Wednesday, October 18, 2023

George Washington and the Cherry Tree "Myth"

The author of the best-selling biography ever written about George Washington was Mason Weems.1 However, it seems to be a litmus test for an historian to be taken seriously that he or she must exhibit a condescending disdain for Weems’ content, especially his anecdote about Washington ruining his father’s cherry tree and confessing it. Hence, in his book, Where the Cherry Tree Grew (2013), University of South Florida history professor Philip Levy states that in recent years professional historians have agreed that “Knocking Weems was a way to show that one was ‘one of us,’ real, credible, truthful...”2 Surprisingly, then, this year on Presidents’ Day, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former president of the White House CorrespondentsAssociation, Carl M. Cannon, offered this caution against injudiciously “knocking Weems.

In his widely acclaimed Washington, a Life,author Ron Chernow dismisses Weems as the man who manufactured enduring myths about Washington refusing to lie about chopping down a cherry tree [and] hurling a silver dollar across the Rappahannock.But just as we must be careful not to pass along hagiographic hokum when writing about politicians, so must we take care in our debunkings. There are several problems with dismissing these accounts as myths.3 

In their new article, An Analysis of the Scholarly Consensus Regarding George Washington and the Cherry Tree Myth,” James Bish & Richard Gardiner, Ph.D. look directly at the sources and scholarship and consider all the evidence piece by piece. In the end, the “myth” label on Weems' cherry tree story will forever be dispensed with by anyone who carefully considers these findings.

Enjoy reading:


1 Michael Kammen, “Introduction” in Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington (Collier Books, 1992), xvii; Hugh T. Harrington, “The History of Parson Weems,” The Journal of The American Revolution, September 25, 2013. Harrington states that only the Bible sold more than Weems’ biography of Washington in the years following its advent. (

2 Philip Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 159. Regarding the cherry tree story, Levy himself believes that “The evidence that the story is true is equal to the evidence that it is false.” ( washington-and-the-cherry-tree-myth/where-the-cherry-tree-grew-an-interview-with- phillip-levy/). 

3 Carl M. Cannon, “Great American Stories: George Washington,” February 21, 2023. george_washington_883017.html Carl Cannon is the son of the celebrated biographer of Ronald Reagan, Lou Cannon; for Cannon’s scholarly credentials see Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics Cannon’s challenges to Weems’ critics extends the long dispute with a history of its own going back to at least the 1920s: “Dr. Barton Defends Cherry Tree Story: Weems Better than Lodge on Washington, He Says,” Boston Globe, March 10, 1927, 12. Pittsburgh Attorney Richard B. Tucker offered, “Defense of Parson Weems and His Cherry Tree Story,” at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Feb. 12, 1949. At the end of his life in 1953, Douglas Southall Freeman made this general comparison between Weems and his debunkers, “Parson Weems was far more nearly accurate in his appraisal than the debunkers have been.” Freeman, quoted by Kammen, “Introduction” in Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington (Collier Books, 1992), xvii. In 1956, Arthur H. Merritt refereed the dispute concluding that it remains an “open” issue. Arthur H. Merritt, “Did Parson Weems Really Invent the Cherry-Tree Story?” in New-York Historical Society Quarterly 40 (July 1956), 252-63. Merritt asked, “Why can’t this simple question be settled once and for all?” In 1962, Marcus Cunliffe surveyed the facts, pro and con, in his ”Parson Weems and George Washington's Cherry Tree,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library; v. 45, without a verdict. The dispute was revived again in 2014: Paul Bedard, Fight Erupts over George Washington Cherry Tree Myth’,” Washington Examiner, March 14, 2014. Austin Washington, the first President’s great grandnephew is currently continuing the contest. 

See also:

Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Hand of Providence in the U. S. Constitution

When the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in May 1787, George Washington was elected to preside by an unanimous vote. He sought to do this in an impartial manner and took no active part in its debates, although his support was widely known and had a significant influence. Privately, he urged certain delegates to support the Constitution, writing “it is the best constitution that can be obtained...and...this, or a dissolution of the union awaits our choice.” (Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia), Letter to Edmund Randolph, January 8, 1788). 

On one of the few occasions he spoke publicly prior to the four months of meetings and debate in Independence Hall, Washington said: “It is too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the event is in the hand of God.” (quoted by Gouverneur Morris, Farrand's Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, March 25, 1787). Other Founding Fathers also acknowledged the hand of Providence in the Constitution that resulted from the Convention on September 17, 1787:

“All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth-that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid?” 
--Benjamin Franklin, Speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 28, 1787 

“The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it [the Constitution] a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” 
--James Madison, Federalist No. 37, January 11, 1788 

“For my own part, I sincerely esteem it a system, which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interest.” 
 --Alexander Hamilton, Letter to Mr. Childs, October 17, 1787 

“When the general convention met, no citizen of the United States could expect less from it than I did, so many jarring interests and prejudices to reconcile! The variety of pressing dangers at our doors, even during the war, were barely sufficient to force us to act in concert and necessarily give way at times to each other. But when the great work was done and published, I was not only most agreeably disappointed, but struck with amazement. Nothing less than that superintending hand of Providence, that so miraculously carried us through the war (in my humble opinion), could have brought it [the Constitution] about so complete, upon the whole.” 
--Charles Pinckney (signer), Letter in State Gazette of South Carolina, May 2, 1788 

“I am as perfectly satisfied that the Union of the States in its form and adoption is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament were the effects of a Divine power.” 
--Benjamin Rush, Letter to Elias Boudinot, July 9, 1788 

Washington concluded: “We may, with a kind of grateful and pious exultation, trace the finger of Providence through those dark and mysterious events, which first induced the States to appoint a general [Constitutional] Convention and then led them one after another into an adoption of the system recommended by that general Convention; thereby in all human probability, laying a lasting foundation for tranquility and happiness.”
--George Washington, Letter to Governor John Trumbull of Connecticut, June 30, 1788

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

What is the Meaning Behind the Statue of Liberty?

“The Statue of Liberty is recognized around the world as the universal symbol of freedom, liberty and progress, as outlined in the statue’s formal name: “La liberte eclairant le monde”, or “Liberty enlightening the world.” This colossal statue depicts Lady Liberty, with her arm held high carrying a glistening gold torch, a wide, seven-pronged crown, and strident legs pacing towards the future. Originally conceived as a gift from the people of France to the United States to commemorate the Declaration of Independence, the public monument has also accrued new societal significance since its completion in 1886. Here are just a handful of the most significant meanings invested into this American icon.

The Statue of Liberty Was a Gift from the People of France to America

The idea for the Statue of Liberty came from Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, who conceived the idea of a monument gifted to America from France, as a symbol of their strong ties forged during the American Civil War. He hoped the statue could represent a centenary since America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, along with the abolition of slavery in the same year, and could strengthen the relationship between the two nations. Laboulaye commissioned the renowned French sculptor and architect Frederic Auguste Bartholdi to design a colossal statue of profound significance, loaded with symbolism related to American history. A tablet in her left hand is inscribed with the date of the United States Declaration of Independence, while a broken shackle and chains at her feet represent liberty breaking the chains of bondage, or slavery in the United States.

A Symbol of the United States’ Multicultural Heritage

In the early 1900s, Georgina Shuyler was one of many to point out that the statue’s proximity to Ellis Island, and its visibility for ships and boats coming ashore, made it a powerful, welcoming symbol for immigrants entering the United States. In response to this new interpretation, the words from Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus were famously etched into a plaque at the base of the statue in 1903, including the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” It became recognized as a symbol of America’s rich multicultural history, founded by people from around the world...

The Statue of Liberty Is a Universal Symbol of Freedom and Liberty

Despite the complicated history of the United States, the statue has become universally recognized as a signifier for freedom and liberty around the world. Bartholdi designed his Lady Liberty to resemble Libertas, the Roman Goddess of Liberty. Many also believe he included a series of important, politically significant symbols to continue the theme. For example, the crown, with its rays extending outwards like the light of the sun, is believed to represent an open, welcoming light. Originally intended to be a lighthouse, the crown is now a viewing platform which visitors can enter to look out across the harbor. Some historians have argued the seven rays of the crown represent the seven seas and the seven continents, implying the global importance of liberty for all. Others believe the seven rays of her crown represent a series of seven vital freedoms: civil, moral, national, natural, personal, political and religious liberty. 

Meanwhile, the shimmering torch, which is covered in a layer of gold leaf in order to catch the rays of the sun throughout the day, is a widely accepted symbol of enlightenment and the path to freedom.”

Photo credit CNN

Read more about the history of the Statue of Liberty: 

Sunday, April 23, 2023

John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the thirty-fifth President of the United States of America and delivered his Inaugural Address. His acknowledgement that our rights come from the hand of God, his call for us to pay the price to assure the success of the cause of liberty and to serve our country, all ring true today. Following are significant excerpts from his memorable speech:

“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning — signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago. 

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. 

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. 

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty… 

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. 

Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation" — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. 

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort? 

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. 

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. 

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. 

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Samuel Adams, Founding Father of the United States

Samuel Adams (1722-1803), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was one of Boston’s most prominent revolutionary leaders. He was known for his ability to harness popular resentment against Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies in a productive manner. His role in the origins of the American War of Independence cannot be understated. His unique perspective and his ability to galvanize popular support were pivotal in the success of his efforts towards resistance to Britain and eventual independence.  

Considered the leader of the protest movement against Parliament’s authority in Massachusetts, Samuel Adams was instrumental in convincing people to join the Sons of Liberty (including John Adams and Paul Revere, among others). As a British citizen, he often referenced the Magna Carta of 1215 which effectively ended arbitrary taxation of barons in England. In the eighteenth century, Boston’s struggle against Parliament’s Acts of taxation seemed all too familiar. 

John Adams described his cousin as a plain, modest, and virtuous man. But in addition, Samuel Adams was a propagandist who was not overscrupulous in his attacks upon British officials and policies, and a passionate politician as well. In innumerable newspaper letters and essays over various signatures, he described British measures and the behavior of royal governors, judges, and customs men in the darkest colors. He was a master of organization, arranging for the election of men who agreed with him, procuring committees that would act as he wished, and securing the passage of resolutions that he desired.

Adams was born in Boston, brought up in a religious and politically active family. A graduate of Harvard College, he was an unsuccessful businessman and tax collector before concentrating on politics. He was an influential official of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Boston Town Meeting in the 1760s, and he became a part of a movement opposed to the British Parliament's efforts to tax the British American colonies without their consent. His 1768 Massachusetts Circular Letter calling for colonial non-cooperation prompted the occupation of Boston by British soldiers, eventually resulting in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Adams and his colleagues devised a committee of correspondence system in 1772 to help coordinate resistance to what he saw as the British government's attempts to violate the British Constitution at the expense of the colonies, which linked like-minded Patriots throughout the Thirteen Colonies. Continued resistance to British policy resulted in the 1773 Boston Tea Party and the coming of the American Revolution. 

Adams was actively involved with colonial newspapers publishing accounts of colonial sentiment over British colonial rule, which were fundamental in uniting the colonies. Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774, at which time Adams attended the Continental Congress in Philadelphia which was convened to coordinate a colonial response. He helped guide Congress towards issuing the Continental Association in 1774 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and he helped draft the Articles of Confederation and the Massachusetts Constitution. Adams returned to Massachusetts after the American Revolution, where he served in the state senate and was eventually elected governor.

On October 17, 1749 Adams married his pastor’s daughter, Elizabeth Checkley. Together they had six children of which only two survived; Samuel and Hannah. On July 25, 1757 Elizabeth passed away after she lingered 19 days following the birth of their sixth child, a stillborn boy. Adams wrote in his family Bible, “To her husband she was a sincere a Friend as she was a faithful Wife ... She ran her Christian race with remarkable steadiness and finished in triumph. She left two small children. God grant that they may inherit her graces.”  Eleven years later at age 42 he married Elizabeth Wells age 28 with whom he had no children. Abigail Adams described them as a “charming pair” with the “tenderest affection toward each other.”  


“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man. We must not conclude merely upon a man's haranguing upon liberty, and using the charming sound, that he is fit to be trusted with the liberties of his country. It is not unfrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty, — to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves… The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy this gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people.” 
Essay published in The Advertiser (1748) and later reprinted in The Life and Public Service of Samuel Adams, Volume 1 (1865), by William Vincent Wells 

“Property is admitted to have an existence, even in the savage state of nature. The bow, the arrow, and the tomahawk; the hunting and the fishing ground, are species of property, as important to an American savage, as pearls, rubies, and diamonds are to the Mogul, or a Nabob in the East, or the lands, tenements, hereditaments, messuages, gold and silver of the Europeans. And if property is necessary for the support of savage life, it is by no means less so in civil society. The Utopian schemes of levelling, and a community of goods, are as visionary and impracticable, as those which vest all property in the Crown, are arbitrary, despotic, and in our government unconstitutional. Now, what property can the colonists be conceived to have, if their money may be granted away by others, without their consent?” 
House of Representatives of Massachusetts to Dennys De Berdt (12 January 1768) 

“The liberties of our Country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards: And it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair Inheritance from our worthy Ancestors: They purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood; and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle; or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men. Of the latter we are in most danger at present: Let us therefore be aware of it. Let us contemplate our forefathers and posterity; and resolve to maintain the rights bequeathed to us from the former, for the sake of the latter. — Instead of sitting down satisfied with the efforts we have already made, which is the wish of our enemies, the necessity of the times, more than ever, calls for our utmost circumspection, deliberation, fortitude, and perseverance. Let us remember that "if we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our liberty, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom." It is a very serious consideration, which should deeply impress our minds, that millions yet unborn may be the miserable sharers of the event.”
Essay, written under the pseudonym "Candidus," in The Boston Gazette (14 October 1771), later published in The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (1865) by William Vincent Wells, p. 425 

“He who is void of virtuous Attachments in private Life, is, or very soon will be void of all Regard for his Country. There is seldom an Instance of a Man guilty of betraying his Country, who had not before lost the Feeling of moral Obligations in his private Connections.” 
Letter to James Warren (4 November 1775), reprinted in The Writings of Samuel Adams, ed. Harry Alonzo Cushing, vol. III (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907), p. 236. 

“The eyes of the people are upon us. [...] If we despond, public confidence is destroyed, the people will no longer yield their support to a hopeless contest, and American liberty is no more. [...] Despondency becomes not the dignity of our cause, nor the character of those who are its supporters. Let us awaken then, and evince a different spirit, -- a spirit that shall inspire the people with confidence in themselves and in us, -- a spirit that will encourage them to persevere in this glorious struggle, until their rights and liberties shall be established on a rock. We have proclaimed to the world our determination 'to die freemen, rather than to live slaves.' We have appealed to Heaven for the justice of our cause, and in Heaven we have placed our trust. [...] We shall never be abandoned by Heaven while we act worthy of its aid and protection.” 
Addressing a meeting of delegates to the Continental Congress, assembled at Yorktown, Pennsylvania, September 1777; as quoted in The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, Volume 2, by William Vincent Wells; Little, Brown, and Company; Boston, 1865 ; pp. 492-493. 

“A general Dissolution of Principles & Manners will more surely overthrow the Liberties of America than the whole Force of the Common Enemy. While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader. How necessary then is it for those who are determined to transmit the Blessings of Liberty as a fair Inheritance to Posterity, to associate on public Principles in Support of public Virtue.” 
Letter to James Warren (12 February 1779) 

“If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great Security.” 
Letter to James Warren (12 February 1779) 

“If ever the Time should come, when vain & aspiring Men shall possess the highest Seats in Government, our Country will stand in Need of its experienced Patriots to prevent its Ruin.” 
Letter to James Warren (24 October 1780) 

“I firmly believe that the benevolent Creator designed the republican Form of Government for Man.” 
Statement of (14 April 1785), quoted in The Writings of Samuel Adams (1904) edited by Harry A. Cushing 

“Let Divines, and Philosophers, Statesmen and Patriots unite their endeavors to renovate the Age, by impressing the Minds of Men with the importance of educating their little boys, and girls — of inculcating in the Minds of youth the fear, and Love of the Deity, and universal Philanthropy; and in subordination to these great principles, the Love of their Country — of instructing them in the Art of self-government, without which they never can act a wise part in the Government of Societies great, or small — in short of leading them in the Study, and Practice of the exalted Virtues of the Christian system.” 
Letter to John Adams (4 October 1790)