Or – a belated birthday gift for Jack.
My post yesterday debunked some Thanksgiving myths and brought about a question from Jack, a childhood friend. Literally we’ve know one another since Primary Sunday School at First Baptist Germantown where Adda Belle Riley was the teacher.
Jack said in his comment, “Jack Frost How very different the original was from what we were taught in our youth. Makes me wonder what else might be suspect. Next thing ya know people will be saying old George didn’t actually chop down a cherry tree. Wait…. Happy Thanksgiving however you celebrate it! Woo hoo!”
“Woo-hoo,” is Jack’s trademark tag line, FYI.
His comment of course, lead me to remember some previous research on our First and Greatest President – I’m a big fan – surrounding the anecdotal and apocryphal stories we hear. You know stuff like, he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, he had wooden false teeth, he wore a wig, that he’s secretly buried in a crypt beneath the Capitol Building in DC, that he hated black horses, and of course everyone’s favorite, the cherry tree story.
The story was relayed to history by Mason Locke Weems, an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington immediately after his death.
He was the source of many of the unverifiable stories about Washington.
The tale of the cherry tree story is included in the fifth edition of The Life of Washington (1809 print, originally published 1800); a bestseller that depicted Washington’s virtues and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation, who were apparently already going to hell in the proverbial hand-basket.
The story told by Weems and attributed to “… an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family …” who referred to young George as “cousin,” goes like this…
|“The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted; for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last. (Weems)
“When George,” said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! Of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. 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 by, 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, Pa; you know 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 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.”
Quite a bit for a six year old, doncha think?
In 1896 Woodrow Wilson (about whom history has also misled us) wrote in his biography George Washington that the cherry tree story was a fabrication.
Following that auspicious moment, almost all historians of the period climbed aboard the no cherry tree train.
The story was never denied by Washington’s relatives.
And it was most notably not denied by Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852), whom Washington raised as his own daughter, and who spent her life preserving his memory and debunking false stories.
So, I really don’t know. It is of course doubtful that our nation’s first president pulled off this feat as a first grader. It is highly unlikely, but it’s not impossible.
George Washington was not simply a man “just like any other,” his valor, greatness, and will to shape a new nation are gifts which continue to provide for us today.
Although it matters somewhat whether the story is true or not, the fact that Parson Weems possibly made it UP does not make Washington any less of a hero.
In fact, it says more about Weems than Washington.
The story was told to cement his place in history as the Father of Our Country.
Which it did, and he was.
Happy Belated, Jack!