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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Ingenious Weems Relates Some Pleasing Anecdotes

By Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825)

[Rector at Mount Vernon, Va., before the Revolution. Died at Beaufort, S. C., 1825. The Life of George Washington. Sixth Edition. 1808.]

THE FOLLOWING anecdote is a case in point; it is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted, for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I was indebted for the last.

“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 favorite, 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-triumphant 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 ever 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 fairest gold.”

Soon after the death of his father, his mother sent him down to Westmoreland, the place of his nativity, where he lived with his half-brother Augustin, and went to school to a Mr. Williams, an excellent teacher in that neighborhood. He carried with him his virtues, his zeal for unblemished character, his love of truth, and detestation of whatever was false and base. A gilt chariot, with richest robes and liveried servants, could not half so substantially have befriended him; for, in a very short time, so completely had his virtues secured the love and confidence of the boys, his word was just as current among them as a law. A very aged gentleman, formerly a schoolmate of his, has often assured me (while pleasing recollection brightened his furrowed cheeks), that nothing was more common, when the boys were in high dispute about a question of fact, than for some little shaver among the mimic heroes to call out, “Well, boys! George Washington was there; George Washington was there; he knows all about it; and if he don’t say it was so, then we will give it up.” “Done!” said the adverse party. Then away they would trot to hunt for George. Soon as his verdict was heard, the party favored would begin to crow, and then all hands would return to play again.

Some of his historians have said, and many believe, that Washington was a Latin scholar! But ’tis all a joke. He never learned a syllable of Latin. His second and last teacher, Mr. Williams, was indeed a capital hand—but not at Latin; for of that he understood perhaps as little as Balaam’s ass—but at reading, spelling, English grammar, arithmetic, surveying, book-keeping and geography, he was indeed famous. And in these useful arts, ’tis said he often boasted that he had made George Washington nearly as proficient as himself.

Born to be a soldier, Washington early discovered symptoms of nature’s intentions towards him. In his eleventh year, while at school under old Mr. Hobby, he used to divide his playmates into two parties, or armies. One of these, for distinction’s sake, was called French, the other American. A big boy at the school, named William Bustle, commanded the former, George commanded the latter. And, every day, at play-time, with corn-stalks for muskets, and calabashes for drums, the two armies would turn out, and march, and countermarch, and file off or fight their mimic battles with great fury. This was fine sport for George, whose passion for active exercise was so strong, that at play-time no weather could keep him within-doors. His fair cousins, who visited at his mother’s, used to complain, that “George was not fond of their company, like other boys; but soon as he had got his task would run out to play.” But such trifling play as marbles and tops he could never abide. They did not afford him exercise enough. His delight was in that of the manliest sort, which, by flinging the limbs and swelling the muscles, promote the kindest flow of blood and spirits. At jumping with a long pole, or heaving heavy weights, for his years he hardly had an equal. And as to running, the swift-footed Achilles could scarcely have matched his speed.

“Egad! he ran wonderfully,” said my amiable and aged friend, John Fitzhugh, Esq., who knew him well; “we had nobody hereabouts that could come near him. There was young Langhorn Dade, of Westmoreland, a confounded clean made, tight young fellow, and a mighty swift runner too—but then he was no match for George. Langy, indeed, did not like to give it up; and would brag that he had sometimes brought George to a tie. But I believe he was mistaken: for I have seen them run together many a time, and George always beat him easy enough.

Col. Lewis Willis, his playmate and kinsman, has been heard to say that he has often seen him throw a stone across Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg. It would be no easy matter to find a man nowadays, who could do it.

It was in his fifteenth year, according to the best of my information, that Washington first felt the kindlings of his soul for war. The cause was this: in those days the people of Virginia looked on Great Britain as the mother country, and to go thither was, in common phrase, “to go home.” The name of Old England was music in their ears, and the bare mention of a blow meditated against her, never failed to rouse a something at the heart, which instantly flamed on the cheek and flashed in the eye. Washington had his full share of these virtuous feelings: on hearing, therefore, that France and Spain were mustering a black cloud over his mother country, his youthful blood took fire, and he instantly tendered what aid his little arm could afford.

The rank of midshipman was procured for him on board a British ship-of-war, then lying in our waters, and his trunk and clothes were actually sent on board. But when he came to take leave of his mother, she wept bitterly and told him, “She felt that her heart would break if he left her.” George immediately got his trunk ashore! for he could not, for a moment, bear the idea of inflicting a wound on that dear bosom which had so long and so fondly sustained his life.

Washington pursued Tarleton twenty miles, and during the race was often so near him, that he could easily have killed him with a pistol-shot. But having strictly forbidden his men to fire a pistol that day, he thought it would never do to break his own orders. However there was one of his men who broke them. At one time Washington was thirty or forty yards ahead of his men. Tarleton observing this, suddenly wheeled with a couple of his dragoons to cut him off. Washington, with more courage than prudence perhaps, dashed on, and rising on his stirrups, made a blow at Tarleton with such force that it beat down his guard and mutilated one or two of his fingers. In this unprotected state, one of the British dragoons was aiming a stroke which must have killed him. But the good genii, who guard the name of Washington, prevailed, for in that critical moment a mere dwarf of a Frenchman rushed up, and, with a pistol-ball, shivered the arm of the Briton. The other dragoon attempted to wheel off, but was cut down. Tarleton made his escape.

Tarleton was brave, but not generous. He could not bear to hear another’s praise. When some ladies in Charleston were speaking very handsomely of Washington, he replied, with a scornful air, that, “He should be very glad to get a sight of Col. Washington. He had heard much talk of him,” he said, “but had never seen him yet.” “Why, sir,” rejoined one of the ladies, “if you had looked behind you at the battle of the Cowpens, you might very easily have enjoyed that pleasure.”

While in the neighborhood of Halifax, North Carolina, Tarleton dined in a large company. The elegant and witty Mrs. Wiley Jones happened to be of the party. The ladies, who were chiefly Whigs, were frequently praising the brave Col. Washington. Tarleton, with looks considerably angry, replied, “That he was very much surprised that the Americans should think so highly of Col. Washington; for, from what he could learn, he was quite an illiterate fellow, and could hardly write his own name.” “That may be very true,” replied Mrs. Jones, “but I believe, sir, you can testify that he knows how to make his mark.” Poor Tarleton looked at his crippled finger, and bit his lips with rage.

The French Directory, engaged in a furious war with England, turned to America for aid. But Washington, wisely dreading the effects of war on his young Republic, and believing that she had an unquestioned right to neutrality, most strictly enjoined it on his people by proclamation. This so enraged the Directory, that they presently gave orders to their cruisers, to seize American ships on the high seas—that equal path which God had spread for the nations to trade on! Washington had sent out General Charles C. Pinckney, to remonstrate against such iniquitous proceedings. The Directory would not receive him! but still continued their spoliations on our wide-spread and defenceless commerce, ruining numbers of innocent families. Still determined, according to Washington’s advice, “so to act as to make our enemy in the wrong,” the American government despatched two other Envoys, Marshall and Gerry, to aid Pinckney. But still they fared no better. Though they only supplicated for peace! though they only prayed to be permitted to make explanations, they were still kept by the Directory at a most mortifying distance; and, after all, were told, that America was not to look for a single smile of reconciliation, nor even a word on that subject, until her Envoys should bring large tribute in their hands. This, as Washington had predicted, instantly evaporated the last drop of American patience. He had always said, that “though some very interested or deluded persons were much too fond of England and France to value America as they ought, yet he was firmly persuaded that the great mass of the people were hearty lovers of their country, and soon as their eyes were open to the grievous injuries done her, would assuredly resent like men, to whom God had given strong feelings on purpose to guard their rights.”

His prediction was gloriously verified. For, on hearing the word Tribute, the American Envoys instantly took fire, while the brave Gen. Pinckney (a revolutionary soldier, and neither Englishman nor Frenchman, but a true American), indignantly exclaimed to the Secretary of the Directory—“Tribute, Sir! no, sir! The Americans pay no tribute! Tell the Directory that we will give millions for defence; but not one cent for tribute.”

In the winter of ’77, while Washington, with the American army lay encamped at Valley Forge, a certain good old Friend, of the respectable family and name of Potts, if I mistake not, had occasion to pass through the woods near head-quarters. Treading his way along the venerable grove, suddenly he heard the sound of a human voice, which as he advanced increased in his ear, and at length became like the voice of one speaking much in earnest. As he approached the spot with a cautious step, whom should he behold in a dark natural bower of ancient oaks, but the commander-in-chief of the American armies on his knees at prayer! Motionless with surprise, Friend Potts continued on the place till the General having ended his devotions arose, and with a countenance of angel serenity retired to head-quarters. Friend Potts then went home, and on entering his parlor called out to his wife, “Sarah! my dear! Sarah! All’s well! all’s well! George Washington will yet prevail!”

“What’s the matter, Isaac,” replied she; “thee seems moved.”

“Well, if I seem moved, ’tis no more than what I am; I have this day seen what I never expected. Thee knows that I always thought the sword and the gospel utterly inconsistent, and that no man could be a soldier and a Christian at the same time. But George Washington has this day convinced me of my mistake.”

He then related what he had seen, and concluded with this prophetical remark—“If George Washington be not a man of God, I am greatly deceived—and still more shall I be deceived if God do not, through him, work out a great salvation for America.”

The following anecdote was related to me by his Excellency Governor Johnson (Maryland) one of the few surviving heroes of ’76.

“You seem sir,” said he, addressing himself to me, “very fond of collecting anecdotes of General Washington. Well, I’ll tell you one, and one too to which you may attach the most entire faith, for I have heard it a dozen times, and oftener, from the lips of a very valuable man and magistrate, in Conostoga, a Mr. Conrad Hogmyer. ‘Just before the revolutionary war,’ said Mr. Hogmyer, ‘I took a trip for my health’s sake to the Sweet Springs of Virginia, where I found a world of people collected; some like me, looking for health, others for pleasure. In consequence of the crowd, I was at first rather hard run for lodgings, but at length was lucky enough to get a mattress in the hut of a very honest baker of my acquaintance, who often visited those springs for the benefit of his oven. Being the only man of the trade on the turf, and well-skilled in the science of dough, he met with no small encouragement; and it was really a matter of gratitude to see what heaps of English loaves, Indian pones, French bricks, cakes and crackers, lay piled up on his counter every morning. I often amused myself in marking the various airs and manners of the different waiters, who, in gay liveries and shining faces, came every morning, rattling down their silver, and tripping away with bread by the basket. Among those gay-looking sons and daughters of Africa, I saw every now and then a poor Lazarite, with sallow cheek and hollow eye, slowly creeping to the door, and at a nod from the baker, eagerly seize a fine loaf and bear it off without depositing a cent. Surely, thought I to myself, this baker must be the best man or the greatest fool in the world; but fearing that this latter cap best fitted his pericranium, I one morning could not help breaking my mind to him for crediting his bread to such very unpromising dealers. “‘Stophel,’” for that was his name, “‘you seem,’” said I, “‘to sell a world of bread here every day, but notwithstanding that, I fear you don’t gain much by it’”

“‘No! ’Squire, what makes you think so?’”

“‘You credit too much, Stophel.’”

“‘Not I indeed, sir, not I, I don’t credit a cent.’”

“‘Ay! how do you make that out, Stophel, don’t I see these poor people every day carrying away your bread and yet paying you nothing?’”

“‘Pshaw, no matter for that, ’squire, they’ll pay me all in the lump at last.’”

“‘At last!—at last!! Oh ho, at the last day, I suppose you mean, Stophel, when you have the conscience to expect that God Almighty will stand paymaster, and wipe off all your old scores for you, at a dash.’”

“‘Oh no! ’squire, we poor bakers can’t give such long credit! but I’ll tell you how we work the matter: the good man, Col. George Washington, is here. Every season, soon as he comes, he calls and says to me, ‘Stophel,’ says he, ‘you seem to have a great deal of company; and, some I fear, who don’t come here for pleasure, and yet you know, they can’t do without eating; though pale and sickly they must have bread; but it will never do to make them pay for it. Poor creatures! they seem already low spirited enough, through sickness and poverty; their spirits must not be sunk lower by taking from them every day, what little money they have pinched from their poor families at home—I’ll tell you what’s to be done, Stophel, you must give each of them a good hot loaf every morning, and charge it to me; when I am going away I’ll pay you all.’ And believe me, ’squire, he has often, at the end of the season, paid me as much as eighty dollars, and that too for poor creatures who did not know the hand that fed them, for I had strict orders from him, not to mention a syllable of it to anybody.”’”