“Hoping that our youth may be persuaded to love and imitate the virtues of the men whose great names they have been accustomed, from the cradle, to lisp with veneration, I have long coveted to set these virtues before them.”
– Mason Locke Weems
This week we find ourselves in the retrospectively sunny world of JFK’s New Frontier, face to face with one of America’s enduring myths.
When first I looked at the calendar entry for February 22, 1963 — nine months to the day before Dallas — I squinted at the dotted apparition in the center.
What in the fresh hell is that supposed to be? I thought, sipping my Ward 8. There’s no plant or tree that looks so vibrant and alive in February in Connecticut. February is too late for holly berries, and too early for apples. What IS that?
And then I remembered a certain American legend involving an axe, and a fruit tree, and an honest little boy who grew up to have a federal holiday proclaimed in his honor.
Mason Locke Weems, the author who gave the world the cherry-tree story, is known today — to those who remember him at all — for never letting the truth get in the way of a saleable bit of hagiography.
The snippet of “biography” that gave the world the cherry-tree story can be read at Weems’ Wiki page. Project Gutenberg, meanwhile, gives us the texts of Weems’ biographies of Francis Marion and Benjamin Franklin.
(The Franklin bio is titled, “The Life of Benjamin Franklin. With Many Choice Anecdotes and admirable sayings of this great man never before published by any of his biographers.” Reminds me of the remarkable, unprecedented access Clifford Irving had to Howard Hughes.)
Here’s a choice bit from page one of the Franklin biography; I’ll buy a cherry pie for anyone who can stand to read the whole book:
Some men carry letters of recommendation in their looks, and some in their names. ‘Tis the lot but of few to inherit both of these advantages. The hero of this work was one of that favoured number. As to his physiognomy, there was in it such an air of wisdom and philanthropy, and consequently such an expression of majesty and sweetness, as charms, even in the commonest pictures of him. And for his name, every one acquainted with the old English history, must know, that Franklin stands for what we now mean by “Gentleman,” or “clever fellow.”
I find it interesting how a scrap of fiction, apparently made up out of whole cloth as Weems dipped his quill, could become an entrenched bit of national lore known to every generation of Americans.
Nowadays, everyone knows the cherry-tree story isn’t true. (This is not a recent development; I’m sure my grandpa knew this in February 1963.)
But everyone knows the story anyway. Even in the skeptical 21st century, when warts-and-all is the rule and presidents have feet of clay, this antiquated, hopelessly sunny legend still goes around.
Just to verify that schoolkids today still hear the cherry legend, I went upstairs and asked my kids, aged 14 and 11. They hastened to tell me it wasn’t true — but they’d both heard it. (Neither of them could quite remember when and where, which suggests it was some time ago.)
No matter what you think of the relative virtues of truth and falsehood, the eternal resilience of the story is kind of charming.
America’s stock of shared lore is like a patchwork quilt — Paul Bunyan in red plaid over here, steel-drivin’ John Henry in stark gray and black there, Johnny Appleseed in russet dapple in the corner … and a little boy with a white-flowered cherry tree right in the middle, one of the oldest and best-stitched patches of all, as if affixed by some wizened, winsome national grandma.
Taking the cherry tree out of the quilt now would just about require unraveling the whole thing. And Americans, even in the darkest of times, have never bought into that idea.
So Mason Weems’ bald-faced lie will probably outlast us all … as it outlasted our fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers.
I wonder whether any legends of our current crop of presidents — or any truths, for that matter — will last as long.