President Washington’s first biographer leaves behind contested anecdotes

As the old fable goes, a young George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and his honesty about the incident (“You know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet,”) earned him kudos with his father.

That’s according to Mason Locke Weems, the author who wrote the first biography about Washington, and the man who has been accused of passing his fictionalized stories as historical facts.

Weems was born on this day in 1759 in Maryland and worked as a minister before becoming a bookseller and writer.

His “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington,” published in 1800, quickly became the go-to source for facts about the first president, and the now-famous story of the cherry tree quickly took off. Thanks to Weems, Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22 was celebrated with cherry dishes.

According to soon-to-be President Woodrow Wilson’s 1896 biography “George Washington,” however, the much-loved story that Weems attributed to Washington’s distant relative was a fabrication.

Although his relatives neither confirmed or denied the story’s truth, Washington’s biographers sided with Wilson.

Weems died in South Carolina in April 1825.

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