As told by Mason Locke Weems.
When George was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet of which, like most little boys, he was extremely fond. He went about chopping everything that came his way. One day, as he wandered about the garden amusing himself by hacking his mother’s pea sticks, he found a beautiful, young English cherry tree, of which his father was most proud. He tried the edge of his hatchet on the trunk of the tree and barked it so that it died.
Some time after this, his father discovered what had happened to his favorite tree. He came into the house in great anger, and demanded to know who the mischievous person was who had cut away the bark. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Just then George, with his little hatchet, came into the room. “George,” said his father, “do you know who has killed my beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? I would not have taken five guineas for it!”
This was a hard question to answer, and for a moment George was staggered by it, but quickly recovering himself he cried: “I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet.” The anger died out of his father’s face, and taking the boy tenderly in his arms, he said: “My son, that you should not be afraid to tell the truth is more to me than a thousand trees! Yes – though they were blossomed with silver and had leaves of the purest gold!”
Weems’ Story: Truth or Fabrication?
How do legends get started? It is generally believed today that Weems’ tale was a fanciful story drawn out of Washington’s character. But before deciding whether the story is true or not, more should be told of Mr. Weems.
Mason Locke Weems, besides being a pastor, was a bookseller. He often boasted that The Bible was his best seller. His second best selling book, as he toured the countryside peddling his printed wares, was a volume he himself had authored. It was the first biography of George Washington ever written, and was entitled: Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen.
This small volume, published in 1800, told of the chopping of the cherry tree. This incident is today considered an elaborate fabrication. But in spite of whether the tale is true or false, in the first century and a half after it was first published it went through eighty-two known editions, including translations into French and German. The last edition appeared in 1927.
Why Weems Wrote the Washington Cherry Tree Story
It is speculated that the first reason that Mason Locke Weems wrote a biography on George Washington was that he was a shrewd businessman who possessed an uncanny sense of what the public wanted whether they knew it or not. In short, Weems wrote it for the money.
What the public in 1800 needed was something new to talk and think about, no matter if it was true or not. The public was between major wars. The Revolutionary War was behind them. It would be late in 1806 before Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would trek across the country to the Pacific and return. And the War of 1812 was even further away. The public, in 1800, was badly in need of a hero.
Weems gave them a hero in the form of a little boy who made a mistake but was brave and honest when confronted. Then that child grew up and became president of the United States of America. In any era, that would be a hard act to follow.
A Grand-Nephew’s New Insight
George Washington’s grand nephew, Austin Washington, provides new insight in his recently published book, The Education of George Washington. He doesn’t try to discredit or discount Parson Weems like modern day historians either! This is what he has to say about George Washington and the cherry tree:
“In Weem’s actual story, the young George Washington never chopped the cherry tree down. He only “barked” it.
If you were inventing the story of George and the cherry tree, do you know what you’d probably have him do? You’d probably have him chop the cherry tree down, not just take some of its bark off. Wouldn’t that be more dramatic?
On the other hand–isn’t that precisely and exactly what a six-year-old would do? Experimentally chip away at the bark of a tree? I can, as I think about it, recall doing that myself when I was a kid. Not all the way around the trunk. But I can recall peeling bark off of a tree. It’s sort of softer than wood but harder than leaves or twigs. A bit spongy. Do you remember doing that? Not enough to kill a tree, maybe but just a little bit?
And if you’d had a brand-new shiny hatchet as a present–and no Nintendo to occupy your time–can you imagine shaving the bark around the trunk of a small tree to reveal the shiny, smooth wood underneath? Thinking about it, I want to go and try it myself.
On the other hand, it’s not that amazing, but it is kind of extreme to imagine a little boy actually chopping down a tree, even a small one. But “barking”? That’s exactly what a six-year-old would do. It’s exactly what I would do. Where’s a tree? Where’s my hatchet?!”
Food for thought. Get the book, The Education of George Washington, to discover additional insight into this age-old story!