A battle over whether young George Washington really hacked at cherry tree with an ax has broken out between Washington's great-nephew and the keepers of the first president's history, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association that operates the family estate on the Potomac River.
In a new book and interview about Washington's youth, great-nephew Austin Washington says the story is true, and he took Mount Vernon to task for caving in to nay-saying historians.
But Mount Vernon’s research historian, Mary Thompson, said that the facility is siding with other historians who dismiss the tale “rather than promote myths about this seminal figure in American history.”
The story of how Washington couldn’t tell a lie is well known. In his 1800 children’s book, Parson Weems was the first to tell that Washington “barked” his father’s cherry tree at age six, in about 1738, and confessed when confronted. Over time, it has morphed into Washington cutting the tree down.
Explaining why Mount Vernon considers it “myth,” Thompson told Secrets that Weems had a reputation for exaggeration, and he didn't quote anybody in his book. “Not having that information for Weems' biography of Washington definitely lowers its value to professional historians, because there is no way to evaluate the credibility of those sources,” she said.
But Austin Washington said current-day history writing style wasn’t the fashion in 1800, and there is no reason to believe that Weems lied.
“The cherry tree story is almost surely based on a real incident,” said Washington, who argued that honesty was what people in the 1700s and 1800s traded on. “Honesty was a really important value,” he told Secrets. “It says something about us that we have trouble believing it,” said the author of The Education of George Washington, published by Regnery History.
“The problem is, historians have an unhealthy admiration for the written word over 'oral history', as they disdainfully refer to what they are never allowed to do in libraries—speak. Parson Weems' source was the people who actually knew George Washington: his friends, neighbors, and relatives. No other historian can say that about George Washington. No one actually wrote down the cherry tree incident before Parson Weems heard it from one of George Washington's relatives, an older woman who still lived nearby. It's biased to reject him as a credible source,” Washington said.
Mount Vernon’s Thompson gives Washington credit for helping to revive interest in Weems. “Austin Washington makes a good case for listening again to Weems’ stories and giving both him and them the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
“Whether the case is good enough to overcome the problems with Weems is something that will have to be hashed out by historians in the months and years to come,” she added.Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.