penn, and of General Francis Marion. He also wrote, published, and peddled moral tracts, sermons tricked out as entertainments—the equivalent of Bishop Fulton Sheen s television shows in the 1950’s.
Weems was always intense in his methods, though rather vague in his aims. The vagueness clouds his early years: after his birth in Maryland, Weems went to Scotland (or somewhere) to become a surgeon (or something) and may have become a seaman (or may not). He returned to America during the Revolution, but made no effort to serve under the man he would later celebrate. Instead he chose to become an Anglican minister—at a time when this hinted of loyalty to the British crown as well as church. Characteristically determined in the short term, Weems went through many difficulties to be ordained in England. Then, characteristically feckless in the long term, he drifted through an aimless ministry for nine years.
But by 1793 he realized that selling Bibles was a way of making a living as well as preaching the gospel. From then on, he unabashedly made God and gain his twin goals. “Thank God, the Bible still goes well … I am agreeably surprised to find among the multitude such a spirit of veneration for the Bible. Good old Book! I hope we shall live by you in this world and in the world to come!!” A brisk trade was now his mission in life, and business setbacks weighed down his monosyllables like sins that oppressed the prophets: “God knows there is nothing I so dread as Dead stock , dull sales , back loads , and blank looks .” It is the salesman’s eternal lament, followed by words that skip: “But the Joy of my soul is quick and clean sales—heavy pockets, and light hearts.” Weems traveled Virginia, drawing most of his supplies from an Irish publisher in Philadelphia, Mathew Carey. The two men alternately blessed and cursed each other with get-rich-quick schemes and lagging performance—the latter sent Weems into rages of angry piety. Shipping problems led to pseudo-Ciceronian denunciation: “Quotuseunque, Catalina! 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 head waters of Patomak?”
Weems had a gift for self-dramatization that must have exhilarated and exasperated Carey—not to mention the long-suffering Mrs. Weems and her children. When Carey sarcastically noted that things always seemed to go wrong somehow, with Weems, he loosed a flood of self-exonerating eloquence: “The style of your last letter was so pathetically keen that it made a scratch on my pericardium, though cased in well-tempered innocence. Superior to retaliation, I hasten to answer your epistle and to develop my plan of past conduct.” He closed his letters with exit lines that make it hard to believe Dickens had not yet created Wilkins Micawber: “There is a capriciousness in your character and conduct which will forever embitter the soul, and curse the existence of —M. L. Weems.” Then, not sure he had wrung Carey s heart energetically enough, Weems added a postscript: “Lugging about a heavy book with light profits and long expenditures, and after all not allowed to eat my poor solitary crust in peace, is enough to make me wish I had been born a butcher’s dog and not a poor dependent on your smiles.”
When a rival beat Carey to the production of a particular Bible edition, Weems felt his honor touched, his bibliopolist escutcheon forever blotted: “Why rose the steel of Brutus against the life of Caesar? Had Caesar wronged Brutus of that trash , his purse? No—not to the value of an obolus. But Caesar had wronged Brutus of that which generous minds hold dearer than gold—he had wronged him of his Equality &c, so though you never wronged me of my gold, yet you have wronged me of my well-earned fame.”
Mason’s words nimbly follow his dragonfly ing moods. He gives a vitality to all he touches. The prose is so vibrant it makes the book quiver in your hand. Weems was not a great writer, but he was a great letter writer. His masterpiece was written without his noticing; and it was not published till 1928, when Emily Skeel brought out the letters collected by her brother, Paul Leicester Ford. A man springs from these pages as from the greatest eighteenth-century diaries, Boswell’s or Walpole’s.
Though Weems strove for a more dignified carriage in the books he wrote for publication, something of his letters’ dash and enthusiasm is evident there as well. Surely no one ever preached in a more swashbuckling way the evils of dueling: “The next morning would have seen him on the field, and, in language lately heard in this state, calling out to his hated antagonist, You. have injured me, sir, beyond reconciliation, and by God, I’ll kill you if I can . While his antagonist, in a style equally musical and Christian, rejoins, Kill and be damned! Pop go the pistols—down tumbles one of the combatants; while the murderer with knocking knees and looks of Cain, flies from the avenger of blood!” Before movies and television, that was as vivid a “shoot-out” as one could get, short of the real thing.
There is a cinematic vigor, too, in the picture of the beaten English leaving New York: “Then all in a moment they fly to work. Some, seizing the ready handspikes, vault high upon the windlasses, thence coming down all at once with the Yo-heave-O, they shake the sounding decks and tear from their dark oozy beds the ponderous anchors. Others, with halyards hard strained through the creaking blocks, sway aloft the wide-extended yards, and spread their canvas to the gale, which, with increasing freshness, bears the broad-winged ships in foam and thunder through the waves.”
If his prose was always more lively than dignified, Weems’s causes were good ones, ardently promoted, courageously disseminated. He opposed slavery, gambling, alcohol, dueling, and tobacco in a Virginia that honored every item in the list. Weems was a natural educator, who advocated school for girls as well as boys and hated the schoolmaster’s rod. And while there is no questioning his rather frothy sincerity, this preacher was no prude. After writing a tract that favored premarital chastity and calling it Hymen’s Recruit , Weems complained when the book was badly packed for shipping: “The Hymens [are] so rammed and jammed that I’m sure the nests of Love will hardly ever again be got into shipshape.”
Even the stories that have become unctuous in later retellings had an innovative touch in Weems’s first version. The most important instance of this is the most famous tale—that of the cherry tree. This is almost always printed in a severely truncated form, which destroys its point. The moral, aimed at children, becomes: Never tell a lie. But that was not Weems’s moral. The story occurs in a chapter that praises Washington’s father for his enlightened educational methods, and it opens with a long prologue. When ‘y George asks his father about children’s lying, the father emphasizes a parent’s duty in this matter: “At least you shall never, from me, have cause to be guilty of so shameful a thing. Many parents, indeed, even compel their children to this vile practice, by barbarously berating them for every little fault; hence, on the next offence, the little terrified creature slips out a lie just to escape the rod. But as to yourself, George, you know I have always told you, and now tell you again, that whenever by accident you do anything wrong—which must often be the case, as you are but a poor little boy yet, without experience or knowledge—never tell a falsehood to conceal it; but come bravely up, my son, like a little man, and tell me of it and, instead of beating you, George, I will but the more honor and love you for it, my dear.” Even the terms of endearment, which sound sticky to modern ears, were part of the Weems attack on harsh upbringing and readiness to use the rod.
After young Washington, with one unconsidered stroke of his hatchet, “barks” the “beautiful young English cherry tree…—the tree is not actually chopped down in Weems—he can tell his father about it because he is not terrified at the consequences of the truth. The conclusion of the tale makes it clear that the hero is Washington’s father , who teaches a lesson to parents: “‘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 thousandfold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold.’ It was in this way, by interesting at once both his heart and head, that Mr. Washington conducted George with great ease and pleasure along the happy paths of virtue.” Parents who have tried to enforce truthfulness on children with this tale, instead of taking to heart its message against compulsion, not only miss the point but reverse it. De te fabula narratur …
Unlike Billy Graham or Fulton Sheen, Weems first had to create his medium, and even his audience, before manipulating them. He trudged from church to church, fair to fair, going straight from the pulpit to his book cart, or waiting for cockfights to break up. He was a market sampler, an author’s agent, a publisher’s scout. He tested products, varied them, repackaged them. His own Life of Washington grew from unsuccessful attempts to sell John Marshall’s indigestible five volumes.
The Bible remained the base of Weems’s business; but he knew there must be different models for different markets: “I tell you this is the very season and age of the Bible, Bible Dictionaries, Bible tales, Bible stories—Bibles plain or paraphrased, Carey’s Bibles, Collin’s Bibles, Clarke’s Bibles, Kimptor’s Bibles, no matter what or whose, all, all will go down—so wide is the crater of public appetite at this time. God be thanked for it.” He would cram Bibles down the national maw; he would force America to read—and, in large part, he did.
Despite his own belief that he could unite wealth and piety, God’s propagandist remained underpaid—a blessing in disguise, since it kept him scribbling and scrambling for our good. He thought he deserved better, and he did; but who can imagine Wilkins Micawber either prosperous or satisfied? These rare spirits are sent to enrich other lives with their comic agony. They are not the less admirable for being ridiculous.