Washington's Legend More Than a Tale

By Carl M. Cannon

Good morning. It’s February 22, George Washington’s birthday. Earlier generations referred to the liberating general and first U.S. president – the first president in history, actually – as the “Father of our Country.”

Such language is a too flowery for many of today’s post-modernist educators, but as someone who covered the White House for 15 years, I think it's worth noting how many precedents set by Washington are still followed by our chief executives today – and some of those that aren’t, probably should be.

Barack Obama must contend with a much larger, diverse, and powerful nation. But George Washington would recognize the challenge of trying to govern a people whose primary national characteristic is a desire not to be ruled. And to do so while living your own life in a fishbowl and trying to make sure your own behavior doesn’t become the issue.

Over the ensuing two centuries, the temptation of myth-making by a president’s supporters has proven irresistible. Conversely, journalist and historians – not to mention the political opposition – delights in deflating such legends. Sometimes, however, it’s the debunkers themselves who have to be debunked.

The most famous story of George Washington’s boyhood comes from a biography, aimed mainly at children, hurriedly cobbled together after his death by Mason L. Weems, a parson and itinerant author.

Its most famous anecdote, routinely dismissed by modern scholars, involves a chopped down cherry tree, and a brave confession of the deed by the culprit, 6-year-old George Washington.

Admonitions in favor of truth-telling are a canon of Western civilization, but here the good Parson Weems essentially grafts the Ninth Commandment onto the American presidency itself.

In the process, he created a standard that few of Washington’s successors could meet, save perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, who devoured Weems’ “The Life of Washington” himself as a boy. (“Away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read,” Lincoln recalled, “I got hold of a small book…Weems’s ‘Life of Washington.’”)

Lincoln took what he read to heart. His “Honest Abe” nickname predates his presidency, as does the vignette of Lincoln walking miles as an Illinois store clerk to return a few cents’ change to a customer.

As was his wont, Lincoln tended to deal with both hagiography and criticism by employing humor. Accused by debating opponent Stephen Douglas of being “two-faced,” Lincoln quipped in response, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”

In the same vein, Mark Twain deadpanned: “I am different from Washington. I have a higher and grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t.”

But what about Parson Weems – was he telling the truth with the cherry tree story?

“Probably not,” says Mount Vernon’s official explanation. “Only a story,” add the curators at Ferry Farm, the planation owned by Washington’s father, Augustine, where the incident would have occurred.

Encyclopedia Britannica dismisses Weems as “an American clergyman, itinerant book agent, and fabricator of the story of George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree.”

And so it goes. Even serious Washington historians are so disdainful of Weems’ work that they come across as not actually having read it. In his widely acclaimed “Washington, a Life,” for instance, author Ron Chernow dismisses Weems as the man “who manufactured enduring myths about Washington refusing to lie about chopping down a cherry tree [and] hurling a silver dollar across the Rappahannock.”

Well, not quite. It was George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, not Weems, who reported that Washington once threw something across the Rappahannock River. And it was a rock, not a silver dollar. (In his memoirs, George Parke Custis describes the rock as a piece of slate “about the size and shape of a dollar.”)

Moreover, Weems never wrote that Washington “chopped down” a cherry tree. Instead, the boy “barks” the “beautiful young English cherry tree" – that is to say he swung his axe carelessly and gouged the tree.

Unlike his detractors, Weems cites a source for his tale, albeit one who, as we say today, prefers to remain anonymous. Nonetheless, Weems sets up the story, and attributes it, thusly:

“Some idea of Mr. Washington’s plan of education in this respect, may be collected from the following anecdote, related to me twenty years ago by an aged lady who was a distant relative, and when a girl spent much of her time in the family.”

The “Mr. Washington” Weems is referring to is Washington’s father, and the cherry tree story is really about him. One of the few modern historians who expounded on this point was the ever-perceptive Garry Wills.

Wills gives Weems his due as a story-teller and as a reformer: he opposed slavery, alcohol, gambling, dueling, and tobacco, and advocated education for children. In addition, and this is what the cherry tree story is about, he abhorred corporal punishment - or “the rod," as whipping children was called in those days.

This is the point of the cherry tree story: that parents who beat their children essentially were forcing them to lie. “Weems was a natural educator,” Wills writes.

“The most famous tale - that of the cherry tree - is almost always printed in a severely truncated form, which destroys its point,” Wills added. “The moral, aimed at children, becomes: Never tell a lie. But that was not Weems’s moral.”

Wills notes that young George Washington can tell his father that he gashed the cherry tree, perhaps fatally, because he is not terrified at the consequences of the truth. “The conclusion of the tale makes it clear," he writes, "that the hero is Washington’s father, who teaches a lesson to parents.”

And what is that lesson?

Let’s consult the original source. Parson Weems’ “aged lady,” who quotes Augustine Washington as telling his son: “Run to my arms, you dearest boy. Glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees.”

It’s a story one can choose to believe, as I do, since there is no evidentiary basis for impugning it. Either way, the underlying point of the tale is one we can all take to heart.

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