The Power of a Historic Site

Jennifer Orr is a first-grade teacher in Virginia.  Recently she took a trip to the home of Mason Locke Weems, the itinerant bookseller and Anglican minister who is famous for his hagiography of George Washington.  Weems is responsible for a host of American myths related to Washington, including the story of George chopping down the cherry tree and the story of George praying in the snow at Valley Forge.

Orr is less interested in these myths and more interested in the way that the Weems house has triggered her own historical curiosity.  In the process, she makes a good argument for why historical sites matter and should be preserved.  Here is a taste:

...Talking with our daughters, ages eight and five, about the house and its most famous owner as we walked the halls where he once walked and stood in the room in which George and Martha Washington stayed on their honeymoon trip to Mount Vernon, I found myself thinking very differently about Parson Weems. Surprisingly I was putting him in a clearer historical context and feeling a personal connection to him.

I began to think more about why he wrote his biography of George Washington in the way he did. Today such a biography would be discredited and seen as shameful. Two hundred years ago it was different. The question of accuracy was not viewed in the same way it is today. Stories told for the purpose of sharing a moral were widely used and accepted.

It has been several weeks since we visited Parson Weems’ home and I am still thinking of it frequently. We’ve done some research and reading about Weems and the area in which he lived. I now have a much better understanding of his time period and his life than I did before our visit.

Experiencing history as a learner rather than as the teacher was a wonderful opportunity. Asking questions, genuinely wondering what something meant or who someone was or why something happened and learning the answers, or not, was exciting. It was a reminder of what history can be for students if we can make it real, meaningful, and relevant for them.

Painter of Washington Praying at Valley Forge Dies at Age 96

Arnold Friberg, the artist who painted an image of George Washington praying at Valley Forge, has passed away. Friberg finished this painting in 1975, but his rendition is not the first artist’s depiction of Washington at prayer at Valley Forge. The first artist to render this scene from Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington was Henry Brueckner, who painted the picture posted below in 1866. If you can wait until February, you can learn more about Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

Back at Bethany Village

I was in familiar territory tonight with the good folks at Bethany Village in Mechanicsburg. I have been speaking there once or twice a year for about five years now. My topic tonight was “George Washington, the Cherry Tree, and Other Myths About the Father of Our Country.” I focused on four prominent myths about Washington:

1). The myth of Washington and the cherry tree
2). The myth of Washington praying at Valley Forge
3). The myth of Washington the evangelical Christian
4). The (partial) myth of Washington the civic humanist

During the Q&A many of them wanted to call attention to Washington’s greatness as a counterweight to the content of my talk, but they also understood that my talk was more about the construction of Washington as “father of our country” than it was about the character of the man during his lifetime. As one might imagine, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about Mason Locke “Parson” Weems.

The residents of Bethany Village are a great audience. During the refreshment time following the talk I was entertained with stories about George Washington’s teeth (from a retired dentist who also gave me four tubes of toothpaste to bring home to my family), a childhood play in which a resident once played George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and multiple stories of visits to Mount Vernon. As usual, I left with a plate of cookies and some potential topics for another talk. It was great night.

New Course: Religion and the American Founding

I am currently working on the syllabus for “Religion and the American Founding” (HIS 399), a new upper-division history elective I will be teaching at Messiah College this spring. The course will focus on the question of whether or not the American founders set out to establish a Christian nation. I decided to teach this course at this time because I have been working on a book, tentatively titled, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Primer for Christians,” which should appear in 2011 with Westminster/John Knox Press. The book will be targeted toward students, Christian ministers, laypersons, people of faith, and anyone else who continues to be confused by this topic. I am hoping that regular interaction with a group of 20 or so undergraduates from a variety of church traditions will help me think through exactly what I want to say in this book.

I have assigned the following texts for the course:

Nicholas Guyott, Providence and the Invention of the United States
Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory
David Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, The Search for Christian America
Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution

My VERY tentative outline looks something like this:

Week One: The Idea of a Christian Nation in American History
Reading : Guyott

Week Two: The Contemporary Defenders of Christian America
Reading: Marshall and Manuel; my chapter; and something by David Barton

Week Three: Defining our Terms: “Christian,” “Founded,” “Nation.”
Reading: Not sure yet.

Week Four: How to Think Historically
Reading: Chapter in Noll, et. al; chapter in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts; and the introduction to Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past.

Week Five: Did George Washington Pray at Valley Forge?
Reading: Weems

Week Six: The Religious Beliefs of the Major Founders: Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison
Reading: Holmes; Noll, Hatch, Marsden; and primary documents.

Week Seven: The Evangelical Founders: Witherspoon, Jay, Adams, Henry
Reading: Holmes; Noll, Hatch, Marsden; and primary documents

Week Eight: A Just War?
Reading: Noll, Hatch, Marsden; perhaps Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon on Romans 13; still searching for something else.

Week Nine: Nature’s God: Is the Declaration of Independence a Christian Document?
Reading: Still working on something suitable to go with the Declaration itself.

Week Ten: Religion and the Critical Period
Reading: Still working on something suitable. I will probably use some of the state Constitutions as primary documents.

Week Eleven: “A Godless Constitution?”
Reading: Kramnick and Moore

Week Twelve: Student paper presentations.

I do not begin the course until February 1st, so I still have time to get everything in order. If anyone out there has some suggestions for short readings–both of a primary or secondary nature–feel free to comment here or contact me off-line. Any suggestions would be helpful since this is the first time I have taught this course. Thanks.

Once I start teaching I will try to keep readers up to date on how things are going.


George Washington, The Cherry Tree, and "Retail Selling"

A few years ago one of my students, Justin Bollinger (now in his second year of law school), wrote an excellent senior thesis on Mason Locke Weems, the early nineteenth-century bookseller who is famous for writing (and selling) The Life of George Washington. Weems’s biography is filled with unsubstantiated stories about the first president of the United States, including the famous story of a youthful Washington chopping down his father’s precious cherry-tree.

Since supervising Justin’s thesis, I have become more and more interested in the ways that Weems’s stories about Washington have influenced American culture. I am particularly interested in how the cherry-tree story and other Weems myths made their way into nineteenth and twentieth-century school textbooks.

As some of my regular readers know, I am working on a book about whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. Today, as part of my research, I was scanning Google Books to see if I could find any references in post-Civil War textbooks to the George Washington of Weems’s literary imagination.

I found some good stuff, including a reference to the cherry-tree story in a 1919 book entitled A Textbook on Retail Selling. The author of this textbook reproduces an advertisement for what appears to be a “Washington’s Birthday” retail sale. The ad reads:

Just one hundred and eighty-five years ago to-day, George Washington, the father of our country, was born. History tells us that when George was quite a youngster his father missed a favorite cherry-tree from his orchard. George promptly confessed to having perpetrated the deed with his little hatchet and as a reward for telling the truth his father did not punish him. George Washington would not tell a lie. He was honest and never falsely represented himself. These traits were conspicuous throughout his long career, which led him to the presidency of the United States.

This paragraph, or course, relies entirely on Weems’s biography of Washington. But here is the kicker:

We never say anything that is not so at our store, and while we cannot be the president of the United States, we can be the most exclusive store for women and children in the United States, and that is our ambition.

George Washington, or at least the George Washington made popular by Mason Locke Weems, seemed to be quite useful to the science of “retail selling.”

It still is.