Maps, Ships and Architecture

Mason Locke “Parson” Weems

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Mason Locke Weems (October 11, 1759 – May 23, 1825), generally known as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author. He is best known as the source of some of the apocryphal stories about George Washington. The famous tale of the cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet”) is included in The Life of Washington (1800), Weems’ most famous work. This nineteenth-century bestseller depicted Washington’s virtues and provided an entertaining and morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation.

BIOGRAPHY

Weems was born on October 11, 1759 in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He studied theology in London and was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1784. He worked as a minister in Maryland in various capacities from 1784 to 1792. Financial hardship forced Weems to seek additional employment, and he began working as a traveling book agent. Weems married Frances Ewell in 1795 and established a household in Dumfries, Virginia. He had a small bookstore in Dumfries that now houses The Weems–Botts Museum, but he continued to travel extensively, selling books and preaching.

More on The Weems-Botts Museum:
Mason Locke Weems – Cleric by William E. S. Flory of Historic Dumfries Virginia, Inc. on April 8, 1974
Potomac Scene Magazine Article on Parson Locke Weems from May 9, 1975
Potomac News Article on The Weems-Botts Museum Dedication from May 12, 1975
The Weems-Botts Museum Tri-Fold Brochure
Bel Air, Prince William County, Virginia Brochure
The Weems-Botts Gallery
The Official Weems-Botts Museum Website

Dumfries is not far from Pohick Church, part of Truro Parish, in Lorton, Virginia, where both George Washington and his father Augustine had worshipped in pre-Revolutionary days. Weems would later inflate this Washington connection and promote himself as the former “rector of Mount-Vernon parish”.

Other notable works by Weems include Life of General Francis Marion (1805); Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays (1817); and Life of William Penn (1819).  He also wrote such moral tracts as “God’s Revenge Against Murder” (1807) and “The Drunkard’s Looking Glass” (1812).  He was an accomplished violinist.

Weems died on May 23, 1825 in Beaufort, South Carolina of unspecified causes. He is buried somewhere on the grounds of Bel Air Plantation near the extinct town of Minnieville in present day Dale City, Prince William County, Virginia. The precise location of his grave and the accompanying cemetery were lost in the mid-20th century.

In 1911, Lawrence C. Wroth authored Parson Weems; a biographical and critical study; it was his first book.

INFLUENCE AND HISTORICAL RELIABILITY

The New York Times has described Weems as one of the “early hagiographers” of American literature “who elevated the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, into the American pantheon and helped secure a place there for George Washington”.

Another dubious anecdote found in the Weems biography is that of Washington’s prayer during the winter at Valley Forge.

THE CHERRY-TREE ANECDOTE

Arguably the most famous (or infamous) of the exaggerated or invented anecdotes is that of the cherry tree, attributed by Weems to “…an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family…,” who referred to young George as “cousin”.

'Parson Weems' Fable', a 1939 painting by Grant Wood, depicting both Weems and his famous "Cherry Tree" story.

‘Parson Weems’ Fable’, a 1939 painting by Grant Wood, depicting both Weems and his famous “Cherry Tree” story.

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 indebted 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 everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, 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 anything 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 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,” 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.”

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