He was a theologian. AND he was a bookseller. And yet, all people today think about, when they think about him at all, is what a colossal liar he was. Is that any way to treat a bookseller?
See, he was also a writer, and that’s where he got into trouble. He wanted to write morally instructive for impressionable youth (people do that) and actually wrote it in a style that had some life and excitement to it. His books were highly valued for many years for their moral tone and vigorous style, but then someone pointed out that his story about not telling lies was a fib from start to finish, and things have kind of been downhill ever since.
His name was Mason Locke Weems, and though today is NOT his birthday, he is the reason you may be offered cherry pie. He is the “Parson Weems” responsible for that Life of George Washington to the fifth edition of which he added a little story he’d been told by an old lady he knew. You may remember it: all about how George, at the age of five, went out with his little hatchet and…you DO remember it. If not, I’ll wait here while you resort to Google.
The parson’s habit—one might even say talent—for making up stories that showed what upstanding characters his heroes were sold a lot of books for him. People who had provided him with information complained here and there, as grumblers will do, that he had written a whole lot more than he’d been told. And one or two things he said about himself were kind of…well, exactly the sort of thing authors WILL make up to help out in the sales department (he claimed to have been minister in George Washington’s parish. And he WAS in the same county, anyhow.) And he’s not the only author to try to make money by rushing into print with a book about a celebrity who had just died. (The first edition of his classic appeared in 1800, shortly after Washington’s death at the age of 67.)
But there is no reason in any of this for you to turn down cherry pie on Washington’s Birthday, which is February 22, as we schoolchildren had to learn before Presidents’ Day was invented. Nor do I think you should pass up pie simply because George himself never celebrated his birthday on the twenty-second of February. It was the calendar reform, see, which came along when George was young. Under the old calendar, his birthday was February 11, and he continued to celebrate that date even though February 11 itself moved eleven days forward. I would probably have been the same way myself, so I don’t intend to blame him. It does mean you can eat cherry pie on both his birthdays, if you like.
As for making the story about the cherry tree up, I am shocked at Parson Weems for doing such a thing, and yet…. At about the same time historians were rushing forward to call him a base fabricator, a publishing house was bringing out a line of books for children about the boyhoods and girlhoods of noted American stars. I read ‘em all in my grade school’s library, things with titles like Young Davy Crockett, Young Clara Barton, and suchlike, which told us exciting stories full of promise of greatness for the young person indicated, many of whom did NOT especially leave extensive notes about their childhood. I am not saying these folks were just making up whatever they thought would instruct and entertain youthful readers, but I haven’t exactly said that about Mason L. Weems, either.
In fact, inspired by all this UFO conspiracy stuff I’ve been getting donated lately, I really feel moved to point out that none of the relatives of George Washington ever went out of the way to deny the story, though there a bunch were still living when the book came out. (No, they didn’t rush to say, “Oh, sure, I remember that story about Uncle George” either, but the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, isn’t it?)
Maybe on October 11, which is Parson Weems’s birthday, you could eat cold cuts until you are full of baloney. I’m sure he’d appreciate any tribute.