Comment: John McRae, "Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie; I Cut the Tree," 1867

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John McRae, "Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie; I Cut the Tree," 1867

The Moral Washington: Construction of a Legend (1800-1920s)

John McRae, "Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie; I Cut the Tree," 1867 engraving after a painting by G.G. White

George Washington's reputation as a man of moral fortitude reveals more about America's view of morality than it does about the man himself. Washington was an exceedingly bland heroic leader, embodying an eighteenth-century ideal of republican virtue that emphasized duty, sacrifice and honorable disinterest. Flamboyance and daring were emphatically not required. Washington's virtue was admirable, but not overly interesting.

Perhaps this is why the most famous example of his fortitude of character is, in fact, just fiction. The story of Washington and the Cherry Tree, a tale which still lingers through probably every grammar school in the U.S., was invented by a parson named Mason Locke Weems in a biography of Washington published directly after his death. Saturated with tales of Washington's selflessness and honesty, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington(1800) and The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen(1806) supplied the American people with flattering (and often rhyming) renditions of the events that shaped their hero. Weems imagined everthing from Washington's childhood transgression and repentence to his apotheosis when "at the sight of him, even those blessed spirits seem[ed] to feel new raptures" (Weems, 60). According to historian Karal Ann Marling, Weems was struggling to "flesh out a believable and interest ing figure ... to humanize Washington" who had been painted as "cold and colorless" in an earlier, poorly-selling biography. While it is likely that some readers of the time questioned the authenticity of the tales, Weems' portraits soared in popularity in the early 1800s.

More than a century later, Weems would be vigorously debunked by a new corps of biographers intent on resurrecting the real truth of Washington's life. Some favored dismantling the myth wholesale and dismissing it from the record. Others, however, intended to portray the story as apocryphal, but commend its inspirational value anyway. As Marling quotes from a woman who remembered every verse of the story from her days as school, "If the tale isn't true, it should be. It is too pretty to be classified with the myths"
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"I am different from Washington; I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won't."
- quoted in Mark Twain, Henderson

Disclaimer: Mark Twain (1835-1910-To be continued) is unlicensed. His river pilot's license went delinquent in 1862. Caution advised. Daily Paul