George Washington died in 1799, ten years before Abraham Lincoln was born.
GW: A Symbol for his Age
When George Washington died a few weeks before his sixty-eighth birthday, he was a towering figure, arguably the most important and respected man in the country. His death shocked the young nation he helped found. Eulogies filled the newspapers and pulpits. All the “old soldiers” of the Revolution gathered to mourn and commemorate his passing.
George Washington had done more than merely lead soldiers in battle. He had helped to shepherd a country into being. He “retired” to private citizenship voluntarily, only to be recruited back into the forefront as the first president of the very new United States. He served for eight years, the last four, reluctantly. Then he peacefully (and gratefully) turned the office over to his duly elected successor, and again retired.
It had never been done before, this “voluntary” transfer of high power.
It was the stuff of legends.
Mason Weems, Itinerant Preacher
In 1800, the year after George Washington’s death, the population of the United States stood at just over four million people. There were fifteen states and the country was pushing westward. In those early frontier times, established churches were a luxury that few towns could support. Thus during the first decade of the nineteenth century, a wave of evangelism began to appear, termed as the Great Awakening. Itinerant preachers, some trained, most self-proclaimed, roamed the country, performing the christening, marriage and funeral rituals, and spreading the gospel. Then they moved on to the next town to do the same.
Mason Locke Weems was one of those ministers, known to history as “Parson” Weems. Some time during that first decade after George Washington’s death, he decided to write a book about the Great Citizen-General. It would be the first “American” biography, and the first attempt at re-creating the life of the illustrious man.
Modern historians and biographers either snicker or shudder at the mention of the good Parson and his whole-cloth invention of young George, his hatchet and his father’s ex-cherry tree, which has become Weems’ greatest claim to fame.
But for several years of so-called “research,” Weems met and interviewed scores of people who claimed to know Washington, including veterans of the Revolution who were happy to share their reminiscences of their Commander-in-Chief. By that time, those memories were thirty-some years old, and, as now, often were muddled or enhanced with time. Then too, the criteria for historical research and writing was limited to a florid way with the vernacular, which Weems had in abundance. Truth and reliability mattered little, and the essence of myth and legend mixed freely with fact and went unchallenged.
Weems was not a bad man. He was a preacher of sorts, devoted to preaching “the good” of man. And who was the epitome of the “best of men” then? George Washington. His virtues (then and now) were real and unassailable. His honesty and character were unquestioned. More importantly, those qualities were considered worthy of emulation. “Teaching” the next generation to emulate the glorious George Washington was uppermost in Parson Weems’ mind. And for centuries upon centuries, one of the character-teaching tools were Aesop’s fables, with a moral to every story. And the moral, according to the Parson, was that George Washington was the epitome of virtue and honesty. And a little story about the honest child who became an honest man presented a moral to be embraced.
So Weems wrote his book and “The Life of George Washington” was published to huge success. It lasted for decades. Generations of children learned to revere the first President from Weems’ account: It was written down and published, therefore, it must be so.
Abraham Lincoln: Reader
Abraham Lincoln, by his own account, had perhaps a year’s schooling all told, which consisted of a few weeks here and there. Whatever he learned was through his own efforts. His parents were illiterate. Also, by his own account, Lincoln was a poor boy with little access to the tools of learning.
The story goes that when he was perhaps twelve or thirteen, Lincoln, the self-taught reader, borrowed a book from a neighbor. The book was damaged and Lincoln labored for two weeks to pay the neighbor for the book. This is a true story. Lincoln himself was known to tell it.
That book was Parson Weems’ “The Life of George Washington,” and it made a huge impression on the young Lincoln. It was likely the first complete book he had ever read. Whether he believed every word of it is open to conjecture, but that is not unlikely, either.
What Lincoln did believe, however, were exactly the concepts that Weems attempted to portray: Washington’s honesty (i.e. the very purpose of the cherry tree legend), his high moral character, his leadership both military and political, his sense of duty, and his devotion to his men and his country.
Those were the very qualities Lincoln would strive to attain himself.
The Value of Legends
Myths and legends have been around for millennia. Ancient civilizations are filled with them. Bible stories are frequently constructed in that regard. Nearly every age has its romantic mystique of a real person, from Alexander the Great to John F. Kennedy.
What purpose do such “stories” have? Historians today try hard to demystify our “heroes,” in an effort to debunk them. They water an anecdote into a footnote, creating a disdain for history as a subject itself. It merely becomes a series of hard-to-remember almanac facts instead of the accomplishments of real people. Legends are indeed glorified, but a glorification based on some substance. They are memorable far longer than the almanac facts that are quickly forgotten.
There is nothing wrong with a little glory. Or a little story. Say that it is a “story,” but tell it! We are always in dire need of good role models. Abraham Lincoln found his role model via his introduction to an exaggerated George Washington, but he would remember it always, and treasure the example. It did not seem to hurt him a bit.
Davis, William C. – Lincoln’s Men – The Free Press, 1999