In 1806, sixty-eight years after it didn’t happen, minister, bookseller, and promotor of all things virtuous Mason Locke Weems revealed to the world that a six-year-old George Washington had once chopped his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet. According to the story, the unfailingly virtuous young George confessed his wrongdoing to his father who was proud of him for doing so.
It wasn’t until the fifth edition that Weems included the charming tale in his instant bestseller, The Life of George Washington. Like all good biographers, Weems dug deep and attempted to look beyond the familiar public service life of his subject into the less well-known influential moments that eventually led to greatness.
Weems spun his biography around the idea that in order for George Washington to grow into the great man he had been, he must have developed a healthy collection of good virtues throughout his early years of formation. The trouble was, Weems didn’t have access to all the stories he needed to make the concept work.
So, Weems joined the ranks of those who engage in popular history—that genre which includes a little less strict scholarship and a little more making stuff up for the sake of telling a good story and selling lots of books (or creating a silly blog post).
It worked. Weems sold a lot of books, and he invented one of the most often repeated stories told in American elementary school classrooms, where young children are lied to about history so that they learn to be honest and accountable for their mistakes if they ever want to be president.
So that might have been a slight miscalculation on the part of Mason Locke Weems and the American school system, but at least it is a good lesson in irony. I could think of approximately 42 million things I’d rather do than become the President of the United States, but I do remember learning the story.
And I thought about the tale every spring, because at my house we always had at least one cherry tree that produced a ton of cherries for my mom to turn into pie. I would refuse to eat it, of course, because when I was young, I didn’t see the point of calling something dessert if it included more fruit than chocolate.
Still, I have fond memories of picking cherries. And seeding cherries. Lots of cherries. For hours. Until my fingers were stained red and everything was sticky and I might have been tempted to take a hatchet to that tree. I cannot tell a lie.
I did eventually learn the joys of eating cherry pie and now that I’m a grownup with a home of my own, we have a cherry tree that we manage to pick a few cherries from every spring. For some reason, this was a particularly good year for it. I don’t know if it was the just perfect weather pattern or if our fairly young tree finally reached its fruiting potential or what, but we had a lot of cherries to pick and pit.
And about a week or so later, so did my parents. I recruited my youngest son and we went to the grandparents’ house to help pick more cherries. Their much bigger tree had outdone itself. We picked and reached and climbed and picked some more, until we were hot and tired, our fingers were sticky, and Grandma said she had enough for more pies than they could probably manage to eat.
By that point, I think I’d not have been surprised if my son had taken a hatchet to the tree. He would have come clean about it because he’s a pretty virtuous kid, and though I wouldn’t wish this on him, I’m sure he would make a brilliant president someday.