Historical Writing: The Washington Myth

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Historical Writing: The Washington Myth


Background. Even during his lifetime, Americans began to mythologize George Washington. Washington himself consciously cultivated the public image of a virtuous and self-sacrificing republican citizen. This characterization gained widespread acceptance among Americans of the early republic as they projected onto Washington the traits they desired for their new nation.

Mason Locke Weems. In 1800 Mason Locke Weems took the glorification of Washington to new heights in his biography of Washington. Ordained as an Anglican minister, Weems had become an itinerant bookseller by 1792. In this occupation Weems developed a sensitivity to popular taste, which proved useful when he wrote one of the many popular biographies of the first U.S. president that followed Washingtons death in December 1799. Weems revised and expanded this immensely popular work several times as it went through some forty editions in twenty-five years and decisively shaped Washingtons popular image.

The Washington Myth. Employing a lively and often colloquial style, Weems enshrined the idealized view of Washington that had already begun to develop in Washingtons lifetime. He often made up anecdotes to make his praise of Washingtons virtues more compelling. The best-known of these stories is the legend of Washingtons voluntary admission that he had chopped down his fathers cherry tree, an anecdote without any basis in fact that Weems added to a later edition to demonstrate that even as a child Washington possessed extraordinary honesty. The point was not just to glorify Washington; Weems hoped to inculcate the same virtues in his readers.


The most famous story about George Washington as a boy was invented by biographer Mason Locke Weems, who falsely attributed the anecdote to a distant relative of Washington. Weemss version of the story is as follows:

When George, said she, was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet ! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping every thing that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mothers pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which barked so terribly, that I dont believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden ? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself; and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, I cant tell a lie, Pa; you know I cant tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet. Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.

Source: Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, edited by Peter S. Onuf (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996).

Private Virtue. In addition to making the story of Washingtons life accessible, Weems tried to make Washingtons virtues a model for the people. Previous writers, Weems believed, had focused too much on Washingtons public acts, which had little bearing on the lives of most children. In contrast, he said Washingtons private virtues were directly relevant to everyday conduct, of importance to all children because in these every youth may become a Washingtona Washington in piety and patriotism, in industry and honourand consequently a Washington, in what alone deserves the name, SELF ESTEEM AND UNIVERSAL RESPECT. Weemss treatment of Washingtons religious piety, benevolence, industry, and other traits worthy of emulation established goals that ordinary people could attain in their everyday lives.


Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, edited by Peter S. Onuf (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996);

Garry Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984).

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