February 22, 2017

George Washington: "I cannot tell a lie."

It was a story many of us heard as a child in school, a story of young George Washington and the cherry tree.  In the original story, when George 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."  George's father embraced him and rejoiced that his son's honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.  [Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington the Great, 1806]

Weems created this story for the book's 5th edition, because he wanted to present Washington as a role model, especially for young Americans.  That story, along with the Ten Commandments which many of us were encouraged to learn as children and included the commandment: "You shall not lie"; ingrained in many of us from an early age that lying is simply wrong.

Few figures in American history are surrounded by more well- intended mythology than Washington. Throughout much of his adult life, many sought to perfect the image of the Father of our Nation, and after his death, others sought to deify the man.  Weems in writing this biography seems to have included the myth of the cherry tree in order to humanize Washington.

George Washington grew up to become a national hero and the nation's first President. He remains, for many persons, the ideal for what we expect of a President, including the virtue of honesty as illustrated in the old myth: "I cannot tell a lie."