Tag Archives: George Washington

specious, Jesuitical (or, “All slaveholders were evil, but some were more evil than others.”)


“In private, most of my left-leaning friends say that Washington should stay. They don’t play down the moral catastrophe of his slave ownership, but they weigh that, as [Princeton historian David] Bell advised three years ago, ‘against his role as a heroic commander in chief, as an immensely popular political leader who resisted the temptation to become anything more than a republican chief executive, and who brought the country together around the new Constitution.’ And they conclude that Washington deserves to stay in the canon of our country’s heroes — deeply flawed, as most heroes are, but still worthy of admiration for the good he did.”

— “Where do we draw the line in tearing down statues?” by Megan McArdle, The Washington Post, June 23, 2020



“… the traitors hailed as heroes of times gone by aren’t the only ones getting toppled. Ulysses S. Grant — the commanding general of the Union Army — has been torn down; protesters have aimed for Andrew Jackson; Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have been pulled to the ground. The pain and anger born of years of oppression, it seems, extend beyond the most obvious icons of the Confederacy to our Founding Fathers — who espoused freedom and equality even as they held human beings in chains.

“We think a distinction can be drawn between Davis, who earned his fame leading states that seceded so they could keep slavery alive, and Washington, who earned his leading states that banded together to form a nation conceived in liberty, even if that nation still hasn’t lived up to those ideals.”
— “Tearing down these statues will be history, too. Let’s make it one we’re proud of.,” Editorial Board, The Washington Post, June 25, 2020



“Former vice president Joe Biden drew a distinction Tuesday between monuments to Confederate leaders and statues of slave-owning former presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, saying the former belong in museums while the latter should be protected. …

“ ‘There is a difference between reminders and remembrances of history,’ Biden said. ‘The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and somebody who was in rebellion committing treason … trying to take down the union and keep slavery. I think there’s a distinction.’ ”

— “On monuments, Biden draws distinction between those of slave owners and those who fought to preserve slavery,” The Washington Post, June 30, 2020



“Our civil religion, back when it had more true believers, sometimes treated departed presidents like saints. But our monuments and honorifics exist primarily to honor deeds, not to issue canonizations — to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.

“Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or ‘we hold these truths …’ without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

“To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that’s exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

“But just as Jefferson’s memorial wasn’t built to celebrate his slaveholding, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.”

— “The Ghost of Woodrow Wilson,” by Ross Douthat, The New York Times, June 30, 2020



Bret Stephens: My basic criterion when it comes to deciding whether a statue should stay or go is whether the person on the pedestal worked for or against a more perfect union, to borrow that beautiful phrase from the preamble to the Constitution. Figures like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee should come down because they worked for disunion, not union. On the other hand, I’m appalled by the defacement of the magnificent Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston, which commemorates the bravery of one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army, just as I’m disgusted by the protesters who pulled down the statue of Ulysses Grant in San Francisco. … We need to find a way to balance present-day moral judgments with some appreciation that the past is another country.

“As for [Andrew] Jackson, my view is that, on balance, he worked for a more perfect union. This is in no way to deny the fact that he was a slaveholder or ignore his atrocious role in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. But the modern Democratic Party, with its profoundly egalitarian impulses, would have probably been impossible without Jackson. And the Union might have perished long before Abraham Lincoln came to power if Jackson hadn’t opposed nullification and its champion, John C. Calhoun, as forcefully as he did.

Gail Collins: … all those founding fathers from Virginia who fought for their liberty while owning slaves. They knew slavery was evil — as Thomas Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” But Jefferson didn’t do anything about it either. …

“But about Jefferson? We celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but does that mean we celebrate the author? Who wanted a nation that was free for white people but protected the right of slave owners to keep and control their property forever? Great men are never perfect, but how do we decide if their good outweighs the bad?

Bret Stephens: I put a lot of weight in what Abraham Lincoln said of the third president: ‘All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.’ … Great public men are often horrid private men.”

— “Is Statue-Toppling a Monumental Error?” by Gail Collins and Bret Stephens, The New York Times, June 30, 2020



“Each of the Rushmore presidents furthered the ennobling sentiments of men who tried to fashion a democracy from a revolution. Some may never forgive Washington for his slave ownership. But among the nine presidents who owned slaves, only Washington freed them all in his final will.

“He also kept the United States from becoming a monarchy when the Trumpians of the day wanted to make him king.

“Jefferson was a slaveholding racist who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. The words outlive, and outshine, the man. …

“Teddy Roosevelt was no friend of the continent’s original inhabitants. But he evolved. His Rough Riders were multiracial warriors. And as the 20th century’s most influential progressive president, he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him, the first time any president had broken bread with a Black man at the White House. This, at a time when it was difficult for a Black man to get a meal in a restaurant.

“Each of them pushed the revolution closer to an ideal of true equality. And Roosevelt was the first to add universal health care among the truths we hold self-evident.”

— “Let’s Finish the American Revolution: Our nation’s founding was a mess of contradictions. We must push America closer to its ideals.” by Timothy Egan, The New York Times, July 3, 2020


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 4. 2020

Some things that happened never happened.


“Some things that happened never happened” is an oxymoron. I made it up. An oxymoron known as a Yogi Berra-ism (or, yogism), that is. The American neologism yogism (which I would spell with two i’s) is defined as follows:

a malapropism stating truth in a humorous manner, attributed to famous New York Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra. (“Deja vu all over again” or “it ain’t over til it’s over” are classic yogisms.) [Yogi Berra, for readers of this blog who are not American, was a professional baseball player who became an American folk hero based upon his inimitable personality and wit as well as his athletic accomplishments. (He was elected to The National Baseball Hall of Fame.)]

Shouldn’t it be spelled yogiism, or Yogi-ism?

I’m not entirely happy with this definition, which I found on the internet. Malapropism? Humorous? I don’t think Yogi Berra ever saw himself as a wit or jokester. True, he did often misspeak, but he did so to make a point in in his characteristic fashion. Yogisms, I would say, are closest to oxymorons. Saying what something is by stating what it is not.



People often assert that stories are true when they are not, when they did not actually happen. I think this occurs because of vanity. It seems practically irresistible to be able to tell a good story that will hold others spellbound and perhaps impress them with the teller’s appeal as a raconteur.

Then, there’s the desire to make someone conform to a preconceived image: a noble person above reproach, someone easily made fun of. The teller is betting that his or her story will convince you of this. The story is their way of making someone look perhaps saintly or admirable or, on the contrary, ridiculous, at no “cost,” so to speak, to the teller, who is not likely to be held to account for a fabrication.

And, there is also a factor, often, of plain carelessness, forgetfulness, inattention to detail.

Many such stories are invented out of whole cloth. Or believed because someone else has averred them to be true.



Some examples.

Baseball player Pee Wee Reese’s supposedly hugging Jackie Robinson before a hostile crowd in Cincinnati during Robinson’s first season in the Major Leagues has become the stuff of legend:

In 2005, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped unveil a monument outside the Brooklyn Cyclones’ home field depicting Hall of Famers (and former Brooklyn Dodgers) Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson with Reese’s arm around Robinson.

It was designed to commemorate a moment that occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 13, 1947, the first game of just the second road series during Robinson’s inaugural season, which saw him break the color barrier to become the first African-American major leaguer.

In the new Robinson biopic, 42, the scene is also prominently given the Hollywood treatment.

As the story goes, Cincinnati fans were giving Robinson a particularly tough time as the Dodgers took the field in the bottom of the first. In a show of support, Reese temporarily left his position at shortstop and traveled over to Robinson at first base and put his arm around the rookie, silencing the crowd, which was awed by the act of racial empathy by Reese, a popular All-Star from nearby Kentucky.

— “Did Reese really embrace Robinson in ’47?” (ESPN)


A heartwarming story, but, as writer Jonathan Eig has shown, convincingly, the incident didn’t happen (Jonathan Eig, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, pp. 127-129).



Babe Ruth’s “called shot” (a home run which was preceded by the batter, Ruth, pointing to the place in the stands where he would hit the next pitch) in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It probably didn’t happen as it was supposed to have. The best guess is that Ruth held up his fingers to show players on the opposing team, the Chicago Cubs, who were subjecting Ruth to taunts from the dugout, that the count was two strikes and that he had another strike coming. But to assert this is to be in danger oneself of making things up.



There are similarities with another story that has become the stuff of American legend, George Washington chopping down a cherry tree in his boyhood.

Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington immediately after his death. He was the source of some of the apocryphal stories about Washington. The tale of the cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet”) is included in the fifth edition of The Life of Washington (1809 imprint, originally published 1800), a bestseller that depicted Washington’s virtues and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation.

Weems’s A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington was a biography written in this spirit, amplified by the florid, rollicksome style which was Weems’s trademark. According to this account, his subject was “… Washington, the hero, and the Demigod …” and at a level above that “… what he really was, ‘’the Jupiter Conservator,’ the friend and benefactor of men.” With this hyperbole, Weems elevated Washington to the Augustan level of the god Jupiter.

Among the exaggerated or invented anecdotes is that of the cherry tree, attributed by Weems to “… an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family …” who referred to young George as “cousin.”

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 am 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 favourite, 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-conquering 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 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 purest gold.”

It went on to be reprinted in the popular McGuffey Reader used by schoolchildren, making it part of the culture, causing Washington’s birthday to be celebrated with cherry dishes, with the cherry often claimed to be a favorite of his.

In 1896 Woodrow Wilson’s biography George Washington was published, calling it a fabrication, after which almost all historians of the period followed suit, even though the story was never denied by Washington’s relatives, notably Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852), whom Washington raised as his own daughter, and who spent her life preserving his memory and debunking false stories.

In spite of the speculation offered by some historians the story remains plausible and has not been proven or disproven.


Note that most scholars regard the story as pure invention, but we will never know for sure.



Myths about the circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K. 626. The myths were propagated by the play Amadeus and the film based upon the play, but they started long before that. (Nevertheless, the way the play and film play fast and loose with the facts and create stock characters, often nefarious or ludicrous, can be quite annoying.)

The myths include that Mozart and his wife Constanze were facing financial ruin when he was composing the requiem, down to their last ducat; that the composer Antonio Salieri played a role in commissioning and completing the Requiem (and perhaps in Mozart’s death generally); and so on.



A story which has been accepted as true ever since the first biography of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist is that Blake, the mystic poet and artist, was called upon by a friend one day at his home in London and that the friend found Blake and his wife sitting together in their summer house entirely naked, like Adam and Eve. This story fit the popular conception of Blake as an eccentric who flouted convention and as an early proponent of free love (untrue and not in accord with the actual person and his times).  The story has been shown to be apocryphal by Blake scholar G. E. Bentley, Jr.



Here’s a story from my own family lore that is suspect. But, again, I’m not sure.

My mother’s brother enjoyed telling charming stories. He told one about my grandfather, Ralph E. Handy, and the family grocer, Mr. Wheeler.

My uncle’s family, it is known, had difficulty making ends meet during the Great Depression. My uncle told me that Mr. Wheeler, a local grocer, helped them to get by by giving them credit.

My grandfather died in 1947 in middle age. When his will was read, as the story, told by my uncle with relish, goes, the first item in it was (quoting roughly from my uncle’s recollection), “Before all other debts are paid, I want to make sure Mr. Wheeler is made whole.”

According to my uncle, Mr. Wheeler, when informed of this, said, rubbing his forehead, “My gosh. Imagine that. This restores my faith in humanity.”

From what I have heard about the character of my maternal grandfather, who died when I was an infant, my uncle’s story seemed credible. What a charming story, I thought. One of which our family can be proud. When the opportunity presented itself, I went to the probate court in Essex County, Massachusetts and looked up the will of my grandfather, which is on file there. I wanted to be able to quote his exact words.

I was surprised to find that there was nothing in the will about paying off debts to a Mr. Wheeler or any grocer. The will is short and perfunctory. It leaves his estate to his wife.

(My uncle also insisted that his uncle, the noted educator Anson B. Handy, was present at the funeral of his father, my maternal grandfather. There is a problem with the story: Anson B. Handy predeceased his brother Ralph Handy, my uncle’s father, by more than a year. I verified this through genealogical research, consulting death records, obituaries, and gravestones. When I pointed this out to my uncle, he vehemently insisted Anson had been at Ralph’s funeral. My uncle was in his late teens at the time.)



Another story which has been told many times with relish by a relative of mine is that my two grandmothers used to argue over the dinner table during family gatherings (such as during holidays) over who had the most distinguished colonial ancestry.

In the story, the two grandmothers, who are portrayed as battle axes, would practically come to blows over which of them was a Mayflower descendant or had more Mayflower ancestors.

There are problems with the story, which I noticed right away. I came to disbelieve it even more after doing my own genealogical research.

One of my grandmothers was indeed very proud of her colonial heritage. Her ancestors on her father’s side went far back; her original ancestor came in 1635.

However, there was no Mayflower ancestry on her side. I doubt she would have claimed this. She may have had some knowledge of her genealogy. She probably knew that her early Colonial ancestors settled in Essex County, Massachussets, and it  would have extremely unlikely that she would have claimed descent from Cape Cod settlers. The Mayflower passengers and their children settled on the Cape. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, where my paternal grandmother’s ancestors settled, was totally different.

My other grandmother, my mother’s mother, did not tend to be disputatious in the sense of acting haughty or boastful in general, and was never this way, to my knowledge, in claiming to be a blueblood. She did have Mayflower ancestry, but she may not have even been aware of it. Her great-great grandmother on her father’s side was a Mayflower descendant. Her husband, my mother’s father, did have several Mayflower ancestors, but while my grandmother may have been proud of this, they were not her ancestors. And, I never head her brag about her ancestry, let alone talk about it.

Also making the story unlikely, in view of my relative’s basing it upon personal recollections of family gatherings at which the relative was present, is the fact that my two grandmothers were rarely, hardly ever, in attendance at family functions at the same time.



Apocryphal stories always have stock figures: the great composer harassed to death by a jealous rival who demanded he complete his own requiem mass; the dutiful little boy and future paragon of civic virtue who can’t tell his father a lie; the ballplayer raised in the South who shows brotherly love to a black teammate in pre Civil Rights days; the upright Yankee to whom a small debt he could easily overlook is forever binding, even beyond the grave; the proud, warring battle axes fighting over their claims to Mayflower ancestry.

They are all based upon real people made into stock figures — sometimes larger than life, sometimes ridiculous — into characters who are distortions of their actual selves and who do not conform to actuality.



Apocryphal stories, Embellishment. Hard to resist.

Blame it on human nature.


— Roger W.  Smith

   June 2017




See “The Hug That Jackie Robinson Never Received.” By Jonathan Eig, The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2022