Mason Locke Weems
(October 11, 1759 – May 23, 1825), usually referred to as
was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography
George Washington immediately after his
was the source of some of the apocryphal (.
. . of
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
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.
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
Life of General Francis Marion (1805);
Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays (1817);
Life of William Penn (1819).
He was an accomplished violinist.
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.
R.L. Weems has been described as one of the "early
to write a
a person of great fame like George Washington)).
Swamp Fox, Francis Marion,
American pantheon (a
group of illustrious or notable persons).
Weems helped to secure a place in that
pantheon of great Americans for George Washington.
Two "Dubious Anecdotes" by R.L. Weems--
The cherry-tree anecdote illustrates this point.
prayer during the winter at Valley Forge.
The exaltation of Washington--
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
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
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").
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".
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."
Weems' Washington Anecdote Reprinted in the Popular
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.
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.
painted the scene under the title "Parson Weems' Fable"
It is among his gently ironic depictions of Americana
and shows the parson pulling back a curtain rimmed with
cherries to show the story.
His Assassination, President Lincoln Would also Receive
"Exalted Esteem" by Many in the Country and World
Memorial, Washington D.C. Note the Seated Lincoln Inside
and Memorials for the Great Presidents
Mt. Rushmore Memorial, George Washington, left, Abraham
Flame for President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National
Cemetery (Note Washington Monument in the Background)
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