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The man who wrote “I cannot tell a lie”? Lied.

"Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree," engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

You’ve heard the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, getting caught, and then fessing up with “I cannot tell a lie.”

But do you know where that story came from? How was it viewed by the audience at the time it was first told?

Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), known to all as Parson Weems, published the story in his book The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington (1800). 

He had served as a pastor in Anne Arundel County, MD until 1792. From 1794 on he hawked books throughout the country as an agent for the publisher Mathew Carey. “The cherry tree fiction,” states the Encyclopedia Britannica drily, “was inserted into the fifth edition (1806) of Weems’s book.”

Etching of Mason Locke Weems by Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 10) (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1912)
Mason Locke Weems

While traveling the country selling books, Weems would also regularly guest preach.

“In 1808 Parson (?) Weems was here,” writes Reverend James Wiltbank of St. Peter’s Episcopal in Lewes. “I do not think he was a clergyman, notwithstanding his story about the Bishop of London having ordained him. If he had been ordained, he could have shown his credentials, his Letters of Orders from the Bishop of London. He certainly was very clever.” (Encyclopedia Britannica verifies that Mason Locke Weems was in fact ordained in London, in the Anglican church, in 1784).

Wiltbank continues: “His ‘Life of George Washington’ was for many years a household work. It is the sole authority for the famous story of ‘the hatchet and the cherry tree.’ The incidents Weems records of the youth of Washington have in them nothing that is marvelous or even uncommon. They are ordinary events incident to the life of many a well raised boy. 

“And yet, because Weems has been discredited by some writers, and was a man with noticeable peculiarities, and these incidents have no other recorder than Weems, they have been ridiculed and denied by even historical writers. Whatever may have been the character of Weems, his pretty and natural anecdotes of the boyhood of Washington are much more easily ridiculed than disproved.”

St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Lewes, DE / public domain
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Lewes, DE

How on earth did Parson Weems’ charming story survive down to us, with such scorn heaped on it in his own time?  The answer is publisher William Holmes McGuffey. He picked up the story and ran it in his popular grammar school textbook–The McGuffey Reader—which was published from 1836 till the early 20th century.

Parson Weems’ George Washington Cherry Tree story:

“One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, George unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, 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?” This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but 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 did cut it with my hatchet.”

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