I Cannot Tell a Lie

I Cannot Tell a Lie March 20, 2014

There’s a lot I like about being a public historian. I get to work directly with the survivals of the past, both artifacts and documents, rather than what people have written about them. I reach a much broader swath of the population than I would at a university. I only teach a few “lessons,” but even at a modest sized museum I can reach thousands of “students.”

But then there a things like this:

Fight erupts over George Washington cherry tree ‘myth’

A battle over whether young George Washington hacked at a cherry tree with an ax has broken out between his great nephew and the keeper of the first president’s history, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which operates the family estate on the Potomac River.

In a new book and interview about Washington’s youth, great-nephew Austin Washington says the story is true, and he took Mount Vernon to task for caving in to nay-saying historians.

But Mount Vernon research historian Mary Thompson said the association is siding with historians who dismiss the tale.

Museums and historic sites tend to get caught in the middle of these debates. We’re the bridge between the public and the professional historian. We’re responsible for teaching not only the facts of history but also the process of history. Which gets to be a problem when someone’s understanding of history is two dimensional:

Explaining why Mount Vernon considers it a “myth,” Thompson said Weems had a reputation for exaggeration, and he didn’t quote anybody in his book. “Not having that information for Weems’ biography of Washington definitely lowers its value to professional historians,” she said.

But Austin Washington said current-day history writing style and footnoting wasn’t the fashion in 1800, and there is no reason to believe that Weems’ sources lied.

Austin Washington misses the point. His view is much like the view I hear from many Christians arguing for the reliability of the Gospels. Either the story is true or it’s a lie. And why would they lie?

Thompson is more interested in the process. What were Weems’ sources? How did the information get from Washington to Weems? How did Weems vet his sources? This isn’t just a case where the teacher wants you to show your work even if your answer matches the one in the back of the book. The process is how we evaluate the product.

Austin Washington is assuming that Weems was either accurate or lying. The idea that he might have simply been wrong doesn’t seem to enter his thinking. He’s right that Weems didn’t have the style of a modern historian. He also didn’t have the methods or the motivations of modern historians. Weems seems to have been a hold over from a much older school of historical thought, which said that the purpose of history if for the moral instruction of the reader.

The idea that Weems might have heard and uncritically passed on this little morality tale is completely plausible. So it the idea that he might have adapted an unconnected story or even made the story up whole cloth to get a moral across. Meanwhile the story seem just a little to pat, a perfect little meme to get across the virtue of honesty. And no other contemporary author seems to have recorded it.

Faced with all that, modern historians reach the tentative conclusion that the story is a fable. It’s possible that the story did actually occur, but without any more evidence from Weems there’s no way to conclude that.

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