George Washington Never Chopped Down A Cherry Tree

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

cherriesThe story goes that a young George Washington was about six years old when he was given a hatchet that 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 down 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. But is there any truth to the tale?

First published by the biographer Parson Weems in 1809, ten years after Washington’s death, the story reportedly came from an old, unnamed neighbor who’d supposedly 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.

Beyond the cherry tree story, there have been other myths about George Washington that are occasionally perpetuated. For instance, George Washington never had wooden teeth. It’s true that Washington had notoriously bad teeth, despite having a pretty meticulous dental hygiene routine for his time, including brushing his teeth daily and using mouthwash and a tongue scraper. However, Washington also suffered from constant toothaches and frequently took calomel (mercurous chloride) which can lead to destruction of the teeth. He also used substances that were extremely abrasive to clean his mouth, which probably contributed to the decay of his tooth enamel.

By a combination of that and probably having naturally bad teeth, this led to him losing his teeth steadily from the age of 22. Indeed, by his inauguration in 1789, he had only one natural tooth remaining, which I like to imagine he called “Old Chomper”.

To make up for the missing teeth, his dentist provided him with several sets of false teeth over the years, none of which were made from wood- wood being a very poor choice for this sort of thing. So what did they make them out of?  Mainly things like cow teeth, hippopotamus ivory, and even human teeth that he acquired by various means. The practice of selling teeth for a bit of extra money had been around since at least 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 is known to have paid 122 shillings to “Negroes” for nine teeth on Le Moyer’s behalf.

Another myth surrounding the memory of Washington is that he once threw a U.S. silver dollar across the Potomac River. Setting aside the fact that these particular 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, hurricane-like 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, though whether true or not isn’t really known.

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 a good one.

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.

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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.
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  • So is it an apocryphal or not

  • 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.

  • Jefferson had, being in debt that he was, had the additional problem, I think, of, if freeing his slaves, their being taken by creditors as slaves the moment they set their feet off his property anyway.

    But what’s the point of applying common sense when it is PC that sells books?

  • I researched this question about the cherry tree in depth as a history major at James Madison University. The real story is this: as a teenager George wanted to take a boat across the river, but his father had told him he wasn’t supposed to do this. His father’s slave foreman was with George, and told him he wasn’t to take the boat across the river. Whereupon, George took one of the boat’s oars and whacked the slave over the head, nearly killing him. George’s father knew damn well what he had done, so George knew he had to fess up. He was severely punished for this action. The story later morphed into a tale of moral greatness for George, since the real story was not very flattering….and that’s the real story.

    • Is what you said real?have you had any evidence?

    • The story about Washington as a teen. is not true. One BIG thing proving the falsehood is that Washingtons father died when he was eleven years old.

    • Steven Nicolet

      This speaks poorly for your History degree at James Madison when it is clearly documented that George Washington was merely 11 years old when his father died.

      I am surprised that you didn’t know this fact after all of the research you conducted.

  • “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.”

    Slaves were not considered men back then. That being said, your point of slaves wanting freedom more than him is only correct in today’s context…not in the context of his time. For your quip to be correct, Washington would have needed to say “no one living”. Even saying “no person” would still make your quip incorrect as slaves had no personhood at the time.

    Also, that part about how he did nothing shows your total lack of knowledge regarding Governmental history. Back then, the federal Government had very little power over the States. Basically they were in charge of National Security and interstate commerce. So even if Washington declared the slaves free, the States would not have been under any obligation to follow this decree. Maybe he could have pushed for his version of the 13th amendment in his time, but it would not have passed the ratification process. In his time the Federal Government was rather weak and lacked trust and loyalty from the States. I would rather like to see it that way again actually.

    With these two examples of you lack of critical thought, I did not bother reading the rest. Thank you for the origins of the cherry tree story though.

  • I am at EMDL (Editions Maison des Langues), a publishing house based in Paris. We would like to use an excerpt of an article we found on your website in our new english textbook titled Community 1re.
    Thank you for you consideration, I stay at your disposal should you wish to discuss our request in more detail.
    Best regards,

  • Wow! What audacity for someone to unequivocally say that the incident with the cherry tree never happened, when there is absolutely NO evidence that it did not. How many witnesses does an event require to make it true? You have an account from an old neighbor whose account is dismissed because his was the only account, and then you have “accounts” from people around 250 years later who were not even there, and yet they can say positively that the incident never happened!? Well, I suppose they could have been “channeling”.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @TruthSense: Did you miss the part where it was mentioned that it was an unnamed neighbor and “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.”

  • Thank you for your article. As a non-American, I found your exposition of these legends very helpful.

    Minor nickpit though,
    “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.”
    should read
    “40 of whom …., and 123 of whom ….”.
    Slaves are people!