George Washington and the Cherry Tree

1.  What is it?  
We all know it, surely, but just in case, here is the version originally told:
 “When George was about six years old, he became the happy owner of a hatchet- of which, like most little boys- he was immoderately fond and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way.
One day in the garden where he often amused himself he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry tree, which he barked so terribly, that I believe the tree never got the better of it .
The next morning the old gentleman [George Washington’s Papa], finding out what had befallen his tree- which,by the by, was a great favourite with him- came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance.
“George,” said his father, “do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?”
George was taken by surprise,  and for a moment staggered under the question, but he quickly recovered himself and looking at his father with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all conquering truth,  he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie pa, you know I can’t tell a lie! I cut it with my hatchet!”

Whereupon the father is delighted and praises the boy with an over the top fulsome speech of much loquacity, even worse than the ‘sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm… ‘ blather.

Well.  Spoiler alert.  I believe the basic details of the cherry tree story are more likely to be true than not but the speechifying around those basic details rings less true to my ears.

who told it?
Parson Weems is the first to have published the tale.  He says he got it from an elderly lady he knew who was a distant relative of the Washingtons and had spent time in their household when she was a child.  Parson Weems published the first biography of Washington.  He published it shortly after WAshington’s death, during a time when lots of other people who knew George Washington were also still were alive.  Washington’s step-daughter was still living and she often corrected exaggerations or false tales of her beloved step father, but she never rejected this one.  In fact, the cherry tree story was never denied by anybody inside or outside of Washington’s family for a hundred years.
 Weems did exaggerate at times, and he preferred to tell good stories about the subjects of his biographies rather than stories to their discredit, and he fleshed out those stories with very flowery, over the top language.
When you read the story in context, it turns out that Weems was telling it to illustrate the wisdom of George Washington’s parents and the fine quality of their parenting, especially George’s father. George couldn’t tell lies not because he was a perfect child, but because his father had raised him that way, stressing the value of honesty.  The cherry tree anecdote is preceded by another, shared by the same lady. In the earlier anecdote, young George received a lovely apple from that same visiting relation,  but was reluctant to share  with other children, and his father rebuked him and then during the harvest season took George out to the orchard to witness the fruit trees bending and groaning under the weight of the bountiful harvest. His father reminded him of the time months previously when he’d been unwilling to share, and pointed out how much God shared with the Washington family and that God expects his children to share and that He rewards those who do.  George was properly ashamed and repentant.  The lesson there, again, was Washington, Senior’s conscientious parenting more so than the perfections of young George, although George took to the parenting well enough that in this section of his biography, Weems is presenting him as a good example of what good, involved, conscientious parenting can do.
At any rate, everybody accepted the basic outlines of the cherry tree story until decades after anybody who would have known of it firsthand was dead.

For instance, The School News and Practical Educator, Volume 9 (1896) tells teachers that another point of fact about the cherry tree story is that at the time, there were only three cherry trees in America, all of them owned by Washington Senior, and they could only be replaced by sending to England to purchase a sapling and having it shipped by sea, so the loss of the cherry tree was quite devastating.

Why don’t we believe it any more?
Historians have mainly only discounted it since the bias for debunking leaders came into fashion.  and it was not ‘debunked’ until  1896 at all, and then by Woodrow Wilson who called it a fabrication in his biography of Washington.  Woodrow Wilson did not really have any evidence for his claim.There are more and better reasons to believe it than there are to call it a fabrication, exaggerated though it may be.
Woodrow Wilson is a man I hold in low regard, and a man with a vested interest in debunking previous heroes.  Those other historians who also doubt it are mainly only following his lead- they have no additional information.
According to Wikipedia:”In 1896 Woodrow Wilson‘s biography George Washington was published, calling it a fabrication, after which almost all historians of the period followed suit, even though the story was never denied by Washington’s relatives, notably Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852), whom Washington raised as his own daughter, and who spent her life preserving his memory and debunking false stories.

In spite of the speculation offered by some historians the story remains plausible and has not been proven or disproven.[9]

  It was only challenged in the age of debunking heroes and there is zero evidence supporting the debunking side. So it is at best an exaggeration to say it is definitely false or even ‘apocryphal.’

It’s popular to discount it because we live in an age that values cynicism, debunking, and reductionary viewpoints, and we tend to believe or disbelieve information filtered through that narrative.

I don’t know if the cherry tree story is strictly true or not. Nobody *knows*. Nobody *can* know at this point. What we do know is that this story was told by a writer who knew the family and claimed to have heard it from them and no family members ever said it wasn’t true, and the first guy who said it was a fabrication did not know any of them, and did not like the notion that a public leader should be of good character in his private life to be a leader in public life.

It’s going a bit far to insist that we *know* it wasn’t true.  In fact, it sounds exactly to me like the sort of story that does get passed down in a family- the bare details sound quite plausible to me- a boy gets a hatchet and does what you’d expect a boy with a hatchet to do, goes around whacking and hacking things, and one of them is a prized young sapling of his father’s, which he cuts up badly enough that the tree won’t recover (Weems never said he cut the three down, only that he chopped at it and the tree probably didn’t recover- you can do this to a tree by merely girdling it, chopping off the bark in a ring around the tree, so it’s not remotely implausible that a boy with a hatchet could have cut a cherry sapling enough for it to not to survive).    Confronted, Washington confesses the truth. A father focused on teaching his son to be honest would definitely use that story to reinforce his teachings- we had trouble with a couple of kids who told fibs and many was the time we’d stress to them that we’d rather they told us a truth that we hated than to tell us a lie they thought would please us, and we had a couple family stories of our own that we used to illustrate that idea. It is what parents do.
In spite of the speculation offered by some historians the story remains plausible and has not been disproven.

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