Monday, February 27, 2012

I Cannot Tell A Lie

Like generations of American school children before me, one of the first things I learned about George Washington was the story about the cherry tree. Invented by Washington biographer, Mason Locke Weems, the tale describes little George’s inability to lie to his father after cutting down a small cherry tree.*  “I can’t tell a lie, Pa.” the boy is said to have responded when confronted with this act, and so, the suggestion goes, the child was father to the man, and our first president was an honest man whose word could be trusted. Would that it were so with all our politicians.

With the recent observation of President’s Day I started thinking more about how children now learn about our two most famous presidents. Happily, there are plenty of books around on both Washington and Lincoln. While the POV in books for the youngest children appears to remain largely one of unadulterated admiration, some interesting presentations can be found. George vs. George, for example, by Rosalyn Schanzer, is subtitled The American Revolution as seen from Both Sides. In it Schanzer not only describes the life and times of George Washington, but the vanquished King George III.
George vs. George by Rosalyn Schanzer

Schanzer shows that these adversaries were similar in many ways, including in their physical appearance, love of horse back riding and hunting and (originally) their political alliances. Washington had fought alongside the British during the French and Indian Wars.

Rather than depicting George III simply as a tyrant, Schanzer explains the King’s belief in his divine right and duty to take care of his people including those in the colonies. She includes a section entitled “What Ever Happened to King George III?” which tells the reader of a meeting between John Adams and the King in 1785 in which the King is quoted “I was the last to consent to the separation; but…I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.” Despite being known by adults as the mad King George in later years, the King did much to cultivate the sciences and the arts in England and, according to Schanzer “freely opened his excellent library to scholars, gave an enormous amount of his own money to charities and the needy, and improved education for the poor.” 

George Washington by Brendan January.

In a more traditional biography, George Washington-Encyclopedia of Presidents, Brendan January gives a chronological account of Washington’s life, the important battles he engaged in and includes a chapter entitled called “Home at Last” in which considerable discussion is devoted to Washington’s role as a slave owner. At one time, the man who led the country to a victory in a war for independence owned more than 300 slaves. Later in life he seems to have had doubts about being a slave owner. However, he did not free his slaves, but instead made a provision in his will that his slaves would be freed after his death and that of his wife. As January points out, “Nine later presidents would be slave-owners, and none of them freed all their slaves.”

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With his colorful background and eccentric personality, his leadership in the war that “pitted brother against brother”, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and his tragic assassination, I think that Abraham Lincoln's life and times must be compelling even to those otherwise uninterested in American history. Our enduring fascination with Lincoln is reflected in an impressive statistic—this   courageous, brilliant, fascinating, and imperfect man has been the subject of more than 15,000 book. Inspired by this fact, curators at the recently opened Center for Education and Leadership (part of the museum complex  in Washington D.C. that also includes Ford's theater) commissioned a 34-foot high tower that appears to be made up of 7,000 books about Lincoln. The tower is actually made of aluminum.

The tower of "books" about Lincoln at the
Center for Education and Leadership.
With this overwhelming number of volumes available, it may be hard for adults to know where to begin (though Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals seems like an excellent start.) However, for very young readers, my choice would be Maira Kalman’s  Looking at Lincoln.  In colorful and striking drawings and just enough text, Kalman tells some of the important stories of Lincoln’s life and encourages the reader to make his or her own connection to this remarkable man.

A first look at Lincoln, the man and the leader.

Kalman reminds the reader of the roles of  Sojourner Truth and
Frederick Douglass, both of whom met with Lincoln to discuss an end to slavery.

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Monday in Manhattan with George
On Monday, February 21, President’s Day, I paid my respects to George Washington with a visit to Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan, a restored building on the site where the President said goodbye to his officers at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.   Today the building houses a restaurant and museum.

After immersing yourself in history at  the museum,
it's slightly startling upon leaving to see how the building is
dwarfed by the towers of the financial district
One of the many depictions of Washington on view
in the Fraunces Tavern dining room.

If you want to learn more about Washington’s time in New York City, downtown Manhattan is a wonderful place to tour and sites well worth visiting including Federal Hall (the site of the original building where Washington was inaugurated), Bowling Green—which once contained a statue of King George III, and Trinity and St. Paul’s churches. The National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy has created a number of publications covering the history of the area. To download their well-written self-guided tour of George Washington's New York, go here.

* Weems’ actual story of George and the cherry tree is not for the faint-of heart. In it, the father tells the boy:  "But, Oh! how different, George, is the case with the boy who is so given to lying, that nobody can believe a word he says! He is looked at with aversion wherever he goes, and parents dread to see him come among their children. Oh, George! my son! rather than see you come to this pass, dear as you are to my heart, gladly would I assist to nail you up in your little coffin, and follow you to your grave. Hard, indeed, would it be to me to give up my son, whose little feet are always so ready to run about with me, and whose fondly looking eyes and sweet prattle make so large a part of my happiness: but still I would give him up, rather than see him a common liar.”


  1. Did you know that Samuel Fraunces may have been black? Widipedia disagrees, but Lawrence Hill, who did extensive research for his great novel The Book of Negroes (US title: Someone Knows My Name) concluded that he was indeed a free black man.

    That book tower is astounding.

  2. A portrait of a white man identified on a nameplate as Fraunces hangs in the Long Room (where Washington made his famous farewell), but a curator has acknowledged that this may not be Fraunces at all, and that there is debate about his race. I think there is a consensus that he was from the West Indies.

    I hope to see the tower some time this spring. It's been a long time since I've visited DC.