It's a parable that resonates through every primary school student's retelling of the life and times of the man who was both America's first president, and the only president to also have been a superhero.
As a child, we were told, George Washington came into possession of a hatchet, and went about his days chopping the shit out of everything he saw. One day he came upon his father's prize cherry tree, and without so much as a second thought he chopped that sucker down, presumably because it was a Monarchist. Upon being quizzed by his father about the event, Washington proudly admitted that he had been the culprit, due to his inability to lie. The story was later loosely adapted to film with Jim Carrey in the leading role.
In a fairly cynical culture, George Washington has still been elevated to the status of some kind of deity, thanks in part to a man named Mason Locke Weems. He was the author of the unfortunately titled biography "The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen." This was the shortest title his editors could persuade him to agree to.
Weems recalled many fantastic stories about Washington, with particular emphasis on his overwhelming moral fortitude and infallibility. The cherry tree story is of particular importance, because it demonstrates that Washington can easily destroy things, and just chooses not to.
According to Weems, "at the sight of him, even those blessed spirits seem[ed] to feel new raptures." That's right, when the angels learned of the existence of George Washington, they began to second-think their allegiance to their much less powerful leader, God. Curiously, Weems waited until Washington was dead before publishing his anecdotes.
As it turns out, if Washington was indeed incapable of lying, then Mason Weems was surely his exact nemesis, seeing as his recounting of Washington's exploits were about as historically accurate as the 1999 Civil War documentary Wild Wild West.
Nevertheless, Weems' pack of lies were taught as fact in American school textbooks for over a century, probably because they are much more enthralling than the true story of a man who, by more reliable accounts, was actually a bland, boring and uncharismatic everyman who just happened to be taller than average, and pretty good at warring. The story still resonates today, delivered to your children's impressionable minds through such reliable media as Sesame Street.
Why does this bullshit story survive? Perhaps because the central message still resonates: "It's much easier to tell the truth when you're the one holding the ax."
Another great American hero to whom many seem to attribute mutant superpowers is Ben Franklin, the scientist and statesman whose inventions included bifocal spectacles, the urinary catheter and freedom. He was particularly interested in electricity, and faced with intense skepticism from his colleagues about his theory that lightning is electricity, legend has it that he conducted an experiment to prove them wrong.
Franklin, with a knowing wink, went out into a raging thunderstorm and released a kite with a lightning rod affixed to the top and a metal key attached to the string. When the kite had annoyed the face of God to the point that he threw a bolt of lightning at it, the charge passed down the string and into the key, and when Franklin touched the key, it let off a spark of static, which somehow allowed him to discover electricity.
It's certainly true that Franklin at least proposed a kite experiment. Less certain, however, is whether or not he ever actually got around to performing it, and some sources suggest he did not. What is certain is that the experiment had nothing to do with lightning. If someone flew a kite into a storm, and it was struck by lightning, there's a good chance that person would be utterly destroyed. In fact, everyone in the vicinity would at the least suffer from hairless-scalp syndrome.
Many people today who believe the amended story of Franklin's kite experiment grew up immersed in the revisionist history of Walt Disney, whose classic cartoon Ben and Me portrayed Franklin not only as having flown the kite in a thunderstorm, but also having been a complete fucking jerk.
While few people still believe that all of Franklin's innovations are actually attributable to his pet mouse, the kite story is still widely accepted despite the unfortunate testimonies of anyone who's ever been stupid enough to replicate it.
The reality of Franklin's experiment is that it simply involved flying a kite into some clouds to collect a few harmless ions, in order to prove that the atmosphere carries a charge. It is through Franklin's discoveries that science was able to infer, later on, that lightning probably has something to do with electricity.
The idea that his kite was actually directly struck by a bolt of lightning is a rather dramatic exaggeration perpetuated by some school textbooks, which also helpfully serves to convince generations of children that getting hit by lightning is not only totally harmless, but scientific fun!
It also, like the Newton apple thing, takes one of history's great geniuses and portrays them experiencing childlike wonder at some now-common idea, as if everyone who lived before the 20th century was a childlike simpleton.
Why can't there be some other legend about him, one closer to his real personality? Like the time he pleasured six women at once. Sure, we made that up. But if you go out and repeat it enough, it'll be in the textbooks by 2050. Let's try it.
If you liked that, you'll probably enjoy reading about more bullshit your mom tried to pull on you in 5 Common Body Myths Debunked. Or, enjoy S Peter Davis's tour through the The History of the Sitcom. And be sure to find out how the latest Vogue cover manages to be the most racist masturbation fodder since Paris Hilton became too skanky to excite us anymore.
We have some bad news: Ancient Greece looked like a pastel explosion, Columbus didn't discover America, and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.
It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We've also included the kinkiest sex acts ever described in the Bible.