You know the story. A young George Washington chops down a cherry tree with his ax, and then when questioned by his father, admits he did it, saying “I can’t tell a lie.” Fantastic, except the story itself is a lie.
That myth was created by Washington’s early 19th-century biographer, Parson Mason Locke Weems.
“What he was trying to do with the biography was turn Washington into a role model for small children,” said Dr. Stuart Leibiger, professor and chair of the history department at LaSalle University.
Leibiger’s far more reliable scholarship about the first president has earned him an award from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.
Leibiger says Washington’s legacy is about way more than cherry trees. He was commanding general of a successful revolutionary army, a leader who stunned the Western world by quietly surrendering his executive power, and a much-admired exemplar of the well-educated gentleman.
“I don’t think people today recognize how smart the guy was,” Leibiger said. “This is a guy who never went to college, but he was self-taught in a whole variety of fields.”
Washington taught himself calculus so he could become a surveyor. He also was a self-taught military officer, scientific farmer, and landscape architect.
Leibiger debunks another myth about Washington: He never had wooden teeth. But he did wear dentures made from hippopotamus ivory and human teeth, including those of his slaves. His cash records suggest that he paid his slaves for their teeth.
Washington started losing his teeth in his 20s, Leibiger said. “By the time he was president he only had two of his original teeth left,” he said. That was uncommon at the time.
Leibiger will receive his award next Sunday, George Washington’s actual birth date, at the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Va.