The Washington Cherry Tree Myth
The cherry tree myth is the one of the most well-known and longest enduring legends about George Washington. The story goes as follows - when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.
This iconic story about the value of honesty was invented by one of Washington’s first biographers, an itinerant minister and bookseller named Mason Locke Weems (also went by Parson Weems). After Washington’s death in 1799 people were anxious to learn about him, and Weems was ready to supply the demand. As he explained to a publisher in January 1800, “Washington you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him…My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute…I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.” Weems’ biography, The Life of Washington,was first published in 1800 and was an instant bestseller. However the cherry tree myth did not appear until the book’s fifth edition was published in 1806.
Although there were other myths about Washington in Weems’s book, the cherry tree myth became the most popular. Weems had several motives when he wrote The Life of Washington and the cherry tree myth. Profit was certainly one of them; he rightly assumed that if he wrote a popular history book about Washington it would sell. Weems was also able to counter the early tradition of deifying Washington by focusing on his private virtues, rather than his public accomplishments. Weems wanted to present Washington as the perfect role model, especially for young Americans.
The cherry tree myth has endured for more than two hundred years probably because we like the story, which has become an important part of Americans' cultural heritage.