Mason Locke Weems's Life of George Washington and the Myth of Braddock's Defeat

By Neely, Sylvia | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Mason Locke Weems's Life of George Washington and the Myth of Braddock's Defeat


Neely, Sylvia, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


COINS of the early American republic bore a likeness of George Washington and the motto Non vi virtute vici, "I prevailed not by might, but by virtue."1 Immediately after the Revolution, Americans contended that the war had been won through the superior virtue of the people, rather than through force of arms. The new republicans, believing that a republic would survive if its citizens were virtuous and having revolted against the British in part out of fear of standing armies, did not attribute the success of the war to the superiority of their troops. As Charles Royster has shown, Americans disbanded the army in 1783 and interpreted their success in the Revolution as the result of the people's virtue. "Americans," Royster wrote, "reclaimed the war from the army to whom they had tried to entrust it, and they showed how the people had won the war together.... To believe that public virtue had the strength to sustain independence, Americans wanted to believe that public virtue had won it."2

Early histories of the Revolution, true to this republican ideology, did not emphasize the fighting abilities of the American soldiers. Mason Locke Weems's Life of George Washington, the original version of which appeared in 1800, was the first book to offer Americans a theory of the war that extolled the colonists' fighting ability and reconciled republican principles with nationalistic desires for military heroes. By contrasting his work with other early histories of the American Revolution, this essay will show how Weems's conception of the war helped fashion a significant component of American nationalism.

Mason Locke Weems, noted Sydney George Fisher, "has been read a hundred times more than all the other historians and biographers of the Revolution put together." His biography of George Washington, first published in pamphlet form in 1800, ran to eighty editions before going out of print in 1932. In Grant Wood's famous canvas, Weems pulls back the curtain to reveal a tableau of the cherry tree parable. The story did not appear in Weems's work until the fifth edition of 1806.

Weems popularized the view that George Washington led the Americans to victory in the Revolution because he fought in a distinctly "American" way. Good republicans might not be warlike, but in America they had experience fighting Indians and had learned to hide behind trees, shoot with precision, and use the terrain to their advantage. The British, captives of a formal, regimented, European style of combat, were no match for Americans, who had learned to fight in an individualistic way adapted to the landscape. In this tactical theory of American victory, the key event from Washington's life, his school of victory, was Braddock's defeat.

In 1755, at the beginning of the French and Indian War, British general Edward Braddock, with Washington as a staff officer, marched west at the head of British and colonial forces to attack Fort Duquesne. As Weems tells the tale:

On the route, Washington was taken sick; ... but so great were his fears for the army, lest in those wild woods it should fall into some Indian snare, that the moment his fever left him, he got placed on his horse, and pursued, and overtook them the very evening before they fell into that ambuscade which he had all along dreaded. For the next morning, the 9th of July, when they were safely arrived within seven miles of Fort Duquesne! ... behold, the Virginia Rangers discovered signs of the Indians!

Here Washington, with his usual modesty, observed to General Braddock what sort of an enemy he had now to deal with-an enemy who would not, like the Europeans, come forward to a fair contest in the field, but, concealed behind the rocks and trees, carry on a deadly warfare with their rifles. He concluded with these words, "I beg of your excellency the honor to allow me to lead on with the Virginia Riflemen, and fight them in their own way."

... General Braddock, who had all along treated the American officers with infinite contempt, rejected Washington's counsel, and swelling with most unmanly rage, replied, "High times, by G-d! …

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