Monday, February 21, 2011

Who chopped the cherry tree?

Happy President's Day celebrating our one and only George Washington, perhaps the greatest hero in American history.

When I was a kid my grade school teachers told stories about Washington that now seem overly simplistic and moralistic. The Cherry Tree story goes something like this: Little George gets a hatchet and likes to chop down stuff with it. One day he chops down his father's favorite cherry tree, but tells no one. Then later when his father asks him if he knows who did it, GW responds, "Father, I cannot tell a lie; I cut the tree.'' His father tells him he'd always rather know the truth and forgives him for what he did.

Unfortunately the story is all a fabrication published in a biography by Mason Locke Weems. So why on earth do we tell this to children? Weren't there enough good things he actually did that we don't need to go making up tales to tell our children?
George Washington's reputation as a man of moral fortitude reveals more about America's view of morality than it does about the man himself. Washington was an exceedingly bland heroic leader, embodying an eighteenth-century ideal of republican virtue that emphasized duty, sacrifice and honorable disinterest. Flamboyance and daring were emphatically not required. Washington's virtue was admirable, but not overly interesting. Perhaps this is why the most famous example of his fortitude of character is, in fact, just fiction.
I guess morality is bland (and chopped cherry trees have a way of spicing it up). The power is in the (fictional?) narrative.

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