Washington’s Cherry Tree: Legend or Fact?

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Early American Hatchets

George Washington as a child, according to the writing of Mason Locke Weems, is believed to have chopped down a cherry tree. Is the tale legend or fact?

George Washington’s New Hatchet

Tradition has it that George Washington, America’s first president, chopped down a cherry tree in his youth. The incident may have been the concoction of an ex-parson turned bookseller, Mason Locke Weems, who first wrote about the incident. According to Weems young George had a new hatchet. Hatchets are meant for chopping wood. The trunk of the supposed cherry tree was, of course, wood, so what better place for George to try out his new tool?

In Weems’ story George gives the tree a good whack and chops it down. His father sees the damaged tree and asks his son if he knows who did the deed. George is reported, in Weems’ writing, to have replied to his father’s query by answering:

“I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”

So the culprit is caught. However, Weems’ story continues with the elder Washington saying he is glad that George killed the tree, explaining that by George being honest about the situation he has well paid his father for the ruined tree.

But the big question is this: Did young George Washington actually cut down the cherry tree and then be honest about it to his father?

Weems’ Story: Truth of Fabrication?

It is generally believed today that the entire story was a fabrication by Weems. 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 seller of books. 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/Cheery 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. So, again, did Washington chop down the cherry tree? The answer probably lies some where between: Is there a Santa Claus and Does the Easter Bunny live on Easter Island?

The answer lies is in the heart, which does not always distinguish between fact and fiction but always knows what it cherishes.

Sources:

  1. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 23. Crowell-Collier Educational Corporation, 1968.
  2. Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency George Washington. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004.
  3. Van Tassel, David D. “The Legend Maker.” American Heritage, February 1962, Vol. XIII, No. 2. American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc. New York, 1962.
  4. Whitney, David C. The American Presidents. Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1967.