The Father of our Country, Fact and Fiction
George Washington accomplished so much in his lifetime and left such a broad legacy, and was so admired and worshipped by the succeeding generations, it’s hard sometimes to separate fact from fiction. Hard, not because we can’t figure out what was real and what wasn’t, but hard because we want the stuff that’s not real to be, well, real.
Like with the cherry tree.
Every red-blooded American kid knows, or should know, the story - the young Washington was the proud owner of a new hatchet and like any little boy with his first hatchet, George couldn’t help but bang on things, anything, everything, including his dad’s favorite cherry tree, which George destroyed. Summoned by his dad into the parlor after dinner and with the stern old man sitting there, the patriarch in a day when dads really were patriarchs, and with George, and all of us, fully aware of what awaited him, George mumbled, or more likely, boldly stated, his immortal words: “I cannot tell a lie…”
That’s where the story usually ends. We’re left to imagine the consequences of George’s hatchet job, but read on. According to Parson Weems, and the parson is our only source for the story, Poppa Washington’s response wasn’t what we might have expected. It wasn’t the wrath of the stern father reeked on the son, a hard lesson learned. No, it was more like an arms outstretched, “run to my arms, dearest boy!”
It turns out the tree didn’t mean nearly as much to the old man as George’s devotion to the truth, a lesson for all the young nineteenth century boys, who grew up on Parson Weems and his fictitious glorification of Washington. You know, do something bad and have the courage to admit to it and you’ll be praised, not punished.
Did it really happen? Did they even have cherry trees in and around Washington, DC, in the eighteenth century? Washington, DC is, of course, famous for its cherry blossoms, a truly beautiful spectacle, but the festival and the trees date only to 1912, to a gift of 3,000 trees from the mayor of Tokyo. Turns out, yes, there were cherry trees in American gardens in George’s time, English cherry trees, not Japanese, so it’s not impossible he cut 1 down, but the rest of the story has pretty much been debunked. He didn’t do it, but if he didn’t, he should have.
And what about the silver dollar George supposedly tossed over the Potomac River? This story comes not from Parson Weems but from a cousin of George, who claims to have seen the young George heaving stones across the river.
But did George really do it? Could he have done it? Well, the Potomac is more than a mile wide, 5 miles wide in some places, so it would have been a heck of a feat. Still, George was a big athletic kid and let’s say the river was the Rapahannock, not the Potomac, and it was at Ferry Farm, Washington’s boyhood home. The Rappahannock at Ferry Farm is 250 feet across, so it was doable but only for a very strong guy, which Washington was. Men said he was the strongest man in the Continental Army.
In 1936, Fredricksburg officials, Ferry Farm is located across the river from Fredericksburg, asked the renowned Walter Johnson, Hall of Fame pitcher for the Washington Senators, to attempt to duplicate the feat. Johnson obliged and with more than 2500 people looking on, the Big Train wound up and hurled his silver dollar and…splash, he came up short. On his second toss, though, the silver dollar sailed over 300 feet, landing dry on the other side. So maybe it really did happen, or it least it could have happened, except George was thrifty and wouldn’t have wasted a silver dollar. Oh, and there were no silver dollars when George was a young man.
Even if George didn’t do either of those things, and historians deny the first and doubt the second, it was OK and harmless for nineteenth century kids to think he did. At least they were thinking about Washington, something kids maybe don’t do enough of today. Besides, the early nation needed mythical heroes and who was a bigger or better hero than Washington, even without the myths?
And what about standing up in the boat while crossing the Delaware? Well, we know George took his army across the Delaware on Christmas Eve, 1776, to surprise and rout the British, but did George actually stand up in the boat? Probably not, I mean, it would have been foolish, wouldn’t it, with the freezing water and the current and the ice chunks? Still, it makes for a heck of a painting, something to make us proud and so what if it was painted by a German. That’s right. Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, who at least spent a number of years in America before he went home and painted his Washingtons, 2 renditions and a good thing there were 2. 1, hanging in the Kunstthalle in Bremen, Germany, was destroyed in a British air raid in 1942. I know, I know, the Brits finally got him, after more than 150 years. The surviving painting hangs today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There’s plenty of copies around too, including 1 in the White House and maybe George didn’t stand up in the boat, he was always prudent and was thinking about winning the war, not making a picture, but what a picture!
There’s another story about the young Washington, much more prophetic than the cherry tree or the silver dollar or the boat thing, although, like those stories, there’s maybe not so much truth behind it.
During the French and Indian War, the British sent a large army out through western Virginia, to oust some French and Indians from a place that would become Pittsburgh. The British were under the command of General James Braddock and the 23 year-old Washington went along as an aide to the general.
Braddock was old school. His way to fight, the only way to fight, was to line up the men and march them across a broad field against the enemy and if there were no broad fields, line them up and march them through the dense woods, which was suicide against the wily Indians, but honor was honor and Braddock’s troops, who heavily outnumbered their foe, were decimated, despite the Americans’ pleas to please get behind a rock or a tree. Some of the Brits, it was reported afterward, even tried to dislodge the cowardly Americans from their hiding places, to get them into the open where they could be, you know, shot.
During the course of the battle, the Indians and their French allies were taking careful aim at the British and American officers and 1 Indian was given responsibility for shooting Washington and tried and tried all day and kept missing. Maybe the Indian was a lousy shot, maybe his musket wasn’t sighted correctly, but for whatever reason, Washington survived. He had 4 bullet holes in his coat and 2 horses shot out from underneath him but he lived and how different might history have been, if just 1 of those bullets had found its mark. The Indians, witnessing Washington dashing bravely about and with men falling around him and the bullets whizzing past, came to the only conclusion they could have come to, that Washington was special in the eyes of God. Washington, who, in a letter to his mom, seemed astounded by his good fortune, might have agreed, as did 1 of the Indian chiefs from the battle. 15 years later, meeting Washington and in a story that probably isn’t true, the Indian told George how he, George, was destined for great things, how he would create a glorious empire for his people, this in 1772, 4 years before the American Revolution put Washington on the road to greatness.
1 fact undeniable about Washington was the date of his death, December 14, 1799, just 2 weeks before the turn of the new century. Washington was the quintessential eighteenth century man. It was his century, the last half of it, anyway, and Washington, who always seemed to grasp, intuitively, the proper way to do things, had the good sense to depart the world before the arrival of the new century in which he probably understood he didn’t belong.