Sunday, October 11, 2009

Today In History - And So Began The Weaving Of The 'Worst' Lie Ever began with the birth of Mason Locke Weems on October 11, 1756 (or 1759 depending upon source). The lie did not begin on the day of Weems birth, but I suppose the wheels that eventually put it into motion started rolling that day because he was the author of it. The lie would not have been so bad had it never attained the popularity it achieved over all the years it was told and held as being virtually gospel truth. It was first spun in a biography that celebrated the life of one of our Founding Fathers, a man considered by many in his time as the greatest man who ever lived. The biography was written by Parson Mason Lock Weems. It was then read by thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions by the time I was a boy - yet it was written either in the latter part of the 18 century. How is it then that it held power over us even into the late 20th century and maybe even through today in the early 21st. It held that power not only because the person about whom it told wound up helping to create a new nation based upon the rights of the People (as in the rights of each individual), and not only because he was a person whom we were all brought up to respect (well we used to be brought up to respect him - Heavens only know whom teacher today think of as heroes but scum like Castro come to mind as being one of their choices) but also because it seemingly was based upon a tenet of morality - the one that teaches us we should not lie.

Lying is part of our nature, no matter how much we are taught to avoid lying, I think the truth is that we all, by the time we are a few years able to speak, have done so. Yet teaching us not to do so is something to be desired because we don't want children growing into adulthood thinking that lying is a good means to use with frequency toward any good end in the normal course of a well led life. In other words, lying may be necessary sometimes, at least as I see it, to achieve a good end - but we do not want to become wind up lost adrift in a sea of lies with no way to reach the truth because no good end will ever come of that.

So what lie is it that I believe was put into motion all those years ago with the birth of Weems. It was a lie that was not meant so much to be a lie but rather to be a literary device used to convey a moral which would emphasize the good character of the man being written about. That man was George Washington and of course the lie was the one in the tale about the chopping down of the cherry tree and George being questioned by his father about it, it went like this:

"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."

I grew up with it told to me, and I probably told it to my kids though by that time I think I had found out it was pure bunk. Supposedly Washington never said any such thing. It was a tale told by Weems to establish the character of the man in his biography and little more. Yet, it became one of the best known moralistic stories of the late 18th, complete 19th and most of the 20th centuries and it taught children a lesson about it being best to tell the truth regardless of the fact that it was a sort of a lie itself. Was it really the worst lie? It was in all likelihood the greatest lie ever told in American history and when you think of it in retrospect it was not such a bad one, maybe even a good one at that!

All the best,
Glenn B