The History of Parson Weems

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.”

Parson Weems’ Fable by Grant Wood (1939) depicts Weems'  famous story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Source: Amon Carter Museum
Parson Weems’ Fable by Grant Wood (1939) depicts Weems’ famous story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Source: Amon Carter Museum

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.

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13 Comments

  • THE IRONY OF THE MYTH OF THE CHERRY TREE MYTH

    Although I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion that Weems’ account of the cherry tree is fictitious, I find this claim, which I have encountered ubiquitously, highly ironic. The thesis of this article is that we “must continually look for sources of our information rather than blindly accepting what is written.” As I read this article, I wanted to heed its directive: where are the sources that “disprove” Weems’ cherry tree story? It’s an ad populum case, “Virtually everyone knows that the story is a myth.”

    Strangely, that conclusion made by the author was the very kind of statement that the article was trying to caution against. For many years, people in the U.S. would say the opposite: “Virtually everyone knows that its a fact that George told the truth to his father about the cherry tree.” The writer of this article says, “don’t just believe what ‘virtually everyone’ knows–rather DEMAND sources,” and then goes on to make an argument on the grounds that “virtually everyone knows it to be true.”

    Where, then, are the sources that confirm Weems did not get his information from “an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family…” just as he said?

    I’ve been waiting for a historian to set aside the “everyone knows…” fallacy and actually respond to those reputable historians who have challenged them to “provide sources” to disprove the cherry tree story. Joseph Gustaitis, the editor of Colliers and a highly respected historian published “Mason Locke Weems: ‘I Cannot Tell a Lie.'” American History Illustrated 22 (February 1988): 40-41, in which he concluded, “it is at least possible that he (Parson Weems) got the story from a reliable source.”

    Lawrence Wroth wrote a comprehensive study on Weems titled, “Parson Weems: A Biographical and Critical Study,” in which he concluded, “It is quite within the pale of probability that when Weems gave as his authority for the story the same ‘excellent lady’ who had told him others of her memories of the youthful hero, he was speaking sober truth.”

    Presidential expert Carl Anthony recently wrote an article arguing that the story is likely NOT a myth: http://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/02/20/new-evidence-tells-truth-of-george-washingtons-cherry-tree-tale/

    Though I don’t endorse his ideology, I sympathize with the bold person who has offered $10,000 to any historian who can provide sources to disprove the “cherry tree” story: http://www.ministers-best-friend.com/George-Washingtons-CHERRY-TREE-Story.html

    Now there’s a person who is not only preaching “as historians we must continually look to the sources of our information and not blindly accept what is written as gospel,” there’s a person who is challenging the writer of that sentence to walk the talk.

    The greatest irony of this historic anecdote is this: we use it as an example to instruct students not to accept anything on popularity alone, but when asked to show the sources that confirm it’s a myth, we say “are you kidding? EVERYONE knows it’s a myth.” I’m prepared to label this phenomenon the “Myth of the Myth of the Cherry Tree.”

    C’mon historians! Don’t embarrass our craft. Don’t make arguments on ad populum fallacies. Provide sources!!

    • It’s not the responsibility of historians to disprove a claim in a previous author’s work. It’s the first author’s responsibility to provide convincing evidence for that claim. Given the gaps in the historic record and the constant possibility of lost evidence, it’s untenable to require historians to disprove that a vaguely described event might have happened at some unspecified time.

      In this case, we have Weems’s word that he heard this undated story from an unnamed female cousin of Washington decades before he wrote out a version with verbatim quotations. No other source supports the tale. We also have evidence from Horry that Weems embellished his books with unreliable tales and falsehoods. Those books contain other dubious anecdotes, all pointing toward the pious moral lessons Weems liked to preach.

      If historians have looked at that evidence and decided that Weems and his unsupported stories are unreliable, that’s not because they’re jumping to conclusions. That’s because Weems himself left so little evidence for his claims, and far more evidence of his unreliability.

      • You are misrepresenting me. I am not making the claim that the cherry tree story is true. I am simply pointing out that to deem the story mythological, with absolute certainty, is to go beyond what the evidence allows. When a contemporaneous writer makes a claim it constitutes a prima-facie case. To dismiss it entirely requires sufficient counter-evidence. Santa Claus living at the North Pole can be deemed a myth, with certainty, because there is indisputable evidence to do so. Atlas bearing the earth on his shoulders can be deemed a myth in the same way. But being from a single source that has been shown to embellish is not sufficient reason to deem an assertion mythological.

        You seem to be willing to deem the cherry tree account a myth on the grounds that it is from a single source, and that the author certainly embellished elsewhere. That is not enough to deem it a myth. If so, you would have to assert the “Myth of the text of the Mayflower Compact.” Why? The only original source that provided the text is William Bradford. The original document (if ever one existed) is not extant. Bradford’s testimony is the only evidence that the text existed.

        But Bradford’s writing is also thick with nonsensical historical claims: his writing begins with the historical claim that Satan chased the pilgrims out of England. He documented that God, in His kindness, brought sickness upon the Indians and spared the English. He provided a story of a man who had sex with a turkey. In agreement with Winthrop, he recorded that Anne Hutchinson gave birth to a “monster.” He explained that on June 1, 1638, when a group left Plymouth to form a new community, that God punished them with an earthquake. The Indians were certainly devil worshipers and witches certainly existed, if Bradford is a trustworthy historical source. His text, Of Plymouth, was written decades after the events.

        Yet in spite of Bradford’s highly questionable assertions elsewhere, there seems to be no question as to his accurate and reliable recording of the text of the Mayflower Compact, yet there is no corroboration. Hence, the two factors of being a single source and being one who notoriously twists the record for moralistic purposes are not enough to deem the text of the Mayflower Compact a myth. Bradford is only one example. Similar assessments can be made of Suetonius, Tacitus, Eusebius, Einhard, John Foxe, Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Ben Franklin, James Madison, et al. We rely on these sources solely for a great deal of historical information; and yet each had his “moralistic” agenda which might be evidence of myth-making. But without counter-evidence, we should stop short of declaring the assertions written by these writers “myths.”

        Now we can test Bradford against other sources and conclude that he did, in fact, provide much history that can be corroborated. But the same can be said of Weems. There’s more in his Life of Washington that is verifiable than otherwise.

        It just seems far more responsible and in keeping with a true healthy skepticism to avoid using the word “myth” unless we’re certain of it. Perhaps language like “likely fabricated,” “uncorroborated,” or “dubious” is less arrogant and more in keeping with the standards of the historians craft.

        • How am I “misrepresenting” you, Mr. Gardiner? I didn’t write that you were “making the claim that the cherry tree story is true.” In fact, I didn’t write the word “you” in my comment. I don’t see the reason for your defensiveness.

          I wrote about the responsibility of Weems as an author claiming historical accuracy and of others who have argued for his accuracy (including an author you linked to). They have the burden to provide convincing evidence for their claims; other authors don’t have to provide “counter-evidence,” as you call it. A scientist making a claim has to provide evidence through a rigorous process or that claim is not treated as fact. Historical evidence can’t be as strong (no experiments, gaps in the record, etc.), but we still shouldn’t treat claims as fact unless they are evidence-based.

          Your analogy to the Mayflower Compact seems weak because William Bradford wrote about an event in which he claimed to have participated, one which was reported in print within two years. In contrast, Weems wrote about a private event in another family decades earlier with only the vaguest sourcing—yet he wrote out verbatim dialogue. Weems wasn’t a “contemporaneous writer,” in your words, and he wasn’t reporting his own experience or a story only he would have been privy to.

          In addition to not having used the word “you” before, I also didn’t use the word “myth,” but I’m happy to discuss that term. You seem to think that historians should reserve the word “myth” for stories shown to be false because of physical impossibility or strong “counter-evidence.” I think most historians use the term for a story claimed to be historically factual but not supported by good evidence that has nonetheless taken on greater symbolic meaning in the culture. Not every unsubstantiated claim beomes a historical myth. And in fact some events that do seem to have solid historical underpinning also take on mythic status as the culture attaches more significance to them.

          Curiously, the story of little George and the cherry tree has become an American myth even though almost everyone learns that it’s false (or at least unsubstantiated). A story about honesty flourishes in our culture as an example of a lie.

          • I think that your nuanced definition of “myth” is not what the author of the article above has in mind in reference to the cherry tree story. He uses the word “fiction” in reference to the story. I think that’s a rather unambiguous claim that the story is false. I simply find such unqualified claims too strident. I would say the same about those who deem Plymouth Rock a myth (or fiction), those who insist Pocahontas saving Smith is a myth (or fiction), those who deem the Valley Forge Prayer a myth (or fabrication), those who allege that “so help me God” is a GW myth (or fiction), those who insist that Standish never courted Priscilla Mullins, those who are sure that Hancock never said “Johny Bull can read my signature without his spectacles,” and Franklin never said “we must hang together or we shall assuredly hang separately.”

            The evidence for each of these stories is rather weak. But to absolutely rule them as fictions requires more than just pointing out that the sources from whence they derive are weak.

  • I’ll go with Francois Furstenberg’s account of this and the source he suggested which is Arthur H. Merritt, “Did Parson Weems Really Invent the Cherry-Tree Story?” in New-York Historical Society Quarterly 40 (July 1956), 252-63.

    I’m pretty sure that the story is an invention of Weems as is much of the book he wrote on Washington.

    • Merritt, in the 1956 article you cited, following Wroth, insisted that the validity of the cherry tree story remains an “open” question.

      I don’t have any problem with calling Weems’ reliability into question. There is abundant evidence that he mixed history with fiction. But calling his reliability into question is a far cry from “proving the cherry tree story to be a myth using primary sources.”

      It’s one thing to say that the story is “doubtful” or “unverified.” It means something different to call it a myth or a fiction. Yes Weems’ work definitely includes some fictional accounts, but he also wrote much that was true. When an unreliable person writes that 2+2=4, it doesn’t make it untrue just because it’s coming from an untrustworthy source. I accept the case that the cherry tree story emerged from a flimsy source. To disprove the story, however, requires more than an assessment of Weems’ character.

      The assertion that Santa lives at the North Pole is a myth–why? Because a host of people have been there with cameras. The evidence proves it to be a myth. The assertion that the earth is carried on Atlas’ shoulders is a myth–why? Again, there’s photographic evidence from space. It’s rather determinative. The “Northwest Passage,” the waterway connecting the Potomac river to China, is a myth–why? Google earth provides proof positive.

      The assertion that George Washington took his hatchet to a cherry tree at the Ferry Farm and then admitted it to his father is perhaps an unverifiable assertion, but it has not been disproven. The source of the assertion is a man known for embellishing the facts. He cited an anonymous lady who was close to the Washington family as his source. Some historians base claims on weaker evidence than this. No corroboration currently exists, however. On the other hand, no sources have emerged which exclude the possibility that Weems relayed the report accurately.

      I think that sometimes people who style themselves “mythbusters” are so eager to “bust” that in their zeal they establish a counter-myth. The assertion that the “cherry tree story has been proven to be a myth” is itself a myth, one that is broadly heralded by historians and non-historians alike in ironic attempts to show that they are “too bright” to be suckered into accepting popular but erroneous claims. Very ironic.

      • I disagree with your stance on the myth. You are making a claim that the myth is real and provided no substantiated evidence to prove it is real while on the other hand there is a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that it is not real. So yes, they are mythbusting and do so quite well. You on the other hand are trying to uphold a myth with no factual evidence.

        Weems made up the story along with most of what he wrote to sell a book. The man knew his market. Furstenberg covers this extremely well in his book, “In the Name of the Father.” The context involved in that period of time for Weems and others was that Washington’s death signified the end of the Revolutionary era. The men who personified the Revolution were dying off and Washington was the most iconic symbol of that event.

        Sure, plenty were still alive, but then again many had died. During the next 30 years a lot of erroneous and manufactured history was created in order to create an American identity for those who had no first hand knowledge of the Revolution, i.e., the children of the Revolution.

        Weems and the cherry tree myth come directly from that.

        • I think you have misread my post. I am not arguing for the legitimacy of the story. I am arguing against the certainty that the story is untrue. Those are two very different concepts. To call something a “myth” is to assert that the story is definitely a fiction. That’s too arrogant in this case. “Unlikely, unverifiable, dubious, perhaps a myth, etc.” would be more responsible. Just as there is not enough evidence to assert the story to be unquestionable true, there is also not enough evidence to assert that the story is unquestionably false. Carl Anthony raises reasonable doubt http://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/02/20/new-evidence-tells-truth-of-george-washingtons-cherry-tree-tale/

          • It appears to me that you are far more interested in presenting American heritage than actual American history. There is a big difference. Washington and the cherry tree story is heritage. It is not history. Washington praying on his knees at Valley Forge is heritage. It is not history.

            Heritage is often presented as history, but has little to do with historical fact. Heritage obscures the historical past and allows a false interpretation of history to be presented as fact. Historians work with facts in constructing as accurate a picture of the past as we can.

          • I don’t see any egg on historians’ faces over the city of Troy. They were mistaken, that’s all. I find it interesting you linked to a site that calmly proclaims the Trojan War and the Trojan Horse to be myths. Where’s the proof behind that? I personally find highly likely there was some Greek-Trojan conflict that could be conflated with the Trojan war of legend.

  • In this case the disproval of the myth involves proving a negative, and that’s something that, logically, is very difficult to do. Even if you could prove that, say, Washington didn’t cut down the cherry tree on his 5th birthday, you’d still have to prove that he didn’t cut it down on his 6th birthday, and all the other days in between. Even if you had a boyhood journal, kept faithfully every day by a young George W., there remains the possibility that the event happened but the future President failed to record it, perhaps because he was embarrassed about it.

    I had a similar “myth” to disprove in a research project I was working on a few years ago, and it was extremely frustrating. No matter how many descriptions of that particular event I came up with, none of them actually proved that the mythical interpretation was false. Luckily, I did find another kind of primary source that proved the “myth” couldn’t have happened until several weeks after the date ascribed to it.

    Here, the only original source that we have is a source that’s known to be flaky, and many decades after the event. All we can do is weigh the arguments pro and con, and in this case the arguments that it’s a “myth” seem to have the most weight behind them.

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