In a series of “Debunker” columns from a few years back, Ken Jennings shattered a few beloved myths about the presidency—Abraham Lincoln didn’t write the Gettysburg Address on an envelope, JFK didn’t kill the hat. So why take on four more White House whitewashes this month? It’s a matter of some urgency: Ken has a fun new book out this month about such matters. So get ready to whistle along to “Fail to the Chief” as KJ blows up everything you thought you knew about the leader of the free world.
The Debunker: Did George Washington Chop Down a Cherry Tree?
It’s the most morally edifying story from American history involving a hatchet. (Distant second place: Lizzie Borden.) A six-year-old George Washington, “immoderately fond” of his new present, uses it to chop down a “beautiful young English cherry-tree” on his family estate. His father is angrily trying to track down the culprit…when master criminal George walks into the room still holding the hatchet. “George, do you know who killed that cherry tree yonder in the garden?” Dad asks. “I can’t tell a lie, Pa,” says young George. “I did cut it with my hatchet.” Of course his father is so proud of his son’s guileless honesty that George suffers no consequences for his vandalism.
Children have been growing up on this story for more than two centuries, but there’s no historical evidence for it, and scholars agree it was probably invented out of whole cloth. In 1800, the year after Washington’s death, a Virginia parson named Mason Weems wrote his History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, one of several biographies he wrote to tell morally instructive stories about the Founding Fathers. The cherry-tree legend, like the one about Washington praying at Valley Forge, appears for the first time in Weems’s book.
Weems credits the cherry-tree story to a “an aged lady, who was a distant relative” of the first president’s, but the overblown style of the anecdote makes it seem more like a fable than an actual bit of family history. When young George confesses, his father is quoted as saying, “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." I’m suuuure that’s exactly what he said. Even in Weems’s day, the biography was criticized as belonging to “the annals of fanaticism and absurdity,” and his moralizing approach to history doesn’t look any more legit today. Washington was, by all accounts, a scrupulously ethical leader who once wrote to Alexander Hamilton that he aspired to the most enviable of all titles: “an honest man.” But I’m afraid there’s no evidence that he was an unusually honest six-year-old.
Quick Quiz: What variety of cherry, named for a Chinese foreman, is the most widely cultivated cherry tree in the United States?
Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.