George Washington Never Chopped Down A Cherry Tree

Emily Upton 13
Myth: George Washington once chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree.

cherriesThe story goes that a young George was about six years old and had been given a hatchet, which he enthusiastically used to chop at just about anything in sight. One morning, he even chopped at a cherry tree, eventually cutting it down. When confronted about it by his father, George hesitated but told his father, “I cannot tell a lie.” He admitted to the crime. Rather than punishing George for chopping at the tree, his father said that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees. It’s meant to be a story that’s a lesson in integrity, and shows one of Washington’s many supposed virtues.

First published by the biographer Parson Weems in 1809, ten years after Washington’s death, the story reportedly came from an old neighbor who’d known Washington as a boy. However, it is the only historical source of the story, and as a legitimate source, it isn’t very credible.

Very little was known about George Washington’s childhood, especially his relationship with his father, who died when Washington was just eleven years old.

Given that Weems is known to have copied and adapted several of his “George Washington” stories in that “biography” from English folklore, to illustrate various traits George Washington supposedly exhibited in spades when he was an adult, and that Weems provides no firm evidence to back this particular tale, historians today consider the cherry tree story complete fiction.

There have been other falsehoods about George Washington that have been perpetuated in American History classrooms, too. For instance, George Washington never ate his supper with a set of wooden teeth. It’s true that Washington had notoriously bad teeth. By the time he was elected president, he had only one tooth of his own, which I like to think he named “Old Reliable”.

His dentist provided him with several sets over the years. There were dentures made out of cow teeth, hippopotamus ivory, and even human teeth that he likely bought from slaves. The practice of selling teeth for a bit of extra money had been in place since the Middle Ages—and Washington’s dentist was none other than Jean Pierre Le Moyer, who in 1783, placed an ad in New York papers asking for “persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them.” The next year, Washington paid 122 shillings to “Negroes” for nine teeth on Le Moyer’s behalf. Likely, the slaves were his own and the teeth were either implanted in his mouth or made into dentures.

Another myth surrounding the memory of Washington is that he once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. Setting aside the fact that silver dollars didn’t actually exist when Washington was young, the Potomac River is over a mile wide—it would be impossible to accomplish such a feat without the aid of some serious wind. It’s likely that this myth sprung into being as another one of those stories meant to show Washington’s touted virtues- in this case, superhero-like strength.

That being said, his step-grandson recorded a story that Washington once threw a piece of slate roughly the size of a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River, which was only about 250 feet wide near the Washington homestead; this is obviously significantly more doable.

One George Washington “virtue” story that is true is that he did free his slaves upon his death. As he aged, he began to abhor the institution of slavery stating, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.”  I’d argue that there were probably many slaves who were men that wished for the abolition of slavery more than Washington… but the sentiment at least was good.

That being said, in this “virtue”, he shows a fault-  that he wished ardently for the abolition of slavery and hated the institution, yet never chose to do anything about it despite his prominent position and that the people of the fledgling nation loved him.  Yet the only small thing he did do about slavery, he didn’t bother with until his death, freeing his slaves and having his estate help provide for them, getting them started with their new lives as free individuals. (He did make an attempt to free his slaves sooner, in 1794, by selling off and leasing much of his estate, in order to raise funds to make it feasible to emancipate his slaves, but the scheme ultimately fell through. Historians generally think he didn’t take a strong public stance against slavery as he felt that it would split the nation he had so recently fought to create.)

Freeing his slaves didn’t mean that his home—Mount Vernon—didn’t have any slaves at all after his death. At the time of his death, there were a full 316 slaves at his estate, 40 of which were leased from others, and 123 of which were owned by George Washington. Martha Washington owned her own slaves (153 of them) called “dower slaves” which belonged to Martha’s first husband and came with her upon her marriage to Washington. She didn’t share her husband’s view on freeing slaves and, as Washington had no rights to her slaves, he was unable to free them. Martha kept them until her death in 1802 when they were inherited by her children.  Those of George’s slaves that were intermarried with his wife’s slaves were allowed to stay on with the estate as free individuals, if they so chose.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

Bonus Facts:

  • George Washington was the only president in United States history to be elected unanimously. At the time, there was no popular vote, which meant only the Electoral College had any say in deciding who the president would be. He received just sixty-nine votes, but that was the number of representatives in the Electoral College at the time, meaning every single one of them voted for him.
  • Washington was also the only president who didn’t live in the White House. During his two terms as president, the capital of the United States was in New York, then Philadelphia. He did, however, have a strong hand in creating the new city that would be partially named after him. He also oversaw the designs for the Capitol Building and the White House, though neither was finished until after his death.
  • The only formal education Washington received was what his father could teach him—and since his father died when he was eleven, that’s when his formal education ended. Without his father around, his family couldn’t afford to send him to England to receive the education someone of his status usually received. He never attended university, but upon his death, he did give gifts to some higher education institutions.
  • Washington never had any of his own children, though he did help to raise two of his wife Martha’s children from a previous marriage. Later, they also raised two of Martha’s grandchildren, one of whom was named George Washington Parke Custis. It’s likely that Washington himself was incapable of having children after contracting small pox when he was younger, rendered him sterile.
  • There is a vault under the Capitol Building built to house George Washington’s remains after he died. However, Washington stipulated in his will that he wished to be buried at Mount Vernon. In 1832, 33 years after his death, the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth and the question of where he should be buried popped up again. Congress sent a proposal to his closest living relative, great-nephew John A. Washington, who refused to move his great-uncle’s body, citing Washington’s specific wishes in his will.

Expand for References

Enjoy this article? If so, get our FREE wildly popular Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 
Print Friendly
Check Out Our New Book!»

13 Comments »

  1. tiana May 16, 2014 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    So is it an apocryphal or not

  2. john May 29, 2014 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Seeing that this article was about slavery, and not cherry trees, it was against the law to free a slave unless you were able, and willing to provide for them financially. This is likely the reason Washington waited until shortly before his death to do so.

Leave A Response »