A few years ago one of my students, Justin Bollinger (now in his second year of law school), wrote an excellent senior thesis on Mason Locke Weems, the early nineteenth-century bookseller who is famous for writing (and selling) The Life of George Washington. Weems’s biography is filled with unsubstantiated stories about the first president of the United States, including the famous story of a youthful Washington chopping down his father’s precious cherry-tree.
Since supervising Justin’s thesis, I have become more and more interested in the ways that Weems’s stories about Washington have influenced American culture. I am particularly interested in how the cherry-tree story and other Weems myths made their way into nineteenth and twentieth-century school textbooks.
As some of my regular readers know, I am working on a book about whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. Today, as part of my research, I was scanning Google Books to see if I could find any references in post-Civil War textbooks to the George Washington of Weems’s literary imagination.
I found some good stuff, including a reference to the cherry-tree story in a 1919 book entitled A Textbook on Retail Selling. The author of this textbook reproduces an advertisement for what appears to be a “Washington’s Birthday” retail sale. The ad reads:
Just one hundred and eighty-five years ago to-day, George Washington, the father of our country, was born. History tells us that when George was quite a youngster his father missed a favorite cherry-tree from his orchard. George promptly confessed to having perpetrated the deed with his little hatchet and as a reward for telling the truth his father did not punish him. George Washington would not tell a lie. He was honest and never falsely represented himself. These traits were conspicuous throughout his long career, which led him to the presidency of the United States.
This paragraph, or course, relies entirely on Weems’s biography of Washington. But here is the kicker:
We never say anything that is not so at our store, and while we cannot be the president of the United States, we can be the most exclusive store for women and children in the United States, and that is our ambition.
George Washington, or at least the George Washington made popular by Mason Locke Weems, seemed to be quite useful to the science of “retail selling.”
It still is.