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Learning Like Abe:  What Abraham Liked to Read-- M.L. Weems' Legends and Stories of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes-- Article about the Author


Mason Locke Weems (October 11, 1759 – May 23, 1825), usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington immediately after his death.




1 M.L. Weems was the source of some of the apocryphal (. . . of doubtful authenticity) stories about President George Washington-- The tale of the cherry tree ("I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet") is included in the fifth edition of The Life of Washington (1809 imprint, originally published 1800), a bestseller that depicted Washington's virtues and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation.
2 Mason Weems was born on October 11, 1759, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He studied theology in London and was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1784. He worked as a minister in Maryland in various capacities from 1784 to 1792.

Financial hardship forced Weems to seek additional employment, and he began working as a traveling book agent. Weems married Frances Ewell in 1795 and established a household in Dumfries, Virginia.

He had a small bookstore in Dumfries that now houses the Weems–Botts Museum, but he continued to travel extensively, selling books and preaching.


3 Dumfries, Virginia is not far from Pohick Church, part of Truro Parish, in Lorton, Virginia, where both George Washington and his father Augustine had worshiped in pre-Revolutionary days. Weems would later inflate this Washington connection and promote himself as the former "Rector of Mount-Vernon parish".

Other notable works by Weems include Life of General Francis Marion (1805); Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays (1817); and Life of William Penn (1819). He was an accomplished violinist.


5 After the death of his father-in-law, Colonel Jessie Ewell (1743–1805), Weems assumed the Ewell family estate, Bel Air, located in Prince William County, Virginia, to partially satisfy debts owed to Weems. In 1808, Weems and his family moved into Bel Air, where he lived until his death. While on travel in Beaufort, South Carolina, Weems died on May 23, 1825 of unspecified causes. He is buried at Bel Air.


6 R.L. Weems has been described as one of the "early Hagiographers"-- to write a biography to venerate (adore, deify, glorify, revere) a person of great fame like George Washington)).

Weems also elevated the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, into the American pantheon (a group of illustrious or notable persons).

Weems helped to secure a place in that pantheon of great Americans for George Washington.

7 Two "Dubious Anecdotes" by R.L. Weems--

a. The cherry-tree anecdote illustrates this point.

b.  Washington's prayer during the winter at Valley Forge.


The exaltation of Washington--

a.  The exalted esteem in which the founding fathers, and especially George Washington, were held by 19th-century Americans may seem quaintly exaggerated to their 21st-century counterparts, but that Washington was so regarded is undisputed. 

b.  The acme of this esteem can be seen on the ceiling of the United States Capitol Building in the form of Brumidi's fresco The Apotheosis of Washington. This is a detail of the round fresco in the dome, depicting George Washington with angelic type figures.


9 Weems' A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, was a biography written in this spirit, amplified by the florid, rollicksome style which was Weems' trademark. According to this account, his subject was "... Washington, the hero and the Demigod ..." and at a level above that "... what he really was, 'the Jupiter Conservator,' the friend and benefactor of men."




Weems Elevated Washington to the "Augustan level of the god "Jupiter Conservator [Orbis]" (that is, "Jupiter, Conservator of the Empire", later rendered "Jupiter, Savior of the World").



11 Lots of "Washington Relatives Claim George Washington"-- Among the exaggerated or invented anecdotes is that of the cherry tree, attributed by Weems to "... an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family ..." who referred to young George as "cousin".

A famous Weems' Anecdote--

"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 everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't 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 anything 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 can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't 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."


13 Weems' Washington Anecdote Reprinted in the Popular McGuffey Reader-- used by schoolchildren, making it part of the culture, causing Washington's February 22 birthday to be celebrated with cherry dishes, with the cherry often claimed to be a favorite of his.


14 In 1896 Woodrow Wilson's biography George Washington was published, calling it a fabrication, with which almost all historians of the period agreed. In spite of the speculation offered by some historians, Phillip Levy argues that the story remains plausible and has not been proven or disproven.



Grant Wood painted the scene under the title "Parson Weems' Fable" in 1939. It is among his gently ironic depictions of Americana and shows the parson pulling back a curtain rimmed with cherries to show the story.


16 After His Assassination, President Lincoln Would also Receive "Exalted Esteem" by Many in the Country and World

Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. Note the Seated Lincoln Inside



Monuments and Memorials for the Great Presidents


Mt. Rushmore Memorial, George Washington, left, Abraham Lincoln Right


Eternal Flame for President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery (Note Washington Monument in the Background)


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