"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

George Washington

I Can Not Tell a Lie

This stained glass panel of 6-year-old George Washington confessing to having chopped his father's favorite cherry tree entitled "I Cannot Tell a Lie" by the studio of Karl J. Mueller hangs in the Museum and Education center at Mount Vernon. "The myth of Washington cutting down a cherry tree was created by Parson Mason Locke Weems " says the caption.

Augustine Washington

Weems telling of the story, in his 1800 Life of Washington, goes this way:
The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted; for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am alluded for the last.
“When George”, said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet, of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond and was constantly going about chopping every thing that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's peasticks, he 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 lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” -- Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”
The only epistemological claim Weems makes with respect to this story is that "It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted" because it was reported to Weems "20 years ago" (c 1780) by  “…an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family.” Notice that in this version George is not portrayed as in the usual telling of this story saying stiffly “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.”  He says, more believably,  “I can't lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”

McGuffey's Second Eclectic Reader, 1848,  illustrates Wm. H. McGuffey's influential re-telling of the tale with the woodcut below.  

“I can't tell a lie, father; you know I can't tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet.”

In this c1867 version of the scene engraved by John C. McRae after a painting by G. G. White, George says, “Father, I cannot tell a lie: I cut the tree.” (LOC)

“Father, I cannot tell a lie: I cut the tree.”

 In a 1937 syndicated newspaper article entitled Parson Weems, Washington Myth-Maker,  Elmo Scott Watson propounds the theory that the Cherry Tree Tale is based on “The Fruitful Vine” a fable from The Looking-Glass for the Mind  by M. Berquin, 1814. 

Old Woodcut from “The Looking Glass of the Mind,” illustrating “The Fruitful Vine” from which Weems got his idea for the Washington cherry tree story.

These cartoons accompanied Watson's article in some papers: 


No comments:

Post a Comment