Who Was Parson Weems…. and Why Did He Say That Young George Washington Cut Down His Father’s Cherry Tree?

I thought that by now the “cherry tree” fable would have been settled lock stock and barrel. And well understood by one and all to be a myth conjured up by an itinerant book agent and author.

If one’s memory needs refreshing, let’s start with the principal actor in this drama. Mason Locke Weems, otherwise known as Parson Weems, was a traveling book peddler for Philadelphia printer Mathew Carey. In his travels Weems sold religious books and tracts, including religious tracts and sermons that he wrote.

In addition Weems began writing biographies of historical figures. His subjects were Washington, Ben Franklin, William Penn and General Francis Marion (otherwise known as The Swamp Fox for his actions in the War). Weems’s 80-page pamphlet on The Life of George Washington published in 1800 was in high demand. In its fifth printing in 1806 Weems added the fictional account of young Washington and the Cherry Tree. The book, larded with fanciful embellishments and fictions relating to The Father of Our Country, became a bestseller throughout the country.

Did the man have no scruples? One of his biographers Lawrence Wroth had this to say about the traveling salesman:

Weems was “aggressive in business, zealous in religion, tactless and careless of opinion in both. He got his books sold, found an audience now and then for a sermon or an address and carried home a good profit…he cared not what cherished ideal of clerical conduct he left trampled behind him.”

I meant to add that Weems became known as “Parson” when he was ordained a deacon in the Episcopalian Church, later becoming a minister. But eventually Weems was attracted to more secular endeavors, better adapted, it was said, as a man of the world than a clergyman.

The Cherry-Tree tale in Weems’ fifth edition of Washington’s Life goes something like this: It happened when George was living at the family home at Ferry Farm on the Rappahannock River. When Washington was 6 years old, his father gave him a hatchet as a much-cherished present. After cutting up his father’s cherry tree, his father confronted the boy asking if he knew who cut down his favorite cherry tree. George paused briefly, then replied: “I can’t tell a lie, pa. You know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” His father was overjoyed with his son’s honesty and all was forgiven.

By the time Weems died in 1825 his Life of Washington had 41 editions and printings. More have been published since. Though criticized by historians for its myths, fabrications and outright fictions, Weems’s Life of Washington is considered to be one of the most influential books in shaping our image of George Washington into an American icon.

There’s more to this story. More details…and more facts. But that’s for another time. —-dv