Can George Washington Lie

Maria Johnson
• Sunday, 03 January, 2021
• 7 min read

When Washington died in 1799, Americans were well aware of his public accomplishments but knew little about his personal life, and they were keen to fill that void. Enter Mason Locke Weeks, a clergyman and an itinerant book agent, who saw that need and was ready to meet it as one of Washington’s first biographers.

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A moralist as well as an opportunist, Parson Weeks determined that he would show that Washington’s “unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.” In the process, Weeks created a prescriptive portrait of Washington as a role model for the fledgling country’s citizens. Weeks’s The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington was first published in 1800, but his cut-from-whole-cloth anecdote about the cherry tree was not added until the book’s fifth edition, which hit the shelves in 1806.

In the process, the cherry tree story would define Washington’s character for generations of Americans, and, though its veracity would begin to be questioned, it had already taken on a truth of its own. “The most successful statesman in American history is often best remembered as a boy with a hatchet or as a simpleminded prig kneeling in the snow to pray,” the former Mount Vernon archivist writes in his 2017 book, George Washington : The Wonder of the Age.

Than any other book on the great man, profoundly influencing multiple generations’ views of Washington, even though Weeks was much more preacher than historian. The cherry tree incident, which debuted in the Weeks book’s sixth edition, has young George coming clean over a bad move.

A richly detailed color photo of the tankard appears in Pictures of Early New York on Dark Blue Stafford shire Pottery by R. T. Halsey. “The most sublime picture in American history is of George Washington on his knees in the snow at Valley Forge,” President Ronald Reagan declared of a legend incorporated into the 17th edition of the Weeks panegyric.

The Continental Army’s trial by adversity in 1777-78 rendered Valley Forge “a place enshrined in mythology ever since as a kind of American Gethsemane, where Washington, the American Christ, kneels in prayer amidst bloodstained snow beseeching the Lord for deliverance,” writes historian Joseph Ellis. However sublime the imagined scene might be, whatever symbolic truth the image conveys, logic and context dictate that it did not happen.

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It is true that George Washington held that God, while inscrutable, did intervene in human history, and Washington did believe in prayer. Thus, there is nothing implausible about Washington, as his soldiers were suffering at Valley Forge during that brutal winter, seeking divine help.

As historian Garry Wills notes, this story first appeared as third-hand gossip in a book printed 80 years after the purported event. As a youth Washington had copied out of a book “Rules of Civility” that he strove to obey, and by the time he took command of the Continental Army in 1775 he had developed a demeanor rooted in military bearing.

Lately the claim is that Washington fathered a slave child, West Ford, by a concubine named Venus. She belonged to the general’s brother John, who lived at Bush field, about 50 miles southeast of Mount Vernon.

However, in 1784 John’s wife, Hannah, accompanied, according to the record, by a “maid,” briefly visited Mount Vernon. That is the extent of the case that anyone can make; namely, that Washington and Venus could have been in the same place at the same time nine months prior to the birth of West Ford.

Of course, this theory does not explain why America’s most famous man, happily married, fanatically dedicated to guarding his reputation, would dally with a sister-in-law’s servant under his own roof. West Ford, an impressive figure who founded Gum Springs, near Mount Vernon, likely was related to George Washington.

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And in her will, Hannah Washington, who died in 1801, directed that the “lad West” be inoculated immediately against smallpox and bound to a “good tradesman” until he reached the age of 21, “after which he is to be free for the rest of his life.” We can only guess about this advocacy by John Washington’s widow and the mother of John’s sons Bush rod, Corbin, and William Augustine. Controversy has arisen over whether, in becoming president in 1789, George Washington added the improvised phrase, “So help me God,” to the prescribed constitutional oath.

However, evidence makes clear that Washington did not change the oath stipulated in Article Two, Section 1 of the Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” French foreign minister Comte Elénor-François-Élie de Moustier, who attended the inauguration, described the 1789 event in considerable detail in a letter to his superiors. Knowing this, researcher David Parker searched online databases using as a rubric “So help me, God” and the 1789 inauguration.

His critics, writes Ron Cheroot, view Washington as “a dim-witted tool in the nimble hands of Alexander Hamilton.” This reading can be traced primarily to Thomas Jefferson and his profound influence on generations of historians. A vexed Jefferson wondered how the man who had led the fight for American liberty could support such a blatantly poor and dangerous treaty and become the patron, however unwillingly, of oppression.

“His memory was already sensibly impaired by age, the firm tone of mind for which he had been remarkable was beginning to relax, its energy was abated; a listlessness of labor, a desire for tranquility had crept on him and a willingness to let others act and even think for him,” Jefferson wrote, extrapolating from disbelief to a diagnosis of senility. In private correspondence with trusted Republicans, Jefferson polished his vision of an old soldier past his prime, reading speeches he did not write and could not comprehend, a hollow hunk of his former greatness.

The notion of a senile Washington helped explain Alexander Hamilton’s powerful, if nefarious, influence on a figure Jefferson respected and longed to admire. Jefferson more easily could impute the president’s behavior to a sinister adviser’s influence than face the reality that he and Washington disagreed so fundamentally.

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“ Washington’s blindness to the Federalist threat was born of fatigue and corrupt ministers,” historian Joanne Freeman writes. “It was surely not the result of simple disagreement, which would either depict that Hamilton’s views as a viable alternative or place George Washington among the politically damned.” Casting the aging president as a good man being hoodwinked by a conniving adviser enabled Jefferson simultaneously to admire a “deceived” Washington and oppose Washington’s “depraved” administration.

As president, George Washington shuttled his most prized slave back and forth from Philadelphia to his Virginia plantation (pictured) every six months to skirt a residency law that would have freed the man. Getty ImagesWhen he was traveling, Washington made sure his slaves toiled from sunrise to sundown, six days a week, kept in line by “overseers” who wielded whips and hickory sticks, a system he found “very proper.” During Washington’s first presidential term, when he lived in Philadelphia, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law that would have led to his slaves obtaining their freedom.

Ten French soldiers, including the commander, Joseph Colon de Jumonville, were killed, and 21 were captured. But the French insisted in an official report that their mission had been a diplomatic one with no intent for battle, a claim confirmed by a letter found on DE Eatonville’s corpse.

He gave his diary of the incident to Dinwiddie, who turned it into a propaganda tool for the British, and continued his professional ascent. By the time of the American Revolution, Washington had a vast knowledge of the Royal Army, a 6-foot-2 stature that lent him automatic gravitas and, after 13 successful years as a farmer, plenty of wealth.

When the time came to choose a leader for the colonial army, no one else was considered, and he was seen as equally deserving to serve as the new country’s first president. But by the time Washington left office in 1797, the country was bitterly divided over US relationships with warring Britain and France, and most of the Founding Fathers were done with him.

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But this caused a problem for Martha, as she spent the rest of her life “deathly afraid of his slaves,” who knew that her passing would lead to their freedom. After a lengthy spell of poor health, Martha Washington succumbed to a high fever and died at age 70 in 1802.

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