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The Legend Maker

July 2024
15min read

For Mason Locke Weems, ex-parson, book salesman, and moralist, tract-writing and biography were all the same thing. George Washington’s image has yet to recover


There is no more famous American legend than the story of George Washington and the cherry tree that first appeared in 1806 in a little book on Washington by Mason Locke Weems. According to Weems, one day little George, armed with a new hatchet, “unluckily tried the edge … on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked … terribly.” The next morning his father discovered the tragedy, and the “old gentleman” demanded “with much warmth” the name of the culprit.

“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: hut 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.”

Thus George escaped a whipping, the country gained a national legend, and parents were armed with an impeccable example of honesty, the purpose which the author hoped it would serve. This story for decades has been the favorite target of debunkers and sophisticates; yet it is the most durable of Weems’ anecdotes about Washington, and no scholar has succeeded in proving it false. Generations of Americans, if they knew little else about their heritage, knew that George Washington never lied and that he was the brave, honorable, and supremely virtuous father of his country —the portrait that Weems created. For decades teachers, historians, and biographers have labored, largely in vain, to substitute a more lifelike and credible image in the public mind and to lay forever some of the apocryphal anecdotes related by the good Parson Weems.

Whether George actually cut down the cherry tree or not is of little consequence; but the fact that the story endures, along with the image of our first President that Parson Weems popularized, tells a great deal about the character of the American people then and now. In order to understand a little better the durability of the legend, one must become acquainted with Mason Locke Weems, his times, his people, and his work. Weems did a far greater service to his country than simply originating a famous anecdote. He created a national symbol and a model hero for a democracy.

At the time Parson Weems wrote his life of Washington (1799—1800), the United States was sixteen years old and had survived just ten years under the Constitution. The new republic was still an unproven experiment in democracy, and many thoughtful men doubted that it would survive much longer as a single nation. States boldly continued to question the sovereignty of the federal government, and at times even threatened secession. There was no national literature, no common heritage except that of England, which had been renounced. Congressmen still had difficulty acting as servants of a nation rather than as delegates to an international conference. Men still referred to their state as their “country.” State historians were busily bolstering local loyalty with formal histories, claiming a full share of the glories won by native sons. Virginia was about to reclaim Washington as a state hero, but Parson Weems, by virtue of writing the first biography, and by far the most popular one, insured that Washington would remain forever an American first, a Virginian second.

Mason Locke Weems’ motives for writing were not, however, overwhelmingly patriotic. One day in June, 1799, he wrote a letter to his employer, the prominent Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey. The Reverend Mr. Weems, an irrepressibly jocular minister-turned-book-peddler and an ardent admirer of the dollar, had a scheme. “I have nearly ready for the press,” he reported eagerly, “a piece christend, or to be christend, ‘The Beauties of Washington.’ Tis artfully drawn up, enlivend with anecdotes, and in my humble opinion, marvelously fitted, ‘ad captandum—gustum populi Americani!!!!’ What say you to printing it …?”

Here for the first time Weems mentioned the project that was to rocket him to fame if not to fortune. When he planned his book, Washington was very much alive, living in uneasy retirement at Mount Vernon and expecting momentarily to be called back to the service of his country should the current diplomatic crisis between France and the United States end in war. The irreverent little Parson saw in the ex-President’s continued popularity a chance to make some money. In the same letter Weems suggested that Carey decorate the proposed volume with a copperplate frontispiece of “that Heroe,” under which might be engraved, he advised, “something in this way. George Washington Esqr. The Guardian Angel of his Country. ‘Go thy way old George. Die when thou wilt we shall never look upon thy like again.’” To clinch his case, Weems scrawled a postscript assuring Carey that “it will sell like flax seed at a quarter of a dollar. I cou’d make you a world of pence and popularity by it.”

Neither Carey with hardheaded business calculation nor the irrepressible Parson in his most flamboyant dream could have foreseen the success and impact on the American people that Weems’ The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington would achieve. In scarcely more than a century and a half it has gone through eighty-two known editions, including translations into French and German. The last edition appeared in 1927. During the author’s lifetime, eighteen editions were exhausted, six of which disappeared “like flax seed” in the first five years. It was in the fifth edition that Weems added the cherry tree story. In 1806, inspired by the rapid sale of four editions, he revised and enriched his little volume with many “new and valuable anecdotes,” and jacked the price from twenty-five cents to half a dollar a copy. Most of the more famous stories of Washington’s youth first appeared in this edition.

Parson Weems himself is something of a legend, for there are few authentic facts about his early life, and many stories. He was born October 11, 1759, the nineteenth child of David Weems, who lived on his farm, Marshes Seat, near Herring Bay in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He was not long to suffer the chores of farm life, because before he reached his teens his father sent him away to school. The young student was diligent in his courses and early showed a zest for sharing his knowledge. For hours during the week young Weems disappeared from school, and no one knew where he went until he was discovered, not playing hookey, but teaching the poor. He was a born preacher but seems to have tried other professions before he found his vocation. He took several trips on his two older brothers’ trading vessels, but the life of a sailor did not appeal to him. When the Revolution broke out, young Weems was in Edinburgh, Scotland, apparently (for there is no record) studying medicine and surgery. In 1779 his father died, leaving him a part of the estate and some slaves. The story goes that the young student returned to his embattled country long enough to secure his inheritance, free his slaves, and receive a call to the ministry in the Anglican Church.

About 1780 (the date is uncertain) Weems sailed back to England for seminary training, but when he was ready for ordination he ran into difficulty. As a good American he refused to acknowledge the supremacy of King George III, and the English bishops refused to ordain him. With England’s recognition of American independence, however, the Church relented, and the Archbishop of Canterbury ordained Weems without the distasteful oath of supremacy.

As a preacher Weems was highly successful with the people and continually in hot water with disapproving Episcopal clergymen. His methods were unorthodox and his ideas disturbingly liberal. In 1784 he took an appointment as rector of All Hallows Church near his home on Herring Creek. The parish covered a large rural area, and one of Weems’ duties was to minister to the needs of outlying villages. He worked hard, preaching wherever he could gather a crowd, in a field or in a ballroom—“like a Methodist,” some of his colleagues grumbled. He actively opposed slavery, a position not pleasing to some of the wealthy slave-holding vestrymen. His bubbling humor crept into his sermons, which some thought lacked dignity and smacked of sin. He also loved to play the fiddle. In 1789, perhaps for some or all of these reasons, he was relieved of his parish. While he served two others in 1791 and 1792, he now began to reprint and sell volumes of sermons for extra income, and by 1794 had left the ministry as a profession forever—but not before scandalizing a clerical convention by reprinting and selling there a medical pamphlet on abnormal sex habits.

Although Weems could never stop preaching, his primary occupation from 1794 until his death in 1825 was that of bookseller and author. Loaded with books, he rode in his Jersey wagon over the highways and byways of the upper South, undaunted by “roads horrid and suns torrid,” or by the seasons of mud, dust, and snow. He became a familiar figure at village fairs, and welcome company at lonely farms as well as at big plantations. He pictured himself to Mathew Carey, who supplied him with books, as a penniless vagabond but tireless worker, referring to himself as “ragged Mother Carey’s chicken.” Certainly he gave the appearance of a rootless itinerant peddler as he rattled along the rutted roads, a quill pen stuck in his hat, a little inkhorn dangling from the large lapel of his clerical coat, his hair flowing down to his shoulders, and a bookcase sticking up in the wagon behind him. But he was far from the ordinary peddler; as a good southerner, he claimed noble English blood, married Frances Ewell, a well-bred Virginia girl, and settled in a substantial house called Bel Air in Dumfries, Virginia. He traveled much, selling a large share of his cultural merchandise himself, but he also had agents in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia hawking his wares for him.

As a salesman Weems pioneered in the techniques later so successfully developed by the Fuller Brush Company and the denizens of Madison Avenue. He knew his market well—the rural South—and he knew its people and their psychology. “There is a time,” he once advised Carey, “to catch popular feelings as well as young Rabbits & a cold cloudy day is not that time—a warm bright day is the thing.” The southerners Weems knew were, for the most part, barely literate back-country farmers, some of whom had carved their land out of the wilderness. They wrestled no holds barred, ran foot races, drank prodigious quantities of raw whiskey, and hunted possum. They took pride in their independence, bowing to no man. They were not virtuous but had a fixed idea of virtue, and, since most of them knew that they fell far short of the mark, they sought to save their souls at those emotional orgies, the revivalist camp meetings. They were loyal to their families, patriotic about their states, and fiercely proud of their new country.

Like modern brand-name companies, Weems sold himself first and then his products. Often he was invited to preach in the village church; the denomination never mattered, for the dauntless Parson now preached a universal morality, and even, said some of his clerical critics, used the pulpit to hawk his wares. Whether this be calumny or truth, the fact is that he often served as a guest preacher before vending his wares. The testimonial, too, was a tool in the Parson’s sales kit. On two occasions, for instance, he got Washington himself to endorse reprinted moral tracts.

No amount of prestige and good public relations, however, would induce people to buy something that they did not need or desire. Weems knew the tastes of his people. His letters to Mathew Carey are filled with urgent requests for popular volumes, such as William Guthrie’s A New System of Modern Geography or Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. He begged for speedy delivery of one hundred copies of Guthrie

e’er the Infant Boreas has had time to muster his tremendous forces and let me entreat thee, my dear Fellow Democrat, by our mutual friendships and our mutual interests to lend the swiftest wings to those Goldsmiths. … And the sooner thou sendest them the better, for how canst thou send them in the Winter when every wind is a storm and every wave running mountain high threatens destruction to the laboring barque?

The Bible, however, was his staple, and he was constantly urging Carey to publish a large, handsomely bound edition which he promised would quickly find a prominent place in every farmhouse in the South. Moral tracts he sold by the thousands. These were cheap little pamphlets that illustrated the rewards of virtue and the penalties of vice, with far more elaborate descriptions of vice than of virtue. Many of these tracts were the products of Weems’ own pen ( see page 93).

The jolly book-peddler tried not to miss a court day, when the dusty country roads were jammed with farm wagons headed for the village, bustling with activity as the judge, lawyers, and clerks moved into the local courthouse. Farmers and their families broke rural routine, flocking to town to join the festivities, to settle legal matters, to watch the trials, to buy and to sell, to exchange gossip with friends, and to have a good time. On those days, “when the spirits of the People shall be getting gay and bold,” Parson Weems was at his best. He would rise with the sun, bathe (an eccentricity in that day of no hot and cold running water) in a cool stream outside the village, then dress and drive his book-laden wagon to town. On such occasions he often sold a thousand or more books and pamphlets; that is, if Carey sent a sufficient number of the right titles—the ones Weems demanded, not the ones the publisher wished sold.

Mathew Carey and his impish bookseller rarely agreed on anything, and theirs was a tempestuous relationship. Carey was a hot-tempered Irish Catholic. Born in Dublin in 1760, he agitated against British rule of Ireland, whereupon a price was put upon his head. He escaped to France, where Benjamin Franklin gave him a job in a printing plant he had set up at Passy. But shortly Carey was back in Dublin again, editing an anti-British journal. He served a brief term in jail and then, again threatened with imprisonment, disguised himself as a woman and boarded a ship for America. In Philadelphia, the young fugitive founded in 1785 the firm of Carey and Lea, now the oldest publishing house in North America, although altered to Lea and Febiger. Carey very quickly made his the leading concern in the country, although, as Weems often reminded him, he owed a part of this success to the salesmanship and literary talent of his southern agent. Carey, however, would never admit this to Weems, whom he considered unbusinesslike, if not unreliable. He was constantly after Weems to write to him more often, to let him know where he was and what he was doing. The Parson, on his side, upbraided Carey for sending him unsalable volumes—Goethe, for example—when he had asked for elegantly bound books of travel for the libraries of the Virginians, light reading for the Georgians and the Carolinians, and more Bibles, moral tracts, and textbooks.

They could be breezy with one another as well. Thus Weems to Carey: “How long, thou eldest born of confusion, how long wilt thou continue to send the books to South James River, and the invoice to the headwaters of the Patomak? Would God thou woudst always suffer the invoice to sleep in peace in the same trunk that contains the books!” Carey, replying, complained: “My Friend and fellow citizen, your volume bearing the date of the twelfth instant and covering a note for 100 dollars (I expected three) I received an hour ago. I am surprised you stayed so short a time and did so little at Fredericksburg.”

During the course of their association Weems quit several times in disgust, whereupon Carey would fire him in a rage, as in October, 1796, when Carey roasted Weems again for not writing.

You are not the first person I have met with, forward to throw the blame of his own misconduct on Guiltless Shoulders. Whatever disappointments you have met with in the requisite supplies, you may charge to a pretty large A/C [account], viz, that of your neglect of writing & informing me of your route. Had you done on the subject as I so often importuned you to do, you would have ample provision everywhere before you. …

The following spring, Carey was fed up and terminated the relationship. “I wish to prevent your journey to Richmond, and any other journey for me as long as you live. I wish no further dealings with a man, who while he can cant for hours about morals and religion is as insatiable and griping as the harpy Shylock. …” The summer, however, found Carey visiting Weems at Dumfries, and the reunion was so pleasant that Weems forgot to discuss some business details, for, he said later, “being in company with Mathew Carey, Esq. I had no faculty but for chat and laughter.” But in January of 1810 they were hard at it again. A speculative venture failed, and Carey blamed Weems. Weems replied:

Now in God Almighty’s name! what ground had I from all this to infer that you were going to borrow so thousand dollars from the bank. … Yes sir, for a long time you have done nothing but slander and trouble me who can now with honest joy defy you in the presence of God to say when did I ever rob you of one penny, or when did I ever hold back one penny of what belonged to you. You are constantly telling me what great wealth I might have made in your employ, but what would be all the wealth in this world made in the service of an unreasonable and inhuman taskmaster who makes no allowances for delays …

Yet, by the end of the month, Weems was admonishing Carey,

this is no time to write intemperate letters. And you ought, and I doubt not, will one day blush for what you have written. You see that notwithstanding your indecent reflections on my “honor” I am constantly sending you monies, and I may add large monies, which it is remembered that I have a very limited variety indeed of your books and of these many not very salable …

And so it went on to a new rupture. But always they renewed their relationship as if nothing had happened.

In this anguished manner Weems made his living, but it was as the author of historical biography that he won immortality. Historians and critics have either turned aside the Parson’s work as unimportant, or have damned it as unreliable, and thus his role in American letters and mythology is little understood. What Weems did was to make national symbols of his subjects, legendary giants of republican virtue and bravery for a hero-starved people, heroes of recent history for a people cut off by their own volition from their heroes of legend.

Heroes represent the ideals of a people—what should be, not what is or was. In 1800 the United States was still a very young nation with as yet only one great national event, the Revolution, an experience shared by the whole country. The republic possessed but few of the symbols that serve to evoke patriotism; it had a flag but no anthem; a Fourth of July, but no other national holiday; no national monuments, no shrines. There were no precedents to follow, no examples that seemed to apply. Americans had to create their own heroes, and for this task Weems was eminently well fitted.

Without a hint of a change of pace, Weems could write a moral tirade or a biography. Very often he seemed to alternate between the two, but upon close examination it becomes almost absurdly obvious that this is not the case—all of Weems’ works are the same! They are dressed differently and the words are not the same, but under the surface they are all alike in one important respect: they are all moral tracts. And this is precisely what the Parson intended them to be, for he was a bookseller and a minister, not a historian or even a biographer. His purpose was to make money from his work and to furnish his readers with strong arguments and examples for following the paths of virtue and shunning the lures of vice. He was not interested in teaching readers history or in probing the real motivations of the great. He used the lives of famous men, of Washington, Francis Marion, Franklin, and Penn, simply for illustration. By Weems’ simple formula—later adapted by William H. McGuffey in his Readers and Horatio Alger in his rags-to-riches stories—men are successful, in any field of endeavor, only in proportion to the amount of virtue that they display in their everyday living.

Weems picked Benjamin Franklin early as one of his heroes, “the great economist of America” and symbol of monetary success. In 1797 he published a book of selections from Poor Richard’s Almanac called The Immortal Mentor; or Man’s Unerring Guide to a Healthy, Wealthy, and Happy Life , but it wasn’t until 1815 that he published his biography of Franklin. The biography is not very good, not even up to Weems’ standard. Perhaps the worldly side of Franklin was too much even for the Parson.

The Life of William Penn, too, was a later production, in 1822. The clerical biographer portrayed the adventurous Quaker as a pudgy, pious, and benevolent burgher who refuses King Charles II’s offer of soldiers on an expedition to the New World. He displays a stubborn faith that the Indians share the “moral sense” bestowed on all men by the grace of God. Weems records this interesting exchange between Charles II and William Penn when Charles objects, “I fear, friend William, that that grace has never appeared to the Indians of North America.”

“Why not to them as well as to all others!”

“If it had appeared to them, they would hardly have treated my subjects so barbarously as they have done.”

“That’s no proof to the contrary, friend Charles. Thy subjects were the aggressors.” [Penn then describes the Indians as the kindest creatures in the world and explains that he intends to buy their lands, not to seize them.]

[The King, surprised, says,] “Buy their lands of them! why, man, you have already bought them of me.”

“Yes, I know I have; and at a dear rate too: but I did it only to get thy good will, not that I thought thou hadst any right to their lands.”

“Zounds, man! no right to their lands!”

“No, friend Charles, no right at all. What right hast thou to their lands?”

“Why, the right of discovery....”

“The right of discovery !” replied William Penn, half smiling, “a strange kind of right indeed! Now suppose, friend Charles, some canoe loads of these Indians, crossing the sea, and discovering thy island of Great Britain, were to claim it as their own, and set it up for sale over thy head, what wouldst thou think of it?”

“Why—why—why,” replied Charles, blushing, “I must confess I should think it a piece of great impudence in them.”

“Well, then, how canst thou, a CHRISTIAN, and a CHRISTIAN PRINCE too, do that which thou so utterly condemnest in these people whom thou callest SAVAGES?”

The king was “rather too much staggered to make a reply.” Weems quickly points the moral and hopes “that the AMERICAN YOUTH will take notice how very small indeed, a wicked king appears when placed by the side of an honest man.”

Next in merit and popularity to Weems’ Life of Washington is his Life of General Francis Marion, which was actually ghostwritten by Weems. One of Marion’s companions-in-arms, General Peter Horry, had intended to write a biography, but was unable to put it together and gave Weems the material. Later Weems was forced to acknowledge his authorship when the outraged Horry repudiated the published work as a “military romance.” Weems pictured Marion as the courageous, dashingly romantic “Swamp Fox” whose republican virtues enabled him to outwit Britain’s finest generals. The book is as much a tale of the adventures of Marion’s men as of the wily Swamp Fox himself, filled with stories of their feats—tales which have become a part of our Revolutionary tradition ( see “The Elusive Swamp Fox,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1958).

Colorful as the adventures of Marion were, the book never rivaled The Life of Washington in quality or popularity. George Washington as a moral example served Weems’ purposes best. Here was a Virginia aristocrat who had married wealth, increased it through land speculation, won the war, and become first President. Was this not an example seemingly impossible of emulation by the common youth, who could scarcely hope “to be called to direct the storm of war, or to ravish the ears of deeply listening Senates?” But the Parson assured his young audience that it was not these public acts nor the advantages of wealth that made Washington great. No, it was private virtues that exalted him to be “Columbia’s first and greatest son.” And therefore, concluded Weems, “every youth may become a Washington ….”


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