Unlike China, Greece and other countries whose cultures go back thousands of years, the United States has a very brief history. When George Washington's great-grandfather immigrated to Virginia in 1657 the nine colonies were on their way to becoming thirteen. People from the world over were pouring into the fledgling colonies, voluntarily from Europe, forcibly from Africa and collectively began to create a diverse society that wondered how they were unique from the rest of the world.
"What then is the American, this new man? "Explains Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crévecoeur, French immigrant and farmer in 1782, "The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles. He must therefore entertain new ideas and from new opinions."
While the Chinese could look to Confucius, or the Greeks could recount the mythical exploits of Odysseus, these new ideas and opinions of the new Americans had no distant past to unify them. With no golden ages of heroic figures to guide them many were invented and the hero they turned to was George Washington.
A towering person of his time, Washington born in 1732 grew up as a British subject. His military career began when France and Great Britain went to war in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) over land in North America. Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and led the fight for independence from Britain. The 'indispensable man' Washington was a victorious general in the American Revolution, key delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and the first president of the United States virtually inventing the role of the president of this new country.
Conscientious of his duties to define the role of first chief executive he posed for portraits, established etiquette for elaborate receptions, presided over the laying of the US Capitol cornerstone and performed innumerable ceremonial duties. As president Washington set about organizing the executive branch and stabilizing the new government. He did this by establishing a cabinet from his senior executives, setting a precedent for a two term limit, choosing the locale of the national capitol and supporting Alexander Hamilton and his modified treasury plan.
By the end of his second term two political parties, the Republicans and the Federalists had emerged. Washington didn't approve of political parties, but found himself agreeing with the fundamentals of the federalists. Under attack for his alliance, Washington happily retired at the end of his second term as president. Even though he no longer held as popular of a stance he once had, in 1797, Washington left for Mount Vernon still the most famous American alive.
Mason Locke Weems or Parson Weems, as he became known made his livelihood more by selling books than by saving souls. Peddling popular works of the time he traveled the backcountry becoming a keen judge of the emerging nation’s literary tastes and began composing the book that would make his mark in history. Washington died in 1799 and Weems seized his moment.
At the time there was not much known about George Washington's childhood and no biography existed, so in 1880 Weems' published The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington . For 25 cents a copy it quickly became a best seller. Weem's Washington was a military genius, a great leader and a man of the people. After many revisions Weem's most acclaimed version was published in 1806 laced with "new and valuable anecdotes," one of which became destined to become the greatest myth of American history. Here's how the 1806 version goes:
When George was about six years old he was given a hatchet of which he was very fond. He was constantly chopping everything in sight. One day in the garden, he unluckily tried his hatchet on his father's favorite cherry tree. He cut the bark so terribly that the tree wasn't going to survive. When asked by his father if he knew who had killed the cherry tree, George answered, I cannot tell a lie, Pa. You know I can't lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."
Generations of Americans believe this to be the central event of Washington's childhood yet no evidence whatsoever exists that this incident occurred. Still the tale has its place in American history. In the story Washington is youthful and innocent, yet armed with a weapon that clears the land and subdues a continent. Filled with promise, rugged and vigorous--akin to America itself-- George accidentally damages his father's favorite tree. When asked about his actions the son rights his wrong with the truth, a weapon more powerful than the hatchet.
By uniting ideals, actions and a mythic hero, Weems created what historians call 'a usable past' for Americans-- a history that helps people to come to know who they are and what they stand for. It was a moral tale telling Americans about themselves and about honesty, right and wrong, and responsibility that every child can relate to. Inventing other anecdotes and stories long forgotten, Weem's story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree captured the public's imagination. Although most Americans recognize it's no more than a myth, it's repeated from one generation to the next. As an enduring symbol of values this truth and tall tale define who Americans are as a people. Understanding how the two combine gives each new generation a clearer picture of the nation’s history.
Gyoy, Andrew, Creative Classroom (Jan/Feb 2001), 53.