Parson Weens and a George Washington Legend

February 22nd is George Washington’s birthday, so this month I’ll discuss a portion of a biography written earlier than most of the books I comment on.

It’s not likely you’ve read Parson Weems’ best selling book The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, but if your ideas about our first president’s childhood includes a story about a hatchet and a cherry tree then you know something about Weems’ Washington biography.

First let me tell you about the author. Mason Locke Weems was born in the colony of Maryland in 1759, studied theology in London, England, and in 1784 was ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He returned to Maryland but had a difficult time earning a living as a minister, so in the 1790s he began writing religious tracts with the byline of Parson Weems. He also traveled throughout much of the brand-new United States with a mobile bookstore called The Flying Library.

Printed advertisements would announce the coming of The Flying Library, and at stops in some towns Weems gave a speech on the importance of education. He seemed to have a flair for knowing what might increase book sales.

When George Washington died in 1799 Weems decided a biography of our first president would become a popular book. In 1800 he published the first 80 page edition of his The Life of George Washington. Several expanded editions followed.

Parson Weems claims that he learned about Washington’s life by interviewing unnamed friends and family members, including an “excellent lady” who called Washington a cousin.

Some have claimed Weems invented stories for the purpose of telling parables that taught moral lessons, and that his most famous invention was the “I cannot tell a lie” cherry tree story that first appeared in his 1806 fifth edition.

Later retellings of the story state that young Washington cut down his father’s cherry tree, but Parson Weems has him “barking” the tree, cutting into the bark sufficiently to cause the tree’s eventual death.

Weems made it clear that George Washington’s father Augustine had a great distain for boys who told lies. Here’s what he has Augustine saying to his young son:

“Oh George! My son! Rather than see you come to this issue (telling lies), dear as you are to my heart, yet gladly would I assist to nail you up in your little coffin, and follow you to your grave. Hard, indeed, would it be to me to give up my son whose little feet are always so ready to run about with me, and whose fondly looking eyes and sweet prattle make so large a part of my happiness: but still I would give him up rather than see him a common liar.”

Wow, now there’s a father you don’t want to lie to! Augustine went on to tell the six-year-old lad:

“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 honour and love you for it, my dear.”

Soon after that discourse George was given his very own hatchet. Now I know that back in the 1700s children were expected to take on household chores at an early age, but giving a six-year-old boy something with a handle and a really sharp edge seems like a bad idea. Fortunately George did no damage to any of his own limbs, but limited his cutting to the limbs and bark of trees. The story continues:

“One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry tree, which he barked so terribly that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the way, was a great favorite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question, and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself; and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I can’t tell a lie; I did cut it with my hatchet.’ – Run to my arms you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms, glad am I, George, that you ever killed my tree, for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”

Weem’s cherry tree story was retold by others, and ended up in a volume of the McGuffey’s Readers, the school books that taught generations of students to appreciate great literature. For close to a century most people thought the story was a flowery retelling of an actual event, but since the 1890s scholars have stated Parson Weems told a fib with his story about not lying.

At times Weems was guilty of stretching the truth to the breaking point, such as the title page of his Washington biography stating he was a former Rector of Mount Vernon Parish, when in fact he had served as a minister at another nearby church.

However, both an earthenware mug and a printed cloth depicting the cherry tree story have been discovered, and the objects were verified as being slightly older than the first edition of Parson Weems’ Washington biography. (In my humble opinion the story was an odd choice to depict on souvenirs made during our first president’s administration, but someone must have thought it was a good idea.)

So if the story of the unfortunate cherry tree is indeed a falsehood it is one that was told before Parson Weems wrote it down.

No doubt the story of young George Washington chopping into his father’s favorite cherry tree will continue to be told. It teaches a valuable lesson on having the courage to tell the truth after you’ve made a mistake. And it is a reminder for parents to use a little common sense when choosing presents for six-year-old children.