Who Cut down the Cherry Tree? Clergyman and Author Mason Weems Part 2

About the clergyman and author Mason Weems and his work Life of George Washington which included the famous cherry tree incident.

MASON WEEMS (1760-1825).

Clergyman, author, bookseller.

In his bookselling, he was known for his outrageous behavior and racy remarks. In Fredericksburg, he preached from the text, "We are fearfully and wonderfully made," then ended his sermon, saying, "I must stop; for should I go on, some young ladies present would not sleep a wink tonight." In selling his Drunkard's Looking Glass, he would appear at the door of a tavern in a drunken and haggard state, appearing to be "A little on the Staggers or so." When he had got the attention of the clientele, he would begin to offer forth his pamphlets. He said they sold "like hotcakes." Weems was not all-out in favor of prohibition, only of moderation.

He was also an excellent fiddler, and he played to please his customers. All in all, his behavior was considered scandalous by many, not the least of whom was his employer, Carey. They argued constantly for the 30 years of their partnership, and both being of excitable temperaments, their correspondence was vitriolic in the extreme. Despite their feuding, Weems was simply invaluable as a salesman. He wrote to Carey: "God knows there is nothing I dread so as dead stock, dull sales, back loads, and blank looks. But the Joy of my soul is quick and clean sales--Heavy pockets, and light hearts."

Next to the beloved Bible, his Life of Washington was the best seller. It was published in 1800, and was so immensely popular that before 1850, 59 editions were published. The frontispiece (by Weems) bore the inscription:

Go thy way old George. Die when thou wilt, We shall not look upon thy like again.

(It was altered accordingly when Washington died 6 months later.)

Here is the historic anecdote: "When George was about 6 years old, he was made the wealthy owner of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond; and was constantly going about chopping every thing which came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself by 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 5 guineas for his tree. Nobody would 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 worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold."

Parson Weems's devotion was no less than his eloquence, and he toiled mightily and ceaselessly. He said to Carey: "I wish you to remember that the family Bible is my favorite book and I hope to die selling it." He had his wish, and in 1825 he died in harness, on the road, in South Carolina.

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