If this were any other Monday, I’d be teaching 3rd period right now, but it’s Presidents’ Day, so I’m blogging. And I’ve been thinking about the two presidents who get the combo-birthday treatment, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. (Don’t combined birthdays suck when you’re a kid? Why would we do this to our most revered presidents?) Between history class and the History Channel, we have an overload of information and interpretation about these two great leaders. This post isn’t about the facts. It’s about the myths.
I’m using myths here in the deeper, Campbellian sense. I’m not doing an expose on the lies we’ve all swallowed. I’m not myth-busting (besides myths can’t be “busted,” not if we’re talking about them in the original sense). When I’m discussing myth, I’m talking about the stories that carry deepest meaning for us, that carry out ideal we seek to emulate in our daily lives. The factual truth of a myth is immaterial.
Back in high school, I took a class called Theory of Knowledge. It was a broad, interdisciplinary exploration of all the humanities. It was there I was first introduced to the truer meaning of myth, and there that I first wrote on this topic. The actual paper I wrote may be long gone (or maybe not; I tend to hoard the writing I’m proud of. I’m sure it’s in a box somewhere), but I tackled the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree.
George Washington: I Gots to Axe You a Question
Long story short, for those completely illiterate in American legends, when George Washington was a little tyke, he used his hatchet and chopped down a gorgeous cherry tree on his family’s land. Dad comes home and flips out. “Who the $(@! chopped down my cherry tree?” Lil’ George says “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down your cherry tree.” Dad gives him a big ol’ hug and says “No biggie. Your honesty is worth so much more than that tree!”
Aside from some of the obvious questions (six year old kid with a hatchet, unsupervised? Super parenting! And a politician who professes to be honest? Never heard THAT one before), the thing most people wonder is “Did this really happen?”
In a word– no. An author with the very 18th century name– Mason Locke Weems –was a bookseller who penned a volume of anecdotes about the new president. It contained the Cherry Tree story, along with several other “colorful” (fabricated) stories that he thought people would enjoy because they illustrated the values people wanted to see in a leader. And they ate it up! Weems said that the title was the second most popular on his shelves, aside from The Bible.
But the better answer to the question “Did this really happen?” is another question– “Does it matter?” Weems’s little tale about GW isn’t true from a factual point of view, but it symbolizes an ideal that we want in our leaders (honesty, even at the cost of personal consequences). Historically, it is untrue. but mythologically, it is deeply resonant.
Abraham Lincoln: Fear the Beard!
Beards are awesome. As a man who struggles in the facial hair department, I am in awe of our legends. ZZ Top. Brian Wilson. Santa Claus (Made with 100% Yak Hair, for those of you who can’t grow one naturally). How about Abe Lincoln?* That slammin’ beard he sported was allegedly grown in response to a little girl’s letter, saying it would hide his weak chin and make him way hotter for the ladies. Fact or fiction?
Fact. That really happened. The girl’s name was Grace Bedell; she was only eleven at the time but she knew where it was at with face fuzz.
*By the way, I found this site in my very informal research about Lincoln. It provided me with 2 minutes of delight, and thus I share it with you.
But as with George Washington, it doesn’t really matter if this story is historically true or not. We love a candidate who could be so in tune with the everyday citizen that he’d grow a beard on the advice of a little girl. Can you imagine that today? Campaign managers and PR specialists would go berserk. 24 hour news networks would overanalyze every hair (I can see Fox or MSNBC doing an ongoing “Beard Tracker” segment.) The myth of the President as a man of the people is enacted through the story of Lincoln’s beard; that’s why this little historical tidbit keeps coming back to us. Because it’s a myth, and myths don’t get busted.