The cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about George Washington. In the original story, when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.1
Ironically, this iconic story about the value of honesty was invented by one of Washington’s first biographers, an itinerant minister and bookseller named Mason Locke Weems. After Washington’s death in 1799 people were anxious to learn about him, and Weems was ready to supply the demand. As he explained to a publisher in January 1800, “Washington you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him…My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute…I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.”2 Weems’ biography, The Life of Washington, was first published in 1800 and was an instant bestseller. However the cherry tree myth did not appear until the book’s fifth edition was published in 1806.
Although there were other myths about Washington in Weems’s book, the cherry tree myth became the most popular. Weems had several motives when he wrote The Life of Washington and the cherry tree myth. Profit was certainly one of them; he rightly assumed that if he wrote a popular history book about Washington it would sell. Weems was also able to counter the early tradition of deifying Washington by focusing on his private virtues, rather than his public accomplishments. A Federalist admirer of order and self-discipline, Weems wanted to present Washington as the perfect role model, especially for young Americans.
The cherry tree myth and other stories showed readers that Washington’s public greatness was due to his private virtues. Washington’s achievements as a general and president were familiar to people in the early nineteenth century, but little was known about his relationship with his father, who died when Washington was only eleven years old. As one Pennsylvanian observed, “The facts and anecdotes collected by the author are well calculated to exhibit the character of that illustrious man, and Christian hero.”3 Weems knew what the public wanted to read, and as a result of his success he is considered one of the fathers of popular history.
Weems wrote his version of the cherry tree myth to appeal to a broad audience, but decades later William Holmes McGuffey composed a series of grammar school textbooks that recast the anecdote as a children's story. McGuffey was a Presbyterian minister and a college professor who was passionate about teaching morality and religion to children. His books, known as McGuffey’s Readers, gave him the perfect opportunity. First published in 1836, the readers remained in print for nearly a hundred years and sold over 120 million copies.
McGuffey's version of the cherry tree myth appeared in his Eclectic Second Reader for almost twenty years, including the German-language edition from 1854. In McGuffey's version of the story, Washington's language was formalized, and he showed more deference to his father’s authority. For example, when Washington’s father explains the sin of lying, McGuffey has young George respond tearfully, "Father, do I ever tell lies?”4
As ministers concerned with moral and religious reform, McGuffey and Weems had similar motives for writing. Both men also believed that the best way to improve the moral fiber of society was to educate children. Washington provided the perfect role model, and McGuffey turned the cherry tree myth into a story specifically aimed at children. Follow-up questions at the end of McGuffey’s cherry tree story reinforce its message: “How did his father feel toward him when he made his confession? What may we expect by confessing our faults?”5
By the 1830s, the cherry tree myth was firmly entrenched in American culture, as the case of Joice Heth clearly shows. Heth was an elderly enslaved woman purchased by P.T. Barnum in 1835. He made her into a sideshow attraction, billing her as an enslaved woman who had raised George Washington. (If true, this would have made her 161 years old.) Heth had many physical characteristics of extreme old age. The stories she told about Washington--including the cherry tree myth--were right out of Weems. Heth was seen as credible because she was telling stories that people already knew.
The cherry tree myth has endured for more than two hundred years probably because we like the story, which has become an important part of Americans' cultural heritage. It has been featured in comic strips and cartoons, especially political cartoons. Americans like to use the myth as a standard for politicians; presidents from William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have been featured in cherry-tree themed cartoons. The longevity of the cherry tree myth is demonstrative of both American ideals and Washington’s legacy.
George Mason University
1 Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington the Great (Augusta, GA: George P. Randolph, 1806), 8-9.
2 Mason Locke Weems to Mathew Carey, January 12, 1800, in Paul Leicester Ford, Mason Locke Weems: His Works, His Ways: A Bibliography Left Unfinished, 3 vols. (New York: Plimpton Press, 1929), 2: 8-9.
3 Proposals of Mason L. Weems, Dumfries, for publishing by subscription, The Life of George Washington, with curious anecdotes, equally honourable to himself and exemplary to his young countrymen (Philadelphia: Carey, 1809).
4 William Holmes McGuffey, The Eclectic Second Reader (Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1836), 113-115.
Harris, Christopher. "Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington: The Making of a Bestseller." Southern Literary Journal, 19 (1987): 92-102.
Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
McGuffey, William H. The Eclectic Second Reader. Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1836.
Weems, Mason L. The Life of Washington the Great: Enriched with a Number of Very Curious Anecdotes, Perfectly in Character, and Equally Honorable to Himself, and Exemplary to his Young Countrymen. Augusta, GA: George P. Randolph, 1806.