The folktale of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and admitting it to his father (“I cannot tell a lie, Pa”) is one of the most persistent in American history. It is first recorded in the Reverend Mason L. Weems’s Life of Washington (1800), told to him by an old lady who had spent much time with the family. No one has ever disproved this story, though there is some evidence that it was current as a country tale before Parson Weems printed it. Weems’s book went through over 40 editions, and millions of American were raised on the story, including Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed a copy of the book, and when it was damaged by a sudden rain had to work three days to pay its owner for it. All we can say with certainty is that like most folklore the tale was exaggerated over the years: a tree stripped of bark becoming the chopped-down tree, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa,” becoming “Father, I cannot tell a lie.”
Tree-hugger or not, it should be noted that every schoolchild knows that George Washington is called the Father of His Country. The title was first bestowed upon Washington in 1779 by Francis Baily, an American soldier of German descent from Pennsylvania. Baily printed a calendar in that year with a picture on the cover of the general above the German words Des Landes Vater (Father of His Country). Baily apparently knew that the epithet dated back to about 68 a.c., when Quintus Catullus, in a speech before the Roman senate, called his friend Marcus Tullius Cicero “the father of his country.” Cicero, a Roman consul, was regarded as a great patriot for putting down the Cataline conspiracy.
Washington is the most popular place name in the United States, recorded in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., the state of Washington, at least 29 counties, and numerous towns. Washington State, the only state named for an American, was admitted to the union on February 22, 1889, appropriately on George Washington’s birthday. Other terms honoring the “Father of his country,” “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen,” are the bird of Washington (the American eagle), the American Fabius, Washingtonia (a California palm tree), the Washington thorn, the Washington lily, and Washington pie.
George Washington is one of the rare American political figures Americans have nothing but praise for; in fact, all the legends about him have almost made him unreal. As for his honors, again, mention should also be made of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast; Virginia’s Washington and Lee University; and the Washington National Monument dedicated in 1885 in the capital. Incidentally (for a little bit more of little-known history), after leading American forces in the Revolution, and serving two terms as president, Washington served briefly as commander-in-chief of the army in 1798 when war with France seemed imminent.