LiteratEye #1: George Washington Lied About Taxes

We’re pleased to announce the debut of LiteratEye, a new series, only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

Literary deception is John’s “beat” and he has agreed to send us a “casebook” dispatch each week for the foreseeable future. Says John, “When literary fraud is exposed it’s usually pretty well covered in the mainstream press, but seems to me they often overlook a good story in who dug it out and how. Sometimes it’s forensics but other times it’s just chance, someone remembers something that puts the work in a questionable light.”

Here, in honor of President’s Day, is John’s first post:

LiteratEye #1: George Washington Lied About Taxes
by W.J. Elvin III
February 13, 2009

Prepare to be shocked and appalled

Minute Book 1756 page 463Few believe, surely, that George Washington never told a lie, or even that he confessed to chopping down one of his father’s cherry trees, as his early biographer Parson Mason Locke Weems suggested. Weems saw nothing wrong with a bit of fabrication when it served his purposes. Neither, for that matter, did Washington.

Well, if that’s so, what lie did George Washington tell? Name one. No doubt revisionist historians could provide a few dozen, but up until recently I certainly couldn’t have done it. I ran across this little nugget while researching other matters in old newspapers, the sort of thing I do in putting together Fiona, a magazine about literary fraud and folly.

I ran my discovery past Rick Shenkman, editor of History News Network, and he replied that there is no mention of it in the papers of George Washington. I don’t know if that means “and therefore it’s a crock,” or perhaps “good for you, you’ve rescued a valuable anecdote from the dustbin of history.” Possibly neither.

At any rate, evidence in colonial court records, stolen during the Civil War from Fairfax Court House in Virginia but since recovered, indicates that George Washington once faced charges of “swearing a false oath” – that is to say, telling a lie in order to dodge taxes. The tax-dodger accusation came to light in a ledger book stolen by a Union officer and returned to the county upon his death. The story was widely reported when the ledger was examined in the early 1900s.

Pursuit of facts about the tax dodger tale led me a merry chase and I wrote pages and pages about it in the magazine. What really fascinated me, though, was learning that Parson Weems wasn’t quite as fast and loose with the truth as I’d been led to believe.

For one thing, he didn’t state the cherry tree story as fact, he just said he’d heard it from an old lady who knew the Washington family when she was a young lady. For another, Weems didn’t say little George chopped the tree down. He said he “barked” it. Depending upon the extent of the operation, that could mean he just nipped off a bit of its outer shell; the tree might have lived happily ever after for all I know.

We all know from recent movies that George Washington was a high-ranking Mason. Well, guess what? Weems was a Mason, too. “Aha!,” you say. Yes. And, though Weems made up the business about Washington being a member of his church and parish, they may have met a time or two.

As for chopping down cherry trees, the axe is a prominent symbol in Masonic lore, associated with Solomon’s temple and Noah’s ark. So, have at it, construct your own conspiracy theory.

By the way, since we are celebrating Lincoln’s birthday as well as Washington’s: The only book Lincoln owned as a youth was Parson Weems’ biography of Washington, and he credited it as inspirational in his struggle to preserve the Union. That’s according to Edward Steers in “Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President” (The University of Kentucky Press, 2007).