I Cannot Tell a Lie


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In honor of the recent elections (thank all that is holy THAT’s over!) I present my take on the whole George Washington cherry tree bit.

Not too many years after his birth on February 22, 1732, our soon-to-be first president found himself in a bit of a sticky situation, so the story goes. Although every school child accepts the cherry tree story as general fact, most adults rightly understand it to be a myth. In fact, the entire episode was fabricated by one of Washington’s biographers in an effort to demonstrate his honesty, even in childhood.

The original story goes as such:

Young George Washington Would Not Tell a Lie
By Mason Locke Weems

“When George,” said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself 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 five guineas for his tree. Nobody could 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 more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”

Doesn’t this sound like a story written by a man who had never met Mr. Washington? Well, it was. Mason Weems took great pains to paint the portrait of a great, amazing, interesting man, when, in fact, it is said that Washington wasn’t really all that fascinating. Sure, he became a county surveyor at the tender age of 17, and, sure, he was a great choice as first president (probably the only man NOT willing to become king.) But, was he truly a saint, even in childhood? The answer is simply, no.

I don’t care how brave, how noble, honest, pure or founding fathery you are, when you are a child facing an angry parent, you would not look your pa squarely in the eye and tell the truth. No child would. (For all you parents out there thinking, “MINE would,” I have one word – HA!)

No, a young boy would not look innocently into his angry father’s eyes and say blithely, “Father, I cannot tell a lie, I DID chop down your cherry tree,” to which his father would ruffle his hair and say, “Boys will be boys,” and then both would walk hand-in-hand toward the sunset to invent ice cream. Knowing children – and I know children – I believe the interchange would go more like this:

“George…George – where are you? George? GEORGE!”

(creeping from behind a haystack) “Y-yes pa?”

“George, what happened to my tree?”

“What tree?”

“My CHERRY tree, George, the one that’s over there dead!”

“We have a cherry tree?”

“HAD, George, HAD a cherry tree – why did you chop it down?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“George, my tree is chopped down, and your axe is sitting right next to it. You were hiding from me.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Where were you, then? I called and called.”

“I was doing my homework, right here. I guess I was so involved that I didn’t hear you.”

(sighs) “George, why did you chop down my cherry tree? You know how much that tree means to me.”

“What tree?”

“GEORGE! I know you did it! Mary saw you do it!”

(winces) “Mom saw me?”

“Yes, now what do you have to say about what you did?”

(long pause) “It was an accident?”

“An accident. How exactly do you accidentally chop down a tree, George?”

(looks back and forth pathetically) “I didn’t mean to.”

“So, you accidentally picked up the axe, for no reason at all, then accidentally swung it at my tree, not meaning to hit it, then accidentally swung it several times more until the tree fell over, is that what happened, George?”

George answers with a shrug.

Now, bearing in mind that George would grow up to be one of the world’s most known politicians, imagine if this scene happened today. The transcripts for the interchange would go something like this:

Father:                George, did you chop down the cherry tree?

George:               No, Dad, I did not chop down the cherry tree.

Father:                I think you are lying.

George:               I am not lying. I swear I did NOT chop down the cherry tree.

Father:                You were witnessed doing the deed, George. Your punishment will be much worse for you if you lie. Now, tell me the truth.

George:               I must maintain that my answer was fundamentally accurate, though I will admit that I did not volunteer information. Indeed, Dad, I did cause the cherry tree to be lying on the ground. I know my answer to you gave a false impression. I misled you, my own father, and I deeply regret that. I can only tell you that I was driven to do so by many factors. I was led by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also concerned about protecting Mom from this shock. In essence, my choice to mislead you was motivated by my desire to protect our entire family. However, I did not lie. What I did, Dad was use a saw to cause the cherry tree to fall. Only after the tree was already down did I go get my axe to chop off the individual branches. So, I chopped the branches, but I sawed the tree. Therefore, by legal standards, I told the truth.

To do this was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I would be willing to admit that I was solely and completely responsible, however, there were mitigating circumstances. As you know, the blackberries are overtaking our orchard. I had meant to saw at the blackberry bushes near the tree, but erred in my delivery. Therefore, you can plainly see, we can place the blame of the tree’s collapse on the Bush.

I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of this fallen tree and to return our attentions to a solid family relationship. After all, who is going to remember a cherry tree as a symbol of my character and ability to lead?

While it is fun to dream up scenarios that make him more human or more politician – yes, the two are mutually exclusive – the sorry fact is that young George Washington did not chop down his father’s cherry tree at all. I cannot tell a lie.

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