parson weems weems

Parson Weems

Mason Locke Weems (October 11 1756May 23 1825), generally known as Parson Weems, was an American printer and author. He is best known as the source of some of the apocryphal stories about George Washington, including the famous tale of the cherry tree ("I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet"). The Life of Washington, Weems' most famous work, contained the story.

Weems was born on 11 October 1756 (1759, by some accounts) in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He studied theology in London and was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1784. From about 1800 to 1817, he served as a part-time minister of Pohick Church, part of Truro Parish, in Lorton, Virginia, where both George Washington and his father Augustine had served on the vestry.

Financial hardship forced Weems to seek other employment, leading to his second career as a book agent and author. He had a small bookstore in Dumfries, Virginia that now houses the Weems-Botts Museum. 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 was also an accomplished violinist.

Historical reliability

Weems' name would probably be forgotten today, had it not been for the tension between the liveliness of his narratives, contrasted with the "...charge of a want of veracity [that] is brought against all Weems's writings". The cherry-tree anecdote illustrates this point. Another dubious anecdote found in the Weems biography is that of Washington's prayer during the winter at Valley Forge

The exaltation of Washington

The exalted esteem in which George Washington was held by 19th century Americans seems quaintly exaggerated to their 21st century counterparts; but that he was so regarded is undisputed. The acme of this esteem is found on the ceiling of the United States Capitol Building in the form of Brumidi's fresco The Apotheosis of Washington.

Weems' A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, was a biography written in this spirit, amplified by the florid, rolicksome style which was Weems' trademark. According to this account, publicly his subject was "...Washington, the HERO,and the Demigod...;" furthermore, at a level above that "...what he really was, [was] 'the Jupiter Conservator,' the friend and benefactor of men." With this hyperbole, Weems elevated Washington to the Augustinian level of the god "Jupiter Conservator [Orbis]" (that is, "Jupiter, Conservator of the Empire", later rendered "Jupiter, Savior of the World").

Weems also called Washington the "greatest man that ever lived". This degree of adulation, combined with the circumstance that his anecdotes cannot be independently verified demonstrates clearly that they are confabulations and parables.

On the other hand, there is nothing implausible or fantastic about a boy confessing to have damaged a tree with his new hatchet.

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 " 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".

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."


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.

Primary sources


Further reading

  • Wroth, L.C. (1911). Parson Weems; a biographical and critical study. Baltimore, Md: The Eichelberger Book Company.

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