George Washington and the ‘I can’t tell a lie’ Cherry Tree fable is probably the most enduring myth about an American leader that any English schoolchild will remember. Even the myth has myths around it – the original book said ‘I can’t tell a lie’ – not ‘I cannot tell a lie’ as so oft repeated.
The myth was promulgated by an American author called Parson Weems who was roundly castigated for his inability to tell the truth:
“this charge of a want of veracity is brought against all Weems’s writings, it is probable he would have accounted it excusable to tell any good story to the credit of his heroes.”
Three centuries later, we are turning full circle on the subject of George Washington and ‘Truth’.
Ramin Ganeshram has a Master’s Degree in journalism, and later became interested in food, eventually training chefs as an instructor at the American Institute of Culinary Education. You might consider that a suitable pedigree for researching and writing of food matters.
She spent years researching the life and times of George Washington’s chef ‘Hercules’. She turned four years of research into a children’s book.
“I know these facts from the nearly four years of research I did with the aid of historians, largely, at the National Park Service’s President’s House site in Philadelphia, where my story is set. We know from first-hand accounts that Hercules was famous in his day as a towering culinarian — admired and in-charge….
Now that paragraph had three more words at the end of it – ‘despite his bondage’. Arghh! Bondage. Hercules was a Slave!
It is a matter of historical record that Washington had slaves originally – although unlike the other Founding Fathers, he had private misgivings and arranged in his will that all his slaves be released on his death.
Did he travel the country railing against slavery in the meantime? Probably not, any more than any other politician openly speaks about ‘hoped for’ changes in inflammatory laws. They bide their time, tentatively making small inroads into profound changes. Just witness the few politicians, subsequently revealed to be gay themselves, who spoke openly in favour of ‘gay marriage’.
Does that mean that he was a vile and cruel slave master? Probably not. Life isn’t that black and white.
Hercules eventually ran away on the President’s Birthday – not necessarily because he was being badly treated; we simply don’t know. What we do know was that his son Richmond had been working alongside him in the kitchens and was believed to have stolen some money from the President’s home.
Why does any of this matter? Because Ramin Ganeshram’s book ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington’, written for children, has survived just 14 days on sale before the publishers were forced to withdraw it.
What could Ramin have possibly said that could cause such controversy? The answer is nothing. She had said nothing wrong. The problem was caused by the illustrator, acclaimed artist Vanessa Brantley-Newton.
Vanessa had had the temerity, the insensitivity, the wanton recklessness, to portray Hurcules and his daughter ‘smiling’ at some point in the endless days of drudgery and torment and horror that was a slave’s life…..
The discussion and criticism of the book has, instead, been focused on the literal face value of the characters. How could they smile? How could they be anything but unrelentingly miserable? How could they be proud to bake a cake for George Washington?
The publishers have issued a statement:
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, […] the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.