In Defense of Parson Weems

He bent the truth when he wrote the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, but it was for a noble, nay, the noblest of causes. 

“Parson Weems’ Fable,” 1939, by Grant Wood (1891-1942).

In January 1800, a month after George Washington’s death, an itinerate bookseller resting from his travels in Dumfries wrote with breathless excitement to Mathew Carey, a Philadelphia publisher. The salesman wasted no time in profitless grieving. “Washington, you know, is gone!” he said. “Millions are gaping to read something about him. I am very nearly prim’d and cock’d for ’em.”

Six months earlier, the bookseller had begun “to collect anecdotes” about Washington, intending “to give his history, sufficiently minute—I accompany him from his start, thro the French & Indian & British or Revolutionary wars, to the Presidents [sic] chair, to the throne in the hearts of 5,000,000 of People. I then go on to show that his unparralled [sic] rise & elevation were due to his Great Virtues.”

The salesman said the scheme couldn’t fail. Produced for as little as 10 cents a copy, but sold for “25 or 37 Cents,” such a paean to the Father of His Country—the first—would make author and publisher alike “a world of pence and popularity.” With much of the legwork already done (some anecdotes Weems just made up), he said he could send half of the book immediately.

Carey liked the idea, and later that year, The History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington appeared, followed by numerous other editions. Americans loved the book and its author. They did so with good reason, even if generations of historians, disapproving of the author’s determination to fabricate stories and violate today’s canons of respectable historical practice, have not. 

This first biography of Washington is better written and more historically significant than its scholarly critics seem to realize, however, and the author deserves our gratitude, rather than the scorn to which he has been routinely subjected.

Born Mason Locke Weems in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in 1759, he studied medicine in Edinburgh or London (no one seems sure which) and read for ordination in the Church of England. 

Back home in 1784, and known as Parson Weems, he served a church in Maryland, preaching in Virginia and points south, and selling uplifting books. (He also called himself the Rector of “Mount-Vernon Parish,” which never existed, and claimed to have been chaplain to Washington himself, which is also untrue.) He soon saw more opportunity in sales than the ministry, but solved the problem by combining roles. 

The monicker “Parson” calls to mind a humorless prig, which Weems was not. A gregarious soul, he was well-liked wherever he went. He settled in Dumfries, then a thriving tobacco port, where from 1789-1802 he owned the building now housing the Weems-Botts Museum, which opened in 1975. (Attorney Benjamin Botts, who defended Aaron Burr in his trial for treason, bought the house from Weems in 1802—He died in the Richmond Theater fire of 1811.) Weems seems to have used the structure—since enlarged—as a bookstore where, Karleen Kovalcik of Historic Dumfries, Inc., says, he worked on the Washington book. 

In 1785, Weems married Fanny Ewell and, through her family, came into possession of Bel Air, a plantation house in Woodbridge, where he lived until his death during a sales trip to South Carolina in 1825.

Weems followed the Washington biography with those of Benjamin Franklin and William Penn, though he is remembered for the initial offering and for one episode in it. That’s the scene—not introduced until the fifth edition in 1806, by which time the book was getting longer and more colorful—where Washington’s father discovers that one of his saplings has been irreparably damaged and little George fesses up: “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” 

“Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” Pa says. Such honesty “in my son, is more worth [sic] than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”

Unlikely as the scene is, the anecdote supported the author’s determination to show that Washington’s success was attributable to his great virtue. 

Cataloging the author’s fanciful embellishments, historians nonetheless give Weems grudging credit for imagination and narrative brio. 

A “man destitute of historical sense, training or morals,” as Henry Cabot Lodge, the historian (and congressman) put it, Weems nevertheless played an important, arguably indispensible, role in the establishment of the American nation. 

Today we are taught to sneer at Weems. But what we must understand is that any great collective enterprise—such as forming a durable nation—requires its own mythology. 

For that reason, we should be thankful that Weems provided the fledgling republic with the stories that helped to sustain its people. They “demanded to be told of a Washington who was a ‘human angil’ [sic]—spotless, pious, dauntless,” Marcus Cunliffe, a British scholar, wrote in 1962, and Weems “helped supply that demand.” 

It is said, by the way, that Weems invented the term “best-seller.” That is a hard claim to nail down, but if he didn’t come up with the term, he should have.

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

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