What Is the Story With George Washington and a Cherry Tree?

According to legend, George Washington cut down his father's prized cherry tree while playing as a child, then admitted to doing so instead of trying to avoid punishment because he could not bear to tell a lie. The story spread when it was adapted for inclusion in the "McGuffey Readers" primers used in most American schools during the late 1800s.

The story of George Washington and his cherry tree originated in Mason Locke Weems' 1809 book "The Life of Washington," based on an 1800 pamphlet by the same name. According to Weems, a 6-year-old Washington was chopping with a hatchet at some pea-sticks, a type of pole for pea plants to climb, and decided to test the blade on a young cherry tree his father had recently planted. He did not chop it down, but he did damage the bark badly. When his father asked about the tree, Washington considered lying, but could not bear to do so and confessed to everything.

While the story has been repudiated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who run George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, there is good evidence that the story predated Weems. Weems used anecdotes rather than published references when he composed his popular biography. For this reason, scholars have denigrated him as unreliable for decades. Recent discoveries, however, indicate that the cherry-tree story predates the first version of his book by at least 25 years. There is no evidence that the story was ever repudiated by Washington or others who would have known the truth.