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Mason Locke Weems (October 11 1756May 23 1825), generally known as Parson Weems, was an Americanmarker printer and author. He is best known as the source of some of the apocryphal stories about George Washington, including the famous tale of the cherry tree ("I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet"). The Life of Washington, Weems' most famous work, contained the story. Creating a moral tale to emphasize a character trait was a commonly used literary device in 18th century biographies.

Weems was born on 11 October 1756 (1759, by some accounts) in Anne Arundel County, Marylandmarker. He studied theology in Londonmarker and was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1784. From about 1800 to 1817, he served as a part-time minister of Pohick Churchmarker, part of Truro Parishmarker, in Lorton, Virginiamarker, where both George Washington and his father Augustine had served on the vestry.

Financial hardship forced Weems to seek other employment, leading to his second career as a book agent and author. He had a small bookstore in Dumfries, Virginiamarker, that now houses the Weems-Botts Museum. Other notable works by Weems include Life of General Francis Marion (1805); Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays (1817); and Life of William Penn (1819). He was also an accomplished violinist.

Historical reliability

Weems' name would probably be forgotten today, had it not been for the tension between the liveliness of his narratives, contrasted with the "...charge of a want of veracity [that] is brought against all Weems's writings". The cherry-tree anecdote illustrates this point. Another dubious anecdote found in the Weems biography is that of Washington's prayer during the winter at Valley Forge

The exaltation of Washington

The exalted esteem in which the "founding fathers", and especially George Washington, were held by 19th century Americans seems quaintly exaggerated to their 21st century counterparts; but that Washington was so regarded is undisputed. The acme of this esteem is found on the ceiling of the United States Capitol Building in the form of Brumidi's fresco The Apotheosis of Washingtonmarker.

Weems' A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, was a biography written in this spirit, amplified by the florid, rollicksome style which was Weems' trademark. According to this account, publicly his subject was "...Washington, the HERO,and the Demigod...;" furthermore, at a level above that "...what he really was, [was] 'the Jupiter Conservator,' the friend and benefactor of men." With this hyperbole, Weems elevated Washington to the Augustinian level of the god "Jupiter Conservator [Orbis]" (that is, "Jupiter, Conservator of the Empire", later rendered "Jupiter, Savior of the World").

Weems also called Washington the "greatest man that ever lived". This degree of adulation, combined with the circumstance that his anecdotes cannot be independently verified demonstrates clearly that they are confabulations and parables. Similar mythology grew up about other "founding fathers" (e.g., Patrick Henry), usually well after the subjects of the mythology had died.

On the other hand, there is nothing implausible or fantastic about a boy confessing to have damaged a tree with his new hatchet.

The cherry-tree anecdote

Arguably the most famous (or infamous) of the exaggerated or invented anecdotes is that of the cherry tree, attributed by Weems to "...an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family...," who referred to young George as "cousin".

Death

Weems died on May 23, 1825 in Beaufort, South Carolinamarker of unspecified causes. He is buried somewhere on the grounds of Bel Air Plantation near the extinct town of Minnievillemarker in present day Dale Citymarker, Prince William County, Virginiamarker. The precise location of his grave and the accompanying cemetery were lost in the mid 20th Century.

In 1911, Lawrence C. Wroth authored Parson Weems; a biographical and critical study; it was his first book.

Primary sources



Notes

  1. www.FamousAmericans.net
  2. CHAPTER XIII: THE CHARACTER OF WASHINGTON
  3. The story of throwing a Spanish dollar (or a stone that size) 270 ft (90 m) across the Rappahannock River near the Washington plantation at Ferry Farm does not seem to occur in Weems' biography, but is instead attributed to Washington's step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis. The alleged feat was recapitulated in 1936 by the renowned professional baseball pitcher Walter Johnson.[1]
  4. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/gw/chap1.html CHAPTER I: An Introduction
  5. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/gw/chap2.html CHAPTER II: BIRTH AND EDUCATION
  6. [2]


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