For generations, American school children hung classrooms with red-paper hatchets and cherries to honor the first President on his February 22 birthday. Through all those years, kids were told George Washington couldn’t tell a lie and when asked by his father Augustine who had “barked” a cherry tree, the six-year old confessed that he did it with his little hatchet and he admitted it because he “could not tell a lie.”
Then, it wasn’t long before we were told that, like Santa Claus, it was just a well-intentioned myth.
In fact, the truth may be closer to the myth.
The effort to plumb that cherry takes a path which winds through impossibly conflicting genealogy, the riddles of archeology, the science of tree-dating, the study of late 18th century textiles, and finding the place of oral history within the rigor of academic documentation.
Most historians claim that associating cherries with George Washington started in 1806 when his first full-life biography hit its fifth edition. A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, had evolved from an initial 80-page pamphlet in 1800, a year after Washington died. Written by Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), an itinerant preacher and book seller best known as “Parson Weems,” this fifth edition was enlarged from the initial one of eighty-one pages and was the first to include the cherry tree story. By the time he died in 1825, it went through twenty-nine editions. The cherry tree story disseminated widely and quickly once it was adapted to the popular McGuffey Reader used by schoolchildren throughout the 19th century.
The first crop of succeeding George Washington biographies largely ignored the cherry tree story since no specific source for it was provided, but academics and historians working on later works at the time of his presidency’s centennial began the attacks on Weems and his cherry tree. In his George Washington: A Profile (1896) future President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “Of its factual truth there is no evidence whatever…” The same year Paul Leicester Ford called Weems a “fabricator and sensation-monger” and Professor Alexander Johnston deemed the cherry tree story “quite apocryphal.” Joseph Rodman in his The Critic magazine essay “The Hatchet and the Cherry Tree,” (1904) said it was “idle quip and irreverent jest.” Every year, as February 22 approached, one could expect an annual onslaught of cherries, with all sorts of recipes using the fruit being pushed as a “favorite” of the Father of Our Country.
By the 20th century, Weems was practically a criminal. In his two-volume The Life of George Washington (1920) notorious snob Henry Cabot Lodge sneered that Weems’ book would never be found in “the hands of the polite society of the great eastern towns,” and its “tawdry style” could only possibly appeal to “backwoodsman.” William Roscoe Thayer (1922) thought the “fictitious cherry-tree and hatchet” was “pernicious drivel.” Four years later Rupert Hughes called it a “slush of plagiarism and piety.”