A Hagiography of George Washington | by Mason Weems

English: Lesson 75

A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington”

by Mason Weems

How believable was the book?

Mason Weems was a bookseller and a writer, and like any good businessman, he saw a golden opportunity to write a book that the whole of America would read and pass down to their children. A book that would grab the attention of all; from adventure-loving children to parents, politicians, and proud Americans. The story was about the life of George Washington, America’s central national figure.

Washington died on December 14, 1799, and by 1800 Mason Weems had published the first revision of a biography on Washington. The quicker the book could be published, the better. America was still mourning the death of their great leader, and they wanted to know everything they could about Washington and would instantly jump at a book about him. The biography focused on Washington’s personal life, events that hardly anyone knew. Such an opportunity allowed Weems to write the book whichever way he liked. So, like any good writer, he embellished the biography, adding in his own written events into Washington’s life.

The first few chapters are filled with stories about Washington’s childhood, but they seem more like chapters out of a children’s novel than a great general’s biography. The chapters focused on young Washington running around orchards in bare feet, playing with this friends, and spending time with his father, whom Weems wrote as a man who taught Washington good morals and virtues. The most popular story of young Washington and his father is the one where Washington cuts a cherry tree, and when he is confronted by his father he says, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” 

Weems loved to focus on Washington’s virtues and continued to focus on them through all of Washington’s childhood. But Washington was not only a virtues character, but a friendly, responsible, and athletic one too.

“A gilt chariot with richest robes and liveried servants, could not half so

substantially have befriended him; for in a very short time, so completely had his virtues

secured the love and confidence of the boys, his word was just as current among them as

a law.”

“-when Lawrence was taken with
the consumption, and advised by his physicians to make a trip to Burmuda, George could
not resist any longer, but hastened down to his brother at Mount Vernon, and went with
him to Burmuda.”

“Col. Lewis Willis, his playmate and kinsman, has been heard to say, that he has often

seen him throw a stone, across Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg. It

would be no easy matter to find a man, now a-days, who could do it.”

Weems directed a lot of the chapters as tools for parents for raising children. He wrote Washington as the perfect role model, who was a good friend and son, always told the truth, and honoured his father and mother. Like the story where Weems wrote about when Washington was about to leave for the sea as a teenager.

“But when he came to take leave of his mother, she wept bitterly,

and told him, she felt that her heart would break if he left her. George immediately got his

trunk ashore! as he could not, for a moment, bear the idea of inflicting a wound on that

dear life which had so long and so fondly sustained his own.”

Weems embellished story after story, and most likely invented a lot of them, from Washington’s years as a child, as a great general, to his later years and death. Each step of the way Weems wrote to make things interesting. The biography might not be a page-turner, but it is certainly a wonderful adventure. And the public loved it, buying every revision Weems published, wanting to know more about great Washington. The book became less of a biography and more a hagiography. The older Washington got, the closer to a saint he became. So much so the reader can see the parallels between Washington and Jesus. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And according to Weems, Washington’s last words were, “Father of mercies, take me to thyself.”

It is clear that Weems saw a golden opportunity and made the most of it. We can see that from the multiple revisions he made to the biography he listened to how the public responded and embellished more with each publication. Washington was an incredible man, but Weems turned a biography into an adventure book with the main character being a flawless, innocent boy who grows up to be a saint.

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