How many generations of American school children have been encouraged to tell the truth because of the example of George Washington, the father of our country, who could not tell a lie! Practically every American knows the story; almost no one believes it. Still, year in and year out, each February in honor of Washington's birthday the story is repeated, children at school draw hatchets and cherry trees, and throughout our nation cherry pie is the traditional dessert.
There are a number of less well-known incidents in the life of our first president, also of interest, which happen to be true. Yet none seem to have the widespread, long-lasting appeal of that old fable, "George Washington and the Cherry Tree."Mason Locke Weems, the originator of the story, was a man of striking appearance, what with his straggly hair, black clerical garb, rather elongated nose and ruddy complexion. As preacher, publisher, fiddler, traveling book agent and teller of American folk tales, either from native legends or his own fertile imagination, Weems traveled the rough roads through early America, from Philadelphia to Savannah, in the early 1800s.
Some of the books he sold were his own moral and patriotic pamphlets, aimed at improving the lives of his fellow citizens, and carried such revealing titles as "The Drunkard's Looking Glass" and "God's Revenge Against Gambling." Traveling with horses and covered wagon, Weems played his fiddle, spoke at fairs, civic gatherings, weddings or funerals, and delivered his Sunday sermons. In one year, he claimed to have sold 3,000 "high-priced Bibles," in addition to numerous pamphlets of his own composition.
His chief claim to fame and distinction, however, came through his writing the first biography of George Washington. This "Life of Washington" passed through numerous editions and became Weems' most successful financial undertaking, his all-time best seller.
Parson Weems became associated with the Truro Parish in the Mt. Vernon area, occasionally preaching at the Pohick Church in that parish, but there is no evidence that he was ever Washington's rector, in the true sense of the word, as he at one time claimed. In fact, in the third edition of his "Life of Washington," which he dedicated to Martha Washington, Weems signed himself as "Your sincere though unknown friend."
His pamphlet on war, designed to promote patriotic fervor (while also exemplifying his flowery prose), presented a glorified picture of soldiers ready for battle:
"All hands to quarters - fore and aft, a clear ship - up hammocks - light the matches and stand by to make up the thunder - now may hearts be stout and bold. The flag of Columbia waves over their heads. The heroes eye the beloved stripes. The smile of joy is on their countenances, and the fire of valor flashes from their eyes. They demand the fight!"
Just four years before his death, Washington, in full memory of his own experience as head of an army of men so eager to go home that some of them deserted in order to do so, responded:
"Much indeed is it to be wished that the Sentiments contained in your pamphlet, and the doctrine it endeavors to inculcate, were more prevalent - Happy would it be for this country at least if they were so."
Weems' memorial sermon at the Pohick Church, eulogizing the president, formed the basis for his first pamphlet on Washington's life. The title was lengthy: "A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington; dedicated to Mrs. Washington by the Rev. M.L. Weems of Dumfries." Later editions contained the added note, "Faithfully taken from Authentic Documents."
The fifth edition, printed in 1806, had grown to 250 pages, with the title changed to "The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes equally honorable to Himself and exemplary to his Young Countrymen." Weems now listed himself as the "former rector of Mt. Vernon Parish." As there was no such parish, it is obvious that salesman Weems found Mt. Vernon to be much more effective advertising than the less familiar, but more accurate, Truro.
It is in this enlarged biography that the imperishable story of the cherry tree appears for the first time. Weems claimed that it originated with an anonymous aged lady who was, in some unexplained way, connected with the Washington household. Kellock, in his examination of Weems' writings called "Parson Weems of the Cherry Tree," introduces the story thus: "Here is the yarn as spun on the original Weemsian loom:"
"When George," she (the aged lady) said, "was about 6 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 by 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 (of the deed), declaring at the same time that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree.
"Nobody would 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?'
(Note that in this original version the familiar words of "Who chopped down the cherry tree?" are not used.)
"That 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 most 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 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 for it a thousand fold. 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.' "
Certainly no other episode in the life of his hero so captured the fancy of the American public as did Weems' story of the cherry tree. The other tales he related, with George always being portrayed as the winner, were less impressive and thus less memorable to his readers.
In one episode, George was reported as instructing his young friends, imploring them not to fight, calling the practice, "shocking in slaves and dogs, and scandalous in little boys."
It is quite possible that Weems stretched the credulity of even his most unsophisticated readers when, with the few necessary flourishes of his writing quill, he transported his hero to the very gates of heaven where "angels saw him coming from afar off, poured around him in joyous throngs . . . embracing him and devouring him with eyes of love . . . while tears of joy such as angels weep, rolled down their cheeks."
But there are other incidents on record concerning the youthful Washington, much better documented than Weems' stories were. This following incident may in one sense be also said to be highly revealing. It is taken from the court records of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, Dec. 3, 1751, Order Book 1749-55, p. 141:
"Anne Carrol and Mary McDaniel of Fredericksburgh, being committed to the Gaol of this County by William Hunter, Gent., on suspicion of Felony and Charged with robing the cloathes of Mr. George Washington when he was washing in the River sometime last Summer. The court having heard Severall Evidences Are of Oppinion that the said Ann Carroll be discharged and Admitted an Evidence for our Lord the King against Mary McDaniel.
"And upon Considering the whole Evidences and the prisoners defence, The Court are of Oppinion that the said Mary McDaniel is guilty of petty Larceny, whereupon the said Mary desired immediate Punishment for the sd Crime and relied on the mercy of the Court, therefore it is ordered that the Sheriff carry her to the Whipping post and Inflict fifteen lashes on her bare back. And then she be discharged."
George Washington was 19 years old in 1751, when this "washing in the river" took place. The record is not quite clear whether the naughty Miss McDaniel stole his clothes or simply his money from them. At any rate, stealing was considered very serious in the American colonies, and 15 lashes was a comparatively light sentence, with the sheriff having the option of making the lashes as easy or as severe as he deemed appropriate.
One would hope the sentence as inflicted was light, while wondering about the "friend" Ann Carroll, who escaped sentence after informing upon Miss McDaniel. It would be interesting to know the details. Washington himself was out of the country at the time the sentence was carried out, having sailed with his brother Lawrence on a trip to Barbados.
The following year, 1752, George was evidently quite smitten with the attractions of a certain Miss Betsy Fauntleroy, just 16, of Naylors Hole, Richmond County, Virginia, Douglas Southall Freeman, in his noted biography of Washington, wrote that "George undertook the siege of Betsy's heart by formal approaches. Repulsed in his first attempt, he had to wait until he recovered from an attack of pleurisy."
Upon his recovery, George pursued his suit for Betsy's attentions after the manner of the time. He wrote a formal letter to her father, enclosing one for Betsy, the latter having never been found. The letter to her father, now in the possession of the University of Virginia and valued at over $5,000, reads as follows, as published in the Virginia Genealogical Society Bulletin of July 1963:
"Sir: I should have been down long before this, but my business in Fredericksburg detained me somewhat longer than I expected, and immediately on my return from there, I was taken with a violent pleurise, which has reduced me very low, but purpose, as soon as I recover strength, to wait on Miss Betsy, in hopes of a revocation of the former cruel sentence, and see if I can meet with any alteration in my favour. I have enclosed a letter to her which should be much obliged to you for the delivery of it. I have nothing to add but my best respects to your good lady and family."
It may be surmised that George did not improve his standing in the eyes of Miss Betsy. There is no record of an answer from either the father or daughter, and her name never again appears in Washington's surviving correspondence. Perhaps her answer would have been different had Miss Betsy known that she was refusing the attention of the man who would become the first president of her country. She later married Bowler Cocke of Henrico County, Virginia, and following his death became the wife of Thomas Adams, a member of the Continental Congress.
Washington apparently had other disappointments in affairs of the heart. Shortly before his marriage to Martha, he wrote what is plainly a love letter to Sally Fairfax. His feeling for her had a quality of lasting affection. As late as 1773, after Sally had married and moved with her husband to Britain, Washington wrote her that all of his honors "have not been able to eradicate from my mind . . . those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company."
Thus we see but a few of the many reliable stories about the father of our country, but there will be nothing in them to strike our fancy as does that of the fictional cherry tree. And so, this February, we Americans will once again think upon the stature of this champion of liberty, general, statesman, and president, repeat the story of the cherry tree to our children and grandchildren, and enjoy a delicious serving of cherry pie, while telling ourselves, "After all, it could have happened!"
*Hazel T. Marrott is an Orem free-lance writer.