Cherry Tree Ethics Insight?

We are all familiar with the legendary ethics lesson of George Washington’s honest confession that he couldn’t tell a lie about chopping down his family’s cherry tree. God knows we all, yours truly included, need to learn and relearn that basic ethical lesson these days. We all know honesty is sorely lacking by commission and omission from government offices to corporate board rooms to college athletics departments to ecclesiastical authorities to intimate family relationships.

I don’t mean to take any of that lightly, but I had a humorous insight into George Washington’s cherry tree incident today that I want to share. I imagine that many of you, like me, can use a little levity in these turbulent times. I realized today that in all my many years I have never heard anyone raise one important question about the cherry tree legend, namely why did little George chop down the tree in the first place? Yes, his honesty when confronted with his misdeed is wonderful, but what was the motivation in the first place?

Was it done on a dare from a buddy, or a simple act of youthful rebellion or curiosity? Did he have a new axe that was just itching to be tried out? One possible explanation occurred to me today as I was gathering peaches that had fallen on the ground from our one overzealous peach tree. Let me back up and set the context for my ah hah moment. For about a week now we have been a bit overblessed with very good peaches from the one peach tree in our yard. We have frozen, dehydrated, eaten delicious peach crisp, gained weight, given some away—and yet we still have buckets full cooling in the basement and the tree is still loaded.

After several long evenings of peach juice dripping through my fingers as we have peeled and sliced and diced them I am having nightmares about rouge peaches chasing me down the street. Yes, we’re grateful and they taste great, but I am left to wonder again, why do they all have to be ripe and ready at the same time?

So here’s my theory: young George may have been in a similar situation where he had spent more time than he wanted picking and processing cherries. He wanted time to play with his friends or explore the plantation; so one day in a moment of exasperation he put hatchet to trunk, and as they say, the rest is history—or legend. And just as I was writing this I realized the flaw in my hypothesis. Washington’s family had slaves to pick and process their produce. So that chops down that idea, and it doesn’t help my peach problem.

And I’m still left wondering why George chopped down that poor tree? Any ideas?

4 thoughts on “Cherry Tree Ethics Insight?

  1. From

    The cherry tree myth is the most well-known and longest enduring legend about George Washington . In the original story, when Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.1 Ironically, this iconic story about the value of honesty was invented by one of Washington’s first biographers, an itinerant minister and bookseller named Mason Locke Weems . After Washington’s death in 1799 people were anxious to learn about him, and Weems was ready to supply the demand. As he explained to a publisher in January 1800, “Washington you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him…My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute…I then go on to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.”2 Weems’ biography, The Life of Washington, was first published in 1800 and was an instant bestseller. However the cherry tree myth did not appear until the book’s fifth edition was published in 1806.


    1. Dave, As a father of two sons I know you understand that “gotta try out the new toy” mind set. So maybe the lesson here is to be careful what we give our kids?

  2. Going along with your idea that right now we all could use some humor: whatever the reason George chopped the tree, and whoever it was who had to deal with allthe cherries: “It was the pits!” : ) Thank you for a relatively light-hearted post that also keeps the topic of honesty on the table.

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