Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Did Washington chop down a cherry tree?

February 27, 2013

In the original version of familiar tale, six-year-old George Washington does indeed take his child-sized hatchet to the trunk of his father’s cherry tree—but merely succeeds in damaging it by cutting the bark away. Chopping the tree down makes a more dramatic story, and probably was added as the anecdote was passed from person to person, but the real twist is that it never occurred at all. The hatchet, the tree and the little boy who declared, “I can’t tell a lie,” were the invention of writer Mason Weems for his book A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, published shortly after Washington’s death. Writing under the pen name Parson Weems (though not a real parson), he claimed the story was recounted to him by a (fictional) childhood acquaintance of the President. Truly an odd beginning for a fable about honesty.

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