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Parson Weems

Author John Cech
Air Date 10/11/1999

Parson Weems Transcript

Mason Locke Weems was born today in 1759. He was an ordained Anglican minister — hence the name he’s most frequently known by, “Parson Weems.” But he soon abandoned that calling for something more lucrative. He sold books, from village to village, town to town, from his home base in Maryland, and he quickly recognized a niche market that was ripe for the plucking: writiing and selling the biographies of American heroes that our brand new nation was yearning for. Always alert to a business opportunity, Parson Weems was happy to oblige — and he’d even throw in a fiddle tune for good measure from the back of the wagon that held his travelling bookstore.

In 1800, in his early forties, Weems published the volume that made him famous: The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself, and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. The volume would go through 29 editions before Weems died in 1825, and it would become, in the eyes of at least one historian, “perhaps the most widely read, most influential book ever written about American history.”

Weems didn’t want to write about the founding father, demi-god Washington, who had already been the subject of a major (and majorly unsuccessful) biography. “Oh, no!” Weems wrote, “give us his private virtues! In these every youth is interested, because every youth may become a Washington — a Washington in piety and patriotism, — in industry and honor — and consequently a Washington, in what alone deserves the name, Self Esteem and Universal Respect.”

Because he couldn’t find the actual stories of these private virtues, Weems simply made them up — the prophetic dream that G. W.’s mother has the night before he is born, the cherry tree story, the cabbages planted by George’s father to spell the boy’s name and illustrate a moral allegory, the tossing of the dollar across the river. Historians knew even then that these were pure fabrications, and they said so. But their expert opinions didn’t matter to the tens of thousands, and ultimately the millions who heard in the stories the ring of another kind of truth, the truth of myth, those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, no matter how hard we try. Never mind if they’re fictions. They’re so good, so deeply set in our national nature that they must be true. And in that realm, young George will be forever swinging his little hatchet and confessing to his father, he’ll be forever a little unruly and a bit the revolutionary, and he’ll be forever forgiven his youthful indiscretions.

Posted in Authors, Literature