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Mason L. Weems

The work of Parson Mason L. Weems, a clergyman and early Washington biographer, is a prime example of rewriting history for instructional purposes. His stories of Washington's life were entitled, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington (1800) and later The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen (1806). The incident of the future hero chopping down a cherry tree and refusing to tell a lie about it seems to be a complete fabrication. No contemporaneous letters or other documents contain the story and it did not appear in other literature until after Weems' account was published. Weems also provided an account of Washington praying on his knees in the snow at Valley Forge. This scene has been memorialized in many ways over the years — a famous painting, prominent magazine cover, stained glass window in the Capitol, postage stamps and so forth. Yet most historians doubt the event occurred; Washington most likely was a Deist, like many of the leading political figures of the day. He attended church regularly, but declined to take communion. Washington did not request prayers or the ministrations of a clergyman while he suffered his final illness.