Thursday, February 22, 2007

February 22, 1732:

George Washington's Birthday

Today's the birthday of the dead president who made all the others possible, George Washington: planter, surveyor, land speculator, soldier, revolutionist, general, politician, president.

He inhabits the dollar bill, the quarter, and many stamp issues. A state, major city, 31 US counties and countless other places are named for him. His monument stands tall in DC, and he wears a toga at the Smithsonian (pictured, a 19th-century work by sculptor Horatio Greenough). A large body of lore is still told and retold about him, even though much of it is acknowledged nonsense: wooden teeth, young George and his cherry tree, and so forth.

Usually, the legend of the cherry tree is shortened for modern audiences, but the following is the full paragraph, as created by Mason Locke Weems in A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington not long after Washington died. The "she" he referred to is an unnamed female relative that supposedly spent time with the boy Washington.

"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."

Ours is a more skeptical age, and such tales can't be told with a straight face. And yet, such is the heft of George Washington that, 275 years after he was born, the fate of his tent is considered newsworthy. Skeptical? Google "George Washington's Tent." Among the articles that come up are this one from the New York Times.

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