09 July 2009

The Enigmatic Parson Weems, Part the First

I have in my library a tome entitled A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington by one Rev. Mason Locke Weems, better known as "Parson" Weems. Surely you, oh enlightened Cabinet reader, are familiar with the story of the young Washington secretly designing to steal his uncle's cherry orchard and replant it along the nearby Potomac River tidal basin next to the giant, Egyptian Revival lightning rod he erected. When confronted, Georgie told his father that he "could not tell a lie." Astounded by the young lout's honesty, Wash. Sr. assured his boy that honesty, and a seven-year indenture, were sufficient payment for his errant hatcheting.

Although it is often thought today that Weems fabricated the tale to illustrate the morality of the new United States' greatest hero, the naked truth is that Washington suffered from a disease that, in addition to causing adolescent tooth loss, produced a chemical similar to sodium pentothal (a truth serum) and practically prevents one from lying. The story of one modern-day suffering is chronicled in a recent documentary that, I believe, enjoyed some great success.

But I digress. What's the "911" or "deal-i-o-izzle", as the kids say, on "Parson" Weems? Our Weems was a book seller by trade during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Eastern United States. There were so few books in those days (perhaps because most monographs and correspondence were tattooed on one's indentured and non-dentured servants) that Weems was driven to write his own in order to reap a greater profit. He would take his wagon, Roma-like, from town to town, hawking his written wares.

How did Weems gather so much information about GW and his other biographical subjects? Did he take a page from Boswell, constantly bothering Washington and wanting to hang out with him (see the entry on the "Encyclopedia" Britannica, part II), or did a spirit of some kind reveal it to him in a waking dream? The world may never know, but this distinguished academic will sure attempt to speculate on the matter in the second installment about Parson "Mason Locke" Weems!


  1. Another great post my good friend. Pray tell when the next instalment of this story will be delivered. I have been sitting on the edge of my seat for ages.

  2. I don't know if you check this anymore, but I am struggling to find what disease George Washington actually had that caused him to tell the truth and what documentary you had attached above as the link is broken.


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