First off: George Washington did NOT chop down a cherry tree. The fable had young Washington ‚fessing up to „barking“ his father’s prized sapling.
However, the whole story is a moral lesson invented by the patriot’s first biographer – a former Anglican pastor and itinerant Bible salesman named Mason L. Weems.
Known throughout the country as „Parson“ Weems, he wrote several books on good conduct to supplement his Bible tracts.
His most popular book was: „The Life of George Washington with Curious Anecdotes Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to his Young Countrymen.“
The book was published a year after Washington’s death in December 1799. It contained a good deal of factual information, but it also launched several legends, which made our first president appear somewhat priggish.
This is regrettable because the myths have obscured the real personality of our first president. He was a man of great dignity, but a vital and emotional man. He was ambitious, hard working and sensitive to others.
Washington’s integrity was recognized by all whom he met. Yet, he labored throughout his life to curb a quick temper.
There is no documentation for Weem’s charming tale of the cherry tree. He writes that he heard the story from „a distant relative close to the family.“
Close relatives asserted they had never heard the tale. Nonetheless, the alleged incident is in character with Washington’s childhood personality.
He was tutored until age 11 by his father, Augustine. The elder Washington stressed honesty and obedience – as George’s marked textbooks and copy papers still in existence testify.
After his father’s death, young Washington taught himself the art of surveying. By age 15 he was actively engaged in that occupation. This trade took him constantly into the frontier as far west as Ohio and Kentucky.
In 1754, Washington was sent by the governor of Virginia to drive out a French force occupying a fort at the fork of the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers, now Pittsburgh. The young American major was defeated and forced to sign a humiliating surrender paper. It was the start of the French and Indian War.
In later campaigns, George Washington vindicated himself and was chosen for several important military assignments.
Washington was 44 and a successful tobacco planter when the American Revolution started. As such, he was reluctant to challenge the mother country militarily.
Nevertheless, he obeyed the call of the Continental Congress to take charge of the small army in Boston that had withstood the besieging British at Breed Hill – not Bunker Hill as popularly related.
It took an honest man to face up to the realities of an irrevocable break with Great Britain–to undertake the dangers and hardships of creating a new nation against armed might.
The War For Independence is now remembered as the Revolutionary War. As a matter of fact, it was our most unpopular war — the Civil War and Vietnam War notwithstanding. Many colonists were loyal to England and bitterly opposed to separation.
Washington’s patience and perseverance made a resounding success out of a bad war. He justly deserves the sobriquet: „Father of Our Country.“
It is unfortunate that his real talents and achievements are obscured by the do-good image foisted on his memory by a well-meaning Parson Weems.
For example, here is the complete cherry-tree tale as told by the enthusiastic Weems:
I Cannot Tell A Lie
„When George 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 and chopping everything that came 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 (Washington’s father), finding out what had befallen his tree – which, by the way, was a great favorite – came into the house. With much warmth he 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 appearances. ‚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. Looking at his father with the sweet face of youth, brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‚I cannot 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 me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is of more worth than a thousand trees though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold!'“
I know you was here
Parson Weems apparently was not satisfied he had adequately described all of Washington’s virtues. He embellished it in the same book with another myth:
„One day Mr. Washington went into the garden and prepared a little bed of finely pulverized earth. In it he wrote George’s name in full, large letters. Then he strewed in plenty of cabbage seed. He covered them up and smoothed all over nicely with the roller.
„This bed he purposely prepared close along side a gooseberry walk which he knew would be honored by George’s visits when the fruits were ripe
„Not many mornings had passed away before in came George with eyes wild rolling, and his little cheeks ready to burst with great news.
„‚O Pa! come here, come here. I’ll shew you such a sight as you never saw in all your life.‘
„The old gentleman, suspecting what George would be at, gave him his hand which he seized with great eagerness; and tugging him along through the garden, led him point blank to the bed whereon was inscribed in large letters — and in all the freshness of newly sprung plants — the full name of GEORGE WASHINGTON.
„‚There, Pa,‘ said George, quite in an ecstasy of astonishment, ‚did you ever see such a sight in all your lifetime? Who did make it there?
„‚It grew there by chance, I suppose, my son.‘
„‚O Pa, you must not say chance did all this. Indeed somebody did it; and I dare say now, Pa, you did it just to scare me because I am your little boy.‘
„His father smiled and said, ‚Well, George, you have guessed right. I indeed did it; but not to scare you, my son, but to learn you a great thing which I wish you to understand. I want to introduce you to your true Father.‘
„‚High, Pa, ain’t you my true father, that has loved me, and been so good to me always?‘
„‚Yes, George, I am your father, as the world calls it. I love you very dearly too. But yet, with all my love for you, I am but a poor good-for-nothing sort of father in comparison of one you have.‘
„‚Aye! I know well enough whom you mean, Pa. You mean God Almighty, don’t you, but where is God Almighty? I never did see him yet.‘
„‚True my son; but though you never saw him, yet he is always with you. You did not see me when ten days ago when I made this little plant bed where you see your name in such beautiful green letters. Though you did not see me here, yet you know I was here.‘
„‚ Yes, Pa, that I do. I know you was here!'“
* * *
So much for poetic license. Truth needs no embroidery.
Washington was that rare, historical figure – the right man at the right time in the right place. His whole life was a dedication to the greatest good for the greatest number.
It did not come easy for him, but he worked to discipline his shortcomings – replacing pride with honesty, temper with duty. His life is an example more inspiring to our own imperfect natures than the preachments of moralists.
In lumping his birthday with that of Abraham Lincoln in a convenient Presidents‘ Day – to give us another long weekend — we may be losing the real lessons these great heroes left us.