Mason Locke Weems, better known as Parson Weems, considered himself an historian. But, he was far more interested in pleasing people than he was with writing history. His exaggerations and fabrications of fact led one commentator to remark that Weems had “a touch of the confidence man in him.”
Weems was born in 1759 and ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1784. Ten years later he became a traveling book salesman and author. He wrote sermons and religious tracts. His claim to fame, however, are his books on famous Americans from the Revolutionary period; Washington, Franklin, and Francis Marion. In 1800 he wrote Life of Washington which was extremely popular. To make the book even more popular Weems added, among other things, the fictional incident of young George Washington and the Cherry Tree to the fifth edition in 1806.
Parson Weems ran a mobile bookstore known as the “Flying Library” which he took to various cities selling books. In September of 1810 Parson Weems and his mobile bookstore arrived in the capital of Georgia, Milledgeville. His advertisement proclaims, “In a happy republic, like ours, where for the prize of Fame and Fortune, all start fair and fair alike; where everything depends on merit, and that merit is all dependent on Education, it is hoped that wife and generous parents will need no persuasion to give their children those very great advantages which Books afford. An appropriate Oration on the benefits of Education will be pronounced……” His arrival in Milledgeville coincided with the opening of the Superior Court and also with the Georgia Legislature.
In November, just before he took the Flying Library elsewhere, he was invited to speak before the Legislature in the Representative Chamber of the State House. The topic of his talk would be “The Education of Youth.”
George Washington and the Cherry Tree was only one of his many liberties with the truth. In his book on Francis Marion he was supposed to take the work of Marion’s friend, General Peter Horry, and put it into book form. Horry was shocked with the result. He wrote Weems, “I requested you would so far alter the work as to make it read grammatically, and I gave you leave to embellish the work, but entertained not the least idea of what has happened…You have carved and mutilated it with so many erroneous statements [that] your embellishments, observation and remarks, must necessarily be erroneous as proceeding from false grounds…Can you suppose I can be pleased with reading particulars of Marion and myself, when I know such never existed?”
Weems’ appearance before the Legislature was a great success. It prompted an open letter, published in the newspapers, from Governor David Brydie Mitchell to Weems. In it Mitchell said he had just read the Life of Washington and also the Life of Marion and “your publication has exalted my opinion of them to still far higher degrees.” The Governor also commented on “the pains which you have taken in collecting so many very valuable, but hitherto generally unknown, anecdotes of these two noblest champions of American Rights, I pray you to accept my best thanks. And for painting them, with all their virtues and gallant deeds in such glowing colors for the imitation of their young countrymen, I doubt not but you will receive from our citizens that hearty approbation and support which you so well deserve.”
Weems must have chuckled when he read that endorsement of his version of “history.” It’s a shame that General Peter Horry wasn’t present to set the record straight. The unknowing public loved Weems’ works. The Life of Washington, for decades, outsold every book in the United States except the Bible. It was continuously in print until 1927 and has been reprinted again so it is currently available. Today, however, virtually everyone recognizes Weems’ histories for the fiction that they are.
The real lesson of Parson Weems’ is that as historians we must continually look to the sources of our information and not blindly accept what “is written” as gospel. Weigh the evidence before considering it valid.