George Washington and the cherry tree
SAN JOSE, February 21, 2014— Most citizens of the United States seem to accept without much question the holiday at the beginning of the week, popularly known as Presidents’ Day, is set aside primarily as a federal holiday to honor the two most famous presidents born in the month of February: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. There are also some Americans who believe it is a federal holiday intended to celebrate or honor all the other U.S. presidents. However, the U.S. Congress, by signing into law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act on June 28, 1968, never created a Presidents’ Day – meaning millions of Americans have in recent years been unwittingly dissing the Father of the Country. Imagine how equal treatment would appeal to those who love Rev. Martin King, Jr., if the third Monday in January would be relegated to a holiday for All Black Ministers Appreciation Day.
The underlying effect of diminishing the value of George Washington in the minds of the people of the United States of America is not a new phenomenon. One of the most famous efforts to minimize the man known as the Father of our Country, or the various legends associated with Washington, is the famous cherry tree story originally written in Rev. Mason Locke Weems’s A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington.
Weems’s book was originally published as a simple eighty-page pamphlet in 1800, but eight years later, the sixth edition had morphed into a much more substantial book that consisted of over two hundred pages. And, the stories were incorporated into McGuffey’s Readers, and later biographers accepted Weem’s stories as the gospel truth.
Intended to provide a source of moral instruction and a steady stream of income for the author, critics revealed the truth, (or lack of it, in Parson Weem’s book. Eventually historians attacked the author and his book for the fabricated accounts of George Washington’s life.
By the early 1900s, Parson’s began to be dismissed. As early as 1910, critics had nailed the work as “grotesque and wholly imaginary stories,” or simply “pernicious drivel.” From this point, additional voices piled on and viewed the book as “a mass of absurdities and deliberate false inventions,” and a “slush of plagiarism and piety.” By 1930, the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree itself had been chopped down.
Over a hundred years after Parson Weems had died, in the 1927 reprint of the book, the editor noted that after having run through almost seventy editions, and after successfully instilling “the popular legend of Washington” in “millions of American minds,” the book had “died a natural and deserved death.”
The editor went on, almost apologetically, to explain that the purpose of the 1927 reprinting was basically to preserve “one of the most interesting, if absurd, contributions ever made to the rich body of American legend.”
Thus, for all practical purposes, the cherry tree was laid to rest; sadly, that was not the end of it as the attacks upon Weems did not stop at just attacking him or his fable. The intellectual attacks shifted to the subject of the legend: George Washington.
Some bright bulbs within the intellectual community, by some twisted leap of logic, fused fabrications in the fable to questions regarding Washington’s integrity. Since the cherry tree story did not represent the truth, critics carried their criticism further and began to cast doubt upon George Washington’s honesty and his character, using Weems’ fable as a springboard for the attacks, and such attacks upon George Washington flowed more freely after the Weems’ legend had been dismantled.
Some attacks upon Washington were subtle, yet in other instances, quite barbed. The most well-known attack was upon the Founders portrayed as a bunch of old white guys who owned slaves. Indeed, Washington, was one of those old white guys, and did own several slaves on his property.
Ironically, although Washington is guilty as charged for owning slaves during his lifetime, many Americans are not aware that his Will emancipated his slaves. One of the most significant aspects of Washington’s list of incredible achievements occurred as an extension of his intent after he died, with a provision of his Will that freed all of the old farmer’s slaves.
In reality, he had owned slaves and sold slaves throughout his life and had seemingly not thought much about slavery one way or another. Before the war, Washington had been just another Virginia landowner who looked upon slavery as a normal part of life, although there is some speculation suggesting Washington viewed slavery as a necessary evil in the way that some southern landowners perceived the institution at that time.
In Virginia prior to 1782, state law restricted slave owners in any efforts to free their slaves. A slave owner was only allowed to set a slave free for “meritorious service,” and then only with the approval of the Governor and his council. This law was repealed in 1782 with a new law permitting the manumission of slaves through a deed or a will.
After the Revolution, the most famous Virginian retreated to Mount Vernon and attempted to concentrate on his neglected farmlands, but he did not take immediate action on the 1782 law. Although he tried to sell some land, which would have permitted a manumission of slaves via the deed of trust at the sale of land, he found no buyers – even as he advertised in the British papers. Instead he needed to wait and eventually drew up his last Will and testament freeing of all of his slaves.
A year before he wrote his Will, Washington confided in a visiting Englishman that, “Until the mind of the slave has been educated to understand freedom, the gift of freedom would only assure its abuse.” Despite this personal observation, his last serious action was to provide for the freedom of those he had the power to emancipate. Washington stipulated that all of his slaves were to be emancipated upon Martha Washington’s death. He did free William (Billy) Lee, his personal valet, before Martha died. Actually, Martha carried out her husband’s wishes to free the slaves within twelve months of his death, and ultimately allowed them to stay on at Mt. Vernon if they had family members there.
In addition, Washington further stipulated in his will that the elderly ex-slaves would be provided for, specifically clothed and fed, by his direct heirs, and the freed children would be taught to read, to write, and would be provided some valuable trade in order to provide support for themselves.
George Washington’s actions were powerful in the time, as he made such a powerful effort which was a strong statement of his genuine convictions. Despite fierce opposition and resistance, he made it happen. It was a genuine legacy from a man who dared for risk his life for the genuine freedom of his people. Americans should not lose sight of this heritage.
Unfortunately, the general American public has been stirred more by an understanding of George Washington and the ridiculous cherry tree than an awareness that Washington emancipated his slaves. Ironically, both the lie of the cherry tree and the truth of freeing his slaves occurred after his death.
Washington was no longer around to speak on his own behalf, but this illustration says much about how U.S. history is taught in the U.S. public education system. It also speaks volumes about Americans. Today Americans are bombarded with so many more lies than people can remember. Sadly, many of those lies flow from the major media outlets and the halls of the “people’s” government, and the people are expected to believe and embrace the lies, which in other countries would be labeled as propaganda.
Easily a lie becomes ingrained in public perception; however, the truth often struggles to see the light of day. This may be because public perception is often based upon the frequency with which the public is bombarded by propaganda and how little light of day the truth enjoys.
In the study of American history, it is important to remember George Washington for what kind of a person he really was, rather than what he was not. He risked his life on a regular basis in the fight for freedom, and in death righted an egregious wrong to extend that freedom to those who deserved it as well.
Americans must not lose their link to Mr. Washington who truly stood for freedom, and sincerely fought for freedom – even after he died. When a people lose touch with their heritage and their roots, they become a people who have lost their identity as a people. It is not too late to hold tight to the heritage of freedom.