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.

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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. 

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