Last week while on vacation I managed to catch a bit of the Republican Convention. Whenever I tuned in, a speaker was describing the virtues of the greatest man in the history of our country. They weren’t talking about their nominee; they were invoking the memory of Ronald Reagan. As I listened I wondered, Who are you talking about? The Reagan being deified didn’t resemble the president I voted for back in the ‘80s. Reagan’s record was being completely distorted to make the late president more palatable to today’s über conservative Republicans. Gone were the Great Communicator’s brilliance at compromise and his pragmatic tax increases. I scarcely knew the man they were extolling. Where did the Republicans learn to fashion a towering demigod from mortal man, a secular messiah destined to reign for all time in the Pantheon of American greatness? Maybe they learned this from Parson Weems.
Never heard of Weems? Well, you know his work. He built on that fable of a youthful Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. What a brawny specimen of manliness Washington must have been to accomplish such a feat. It’s easy to forget that there were no silver dollars minted at the time and the Potomac, where this event was said to take place, was nearly a mile across. If true, Washington would have displayed physical prowess that would have made any major league baseball team sign him up in a heartbeat.
Washington’s step-children claimed he threw something across a river, probably a coin-shaped piece of slate across the narrow Rappahannock River near Washington’s boyhood home in Fredericksburg. But Parson Weems didn’t need even a kernel of truth to inspire his fiction.
Remember that story of George Washington and the cherry tree? When given a new hatchet, little George couldn’t resist chopping down his dad’s prized cherry tree. When asked about it, George (the greatest man to ever live, according to Weems) exhibited the integrity that would brand itself into history books by declaring, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” The fictional Washington might not have been able to tell a lie, but Parson Weems was very good at it. This fable was total hogwash.
Parson Weems (1759-1825) was an American book agent. He wasn’t particularly good at selling books and decided to write one of his own. His most famous achievement was The Life of Washington written in 1800. This nineteenth-century bestseller depicted Washington’s virtues and provided an entertaining and morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation—a polite way of saying Weems lied his ass off.
Weems saw Washington as the friend and benefactor of mankind, the conservator of the country and later the Savior of the World, similar to how Republicans today view Reagan, but Washington was great in spite of (or perhaps because of) his struggle with vanity, pettiness and fear. He was quite capable of lying and might have lost the Revolutionary War if he hadn’t been an expert at spreading misinformation.
This painting by Grant Wood, best known for American Gothic—that famous painting of a farm couple standing with a pitchfork between them—shows a puckish artist at work. Parson Weems is depicted drawing a curtain to reveal the story of young George pointing to his hatchet and revealing his crime. Wood reveals his lack of conviction at the “truthiness” of this tale by showing Washington’s face not as a young boy but straight from the one dollar bill. Wood is painting this fable as a joke in order to knock Washington from the pedestal where well-meaning men like Parson Weems have enshrined him. Our founding fathers were made of flesh and blood; they were just as susceptible to human foibles as we are today, perhaps more so if entries in their diaries are taken into consideration.
Washington and Reagan were both remarkable human beings. They experienced a variety of careers before settling on public service, and both had extraordinary visions for America. Today the tendency to over-sentimentalize Washington has diminished and historians are reexamining the factual nature of his greatness. But if certain people have their way, in fifty years we might no longer recognize the factual Ronald Reagan. The man many of us loved and respected is in danger of being reduced to an icon, wrapped in fallacies, myths and legends.
Like Washington, Ronald Reagan deserves better.