At the age of six, the future first President of the United States was accused of chopping down his father’s favorite cherry tree. Keeping in mind that lying would prove futile and immoral, Washington confessed to his father, “I did cut it with my hatchet.”
The irresistible mixture of boyish mixture and honesty had made this confession one of the most famous ‘event’ in American history. Surely this boy embodied the honest, forthright qualities of a great leader.
Yet, one important thing to consider here is the fact that very less is known about Washington’s childhood. In one of the first biographies written about him by a clergyman, Mason Locke Weems-Washington’s entire early life is described in only a single page.
In 1800, a year after the president’s death, the first edition of Life of George Washington was published. However, there was no mention of the cherry-tree incident at all. It was later revised to include a number of new anecdotes, including young George’s exploitation with the hatchet.
Weems claimed that he heard the story from an anonymous ‘aged lady’ who was once associated with Washington’s household. But Weems was known to have spent a great deal of time inventing ‘biographical anecdotes’ for his books, lifting some of his sotires from works about completely different and unrelated people.
He even admitted as much later, but he did not say if the cherry-tree story was one of his other fabricated stories. In his Life of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, Weems made up a story of an agreement, a treaty between the Indians and the settlers, complete with suitable quotations. But no such treaty even existed.
Weem’s biography about Washington ran to more than 70 editions during the 19th century, firmly establishing the cherry-tree story in American folklore. But not modern biographer accepts it as true, and in some cases, it is omitted altogether.
However, a German stoneware mug, stamped with the date 1776-the year of the Declaration of Independence, bears an illustration of a story very similar to that of young Washington and the cherry tree.
A youth in costume of the period is shown with a hatched and a felled tree, and it is not clear whether the initials that appear in two places are ‘C.W’ or to be more apt in this case, ‘G.W.’
Featured image source: Haiku Deck