When George Washington was six years old he was given a hatchet, which he used to inflict serious damage on his father’s young cherry tree. When challenged as to whether he was the culprit, George said that he could never tell a lie and that he had indeed done what he was accused of.
Do you actually believe that this is true? There are probably still huge numbers of people who do, simply because they were told the story by people whom they trusted to be as truthful as young George Washington, but there is absolutely no reason why they should! The whole tale was complete fiction – fake news if you like to use that term.
The fib was the work of George Washington’s biographer Mason Locke Weems, who was born in Maryland in 1756 and ordained in London by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1784 before returning to America. He ministered at a church in Virginia that had formerly been attended by George Washington and his father, and he therefore saw himself as ideally qualified to write the President’s biography.
When Washington died in 1799 the book was underway but not yet complete. Parson Weems rightly concluded that demand for a biography would be high and that a heroic yarn would sell far better than a dull political biography. He therefore decided to spice it up with a few extra tales from the President’s youth that would demonstrate why he became the man that he did. The fact that the events in question, including that concerning the cherry tree, were complete myths was a minor consideration.
When “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington” was published in 1800 it became the instant best-seller that Parson Weems had hoped for, and had reached its 29th edition by 1825, when Weems died. The book found a place in the homes of many thousands of Americans, sitting next to the Bible on the nation’s bookshelves. Just like the Bible, every word in it was held to be true, including that of the cherry tree hatchet job!
© John Welford