Warford 2020

Anyone baking cherry pie for tomorrow?

Monday marks the anniversary of the birth of George Washington, and many of us remember the days when the occasion was celebrated with cherry pie for dessert.

The cherry pie tradition comes from the apocryphal story told by early Washington biographer Parson Weems.

Weems, seeking to illustrate Washington’s honesty and integrity, invented the story of six-year-old George damaging his father’s prize cherry tree with a hatchet.

When asked if he did the deed, the lad replied: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet.”

His father then embraced him and said that honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.

Perhaps young George could not tell a lie, but Parson Weems could certainly spin some whoppers.

Before he got canceled, or at least semi-canceled, for being a slaveholder, Washington’s Birthday was a big deal. It was its own separate holiday until 1968.

When I was a kid, we were aware that Washington owned slaves, we were certainly aware of the evil and indefensible nature of slavery, and we were also aware that the Revolution and Declaration of Independence led directly to the Gettysburg Address, which led directly to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

That’s when the schools taught history. The founding ideals that live on, not the moral failings of the founders who long since died, were the main focus.

We were aware that our first president, like every president since, ruled with “the consent of the governed,” as Jefferson put it, a nearly inconceivable notion for that time.

That is why we honor the Founding Fathers — not because they owned slaves.

A century ago, George Washington was huge.

Researching its archives, I found that The New York Times ran four — count ’em, four — articles about Washington in commemoration of his birthday in 1921.

All were positive.

One was “Doctor George Washington.” It told the story of how Harvard, on April 3, 1776, made Washington only the second person in the school’s history ever to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Harvard was grateful for General Washington’s military expertise in saving it from capture by the British, forcing them from Boston three weeks earlier.

Washington did not attend the ceremony, and in fact there was no commencement ceremony that year because of the war.

Interestingly, the article went on at length about the Harvard students of 1776 and their vast knowledge of Latin and Greek and Hebrew, which Washington lacked.

Furthermore, the article stated, “today’s Harvard students” (the students of 1921) could never hope to measure up to the lofty Harvard standards of 1776.

“Heaven help us poor numbskulls of these modern days of ignorance,” Times reporter Carl Holliday wrote.

Thus, in 1921 as in 2021, newspaper writers argued that education was better in the old days.

A second Times article told of the sale, for $3,700, of Martha Washington’s bible, the latest evidence of a growing interest in Washington family books.

Another article featured a descendant of the Washington family, urging that George Washington’s burial site be closed to the public because too many tourists were tromping through.

The fourth article featured a speech by Dr. William Manning, rector of the Trinity Church in Manhattan (where Alexander Hamilton is buried).

Dr. Manning, addressing the 31st annual service of the Sons of the Revolution, said that Washington set an example for all Americans, both native-born and immigrants.

He spoke of the nation’s openness and tolerance but warned of “dangerous influences” (presumably those emanating from the Russian Revolution three years earlier) facing the country:

“Nothing is more important than that we should keep constantly before all our people, native and foreign-born alike, the history, the principles, and the ideals of our land, and a potent influence toward this is the memory of those great ones who in their own lives have most nobly illustrated our national ideals.”

These days, we read articles about school Boards stripping the name of George Washington from their schools.

William P. Warford’s column appears every Friday and Sunday.

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