My love and I were talking about presidents, what with our just having gone past a day, and the way that Abraham Lincoln feels so close and accessible while George Washington feels remote. But Washington worked so hard his whole life after that first time he started a world war to project an unapproachable dignity, while Lincoln eagerly leapt at the chance to get in touch with ordinary folks, like the time he toured as Jenny Lind’s opening act. It struck me too that Lincoln is just so quotable, even among dialogue that wasn’t made up for his appearance opposite some space potatoes on Star Trek, while with Washington … well, can you think of anything Washington said besides his awesome squelching of the Newburgh Conspiracy and, of course, “I cannot tell a lie”, which he didn’t even say?
And that got us thinking about the cherry-tree incident since my love and I realized that we all knew the story of how Young George Washington supposedly chopped down a tree and confessed it to his father, but we realized we had no idea why he chopped down the tree in the first place. It sounds like a jerk move, all around, and while yeah, boys can be jerks, it seems weird to tell a story that starts out from the premise that Young George Washington set out to be a jerk, but at least he talked about it to anyone who asked. So I got to looking up the whole cherry-tree thing.
We get the cherry-tree story of course form the biographer Mason Locke Weems, who was called Parson Weems even by his friends, to his face, while he was listening, and it turns out I might be wrong in thinking he just made the whole thing up. Apparently while there’s no independent source for the story, he claimed he got it from an old woman who claimed she knew Washington when they were both young, and anyway nobody’s found where he might have plagiarized it from, so, hey, maybe it did happen.
And that’s why I got to actually reading a little bit of the biography where Weems made up all this interesting stuff about Washington. Now, it’s probably inevitable for a biographer to get into really admiring the biographied person. It’s hard to spend all that time writing about someone and not find something you like, no matter how much bad there might be to say about the person. Edward Renehan’s 2005 biography of robber baron Jay Gould, for example, mentions in its introduction that “while Gould was guilty of stock-watering, back in those days the public called stock-watering many things that we now regard as ordinary business practice, as if that makes us look any good, and besides four separate grand juries refused to indict him for his habit of eating babies even after Gould stopped payment on his checks to them. I can show you the papers.” And Washington is an easier guy to like, what with his shallower connections to corrupt railroad corporations.
Indeed, Weems was really quite Washington-mad, as in this bit from the introduction which I am not making up or exaggerating: “And in all the ensigns of character amidst which he is generally drawn, you see none that represent him what he really was, `the Jupiter Conservator,’ the friend and benefactor of men.” This is true. Nearly every biography I’ve read about Washington treats him as an intelligent, reserved, image-conscious man who overcame the inability of groups of Americans to competently manage anything and not just get the British to pick on India instead of America but also to build a federal government just able to overcome seventeen guys in western Pennsylvania not paying the whisky tax, downplaying the part where he’s an Olympian god suckled by a goat.
And the whole book is like that, just magnificently brassy. Washington can’t even die peacefully sick: “Swift on angel’s wings the brightening saint ascended; while voices more than human were warbling through the happy regions, and hymning the great procession towards the gates of heaven. His glorious coming was seen afar off; and myriads of mighty angels hastened forth, with golden harps, to welcome the honoured stranger. High in front of the shouting hosts, were seen the beauteous forms of Franklin, Warren, Mercer, Scammel, and of him who fell at Quebec, with all the virtuous patriots, who, on the side of Columbia, toiled or bled for liberty and truth.” I feel positively curmudgeonly in asking the obvious question of “does anybody know who Scammel is supposed to be?” I’m none too sure about this Warren character either. Somebody check if he’s supposed to be on the list of myriad angel-hasteners.
Anyway, for the record, here’s the anecdote as Weems gives it.
“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 favourite, 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’.”
I can actually accept its core point, that someone was stupid enough to give a six-year-old a hatchet and this immediately produced a wide swath of things hatcheted into pieces. If there’s anything six-year-olds shouldn’t be given if you don’t want things hatcheted into pieces, it’s things.