Trump's Pyrrhic Victory? Journalism 101; the Cherry Tree Lesson

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Good morning, it’s Monday, February 18, 2019. It’s a federal holiday -- Presidents Day -- a milestone I use each year for a special pleading on behalf of the leader whom the day was original set aside to honor. 

I’m referring, of course, to the famous cutting-down-the-cherry-tree story. Let’s cut to the chase: No matter what the revisionists tell you, I believe the tale, as originally related, is true. The great historian Garry Wills agrees with me, by the way, as you’ll see (again) in a moment.

First, I'd point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

* * *

Will Trump’s National Emergency Be a Pyrrhic Victory? Susan Crabtree examines whether the president’s declaration will harm GOP senators’ re-election chances in 2020, potentially removing his barrier against being removed from office.

How Immigration Coverage Shifted From People to Barriers. Kalev Leetaru reports on data showing how the immigration debate has been increasingly portrayed as a fight over a border wall.

Journalism 101: Ask Right Questions and Let Answers Speak for Themselves. Frank Miele spotlights duplicity too frequently on display from reporters, and a much more honest reporting technique -- the Q&A.

Einstein, Freud and Our Fractured Politics. In RealClearPolicy, Austin Ratner looks back at how two great minds tried to bring rational understanding to our irrational passions.

Net Neutrality Is Gone. Did Anyone Even Notice? Also in RCPolicy, Julian Adorney asserts that the change didn’t shove some users into a slow lane but instead upgraded everyone’s lane.

Why Aren’t Calories Listed on Booze Labels? Ross Pomeroy explains in RealClearScience.

10 U.S. Presidents’ Libations of Choice. In honor of Presidents Day, RealClearLife has this sampler.

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Two iconic vignettes of George Washington’s life before manhood come down through the ages -- or, at least, I hope they still are. They are often credited to an admiring book produced quickly after the great man’s death. Washington’s first biographer was Mason L. Weems, a parson and man of letters. In it, Weems writes about an episode at Ferry Farm, the plantation owned by Augustine Washington, the future president’s father.

The first story, and the subject of our attention this morning, has been altered somewhat as it has been told through the ages: It is said that young George chopped down a cherry sapling, and when confronted by his dad, confessed to the deed with some version of “I cannot tell a lie.”

This is not an incidental legend in the American canon. As a boy, Abraham Lincoln devoured Parson Weems' biography -- and internalized its lessons about the first president's high moral character.

“Away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read,” Lincoln once recalled, “I got hold of a small book. … Weems's ‘Life of Washington.’”

Lincoln took what he read to heart. His “Honest Abe” appellation predates his presidency. In the fullness of time, however, Weems’ history became discredited. Even the official website at Mount Vernon trivializes his book, notwithstanding its status as the first presidential biography in history. The cherry tree yarn is dismissed as a concoction. “Only a story,” add the curators at Ferry Farm.

Encyclopedia Britannica's very description of Mason Weems describes him as “an American clergyman, itinerant book agent, and fabricator of the story of George Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree.”

Modern biographers of George Washington are so disdainful of Weems' work that they don't seem to have even read it. In his widely acclaimed “Washington, a Life,” author Ron Chernow dismisses Weems as the man “who manufactured enduring myths about Washington refusing to lie about chopping down a cherry tree [and] hurling a silver dollar across the Rappahannock.”

But just as we must be careful not to pass along hagiographic hokum when writing about politicians, so must we take care in our debunkings. There are several problems with dismissing these accounts as myths.

First of all, Mason Weems didn’t write about young George “chopping down” any tree. Weems wrote that the 6-year-old boy “barks … a beautiful young English cherry tree.” Although the word “barks” apparently eludes modern historians, what it means is that the boy idly swung his hatchet and gouged the tree. Although such a wound can compromise the health of a sapling, this is obviously a lesser offense -- one suggesting carelessness, not malice.

Second, Weems cites a source, although he doesn’t name her, which is more than his detractors do when claiming the story is false. Weems says the story was related to him by an “aged lady,” presumably an aunt or other relation who lived on the farm.

(In terms of assessing who is more careful with the facts, I’d point out that it was George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, not Mason Weems, who reported that Washington once threw something across the Rappahannock River. And it was a rock, not a silver dollar. In his memoirs, George Parke Custis describes the rock as a piece of slate “about the size and shape of a dollar.”)

In any event, modern scholars miss the entire point of Weems’ anecdote. It wasn't about young George’s innate honesty. The hero of this yarn was Augustine Washington -- for his leniency and intelligence as a parent. The anecdote is related by Weems as a window into the enlightened home in which George Washington was raised -- a home where little boys weren't whipped for absent-mindedly gashing a tree.

Here is how Weems put it:

“Some idea of Mr. Washington’s plan of education in this respect, may be collected from the following anecdote, related to me twenty years ago by an aged lady who was a distant relative, and when a girl spent much of her time in the family.”

The “Mr. Washington” referred to is Washington's father, and the cherry tree story is really about him. One of the few modern historians who expounded on this point was the always-perceptive Garry Wills. Wills gives Weems his due as a storyteller and as a reformer: Weems opposed slavery, alcohol, gambling, dueling, and tobacco, and advocated education for children. This, in the end, is what the cherry tree story concerns: Parson Weems abhorred “the rod,” which is how corporal punishment was then described.

The underlying message of the vignette is clear: That parents who beat their children are essentially forcing them to lie.

“Weems was a natural educator,” Wills wrote. “The most famous tale -- that of the cherry tree -- is almost always printed in a severely truncated form, which destroys its point. The moral, aimed at children, becomes: Never tell a lie. But that was not Weems’s moral.”

Wills notes that young George Washington can tell his father that he gashed the tree, perhaps fatally, because he is not terrified at the consequences of the truth. “The conclusion of the tale makes it clear,” Wills noted, “that the hero is Washington’s father, who teaches a lesson to parents.” 

Carl M. Cannon 
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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