Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Weems, Mason Locke

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WEEMS, Mason Locke, historian, b. in Dumfries, Va., about 1760; d. in Beaufort. S. C., 23 May, 1825. He studied theology in London, took orders in the Protestant Episcopal church, and for several years was rector of Pohick church. Mount Vernon parish, Va., of which Washington was an attendant. The necessities of Weems's large family compelled him to resign that charge about 1790, and he became a book agent for Mathew Carey, the Philadelphia publisher. He was remarkably successful in that employment, “ travelling throughout the south with his books in his saddle-bags, equally ready for a stump, a fair, or a pulpit.” He was eccentric in mind and manner, and whenever he heard of a public meeting he would attend it, and, collecting a crowd around him, urge on his hearers the merits of his books, interspersing his remarks with anecdotes and humorous sallies. With his temperance pamphlet, entitled the “Drunkard's Glass,” illustrated with cuts, he would enter taverns, and, by mimicking the extravagances of the drunkard, so amuse and delight his audiences that he had no trouble in selling his wares. He was an expert violin-player, on which he performed for young people to dance, thereby causing much scandal in pious communities. On one occasion he had promised to assist at a merry-making, but, fearing for his clerical character, he decided to play behind a screen. In the course of the evening it was overturned, disclosing the parson to the jeers of the company. On another occasion he was obliged to pass through a dangerous district of South Carolina, which at that time was infested with robbers. Just at nightfall his wagon sank into a quagmire; two ruffians appeared and were about to seize him, when he took out his violin and so charmed them by his music that they lifted his wheels out of the mud and let him go. “I took precious care,” says Weems, “to say nothing of my name. When they pressed the question my fiddle drowned their words and mine too.” Of his temperence tracts Bishop William Meade says in his “Old Churches and Old Families of Virginia”: “They would be most admirable in their effects but for the fact that you know not what to believe of the narrative. There are passages of deep pathos and great eloquence in them.” This charge of a want of veracity is brought against all Weems's writings, for it is probable he would have accounted it excusable to tell any good story to the credit of his heroes. Several of the most widely circulated anecdotes of the youth of Washington, especially the famous one of the hatchet, rest on his questionable authority. He obtained his material for the life of Gen. Francis Marion from Gen. Peter Horry, who disavowed all responsibility for the manner in which the narrative is told. An entertaining sketch of Weems's early pastorate is given in the “Travels in America” of John Davis (London, 1802). In this narrative he figures as a pious and devout preacher, devoted to good works. One of his pamphlets, “The Philanthropist,” was somewhat mildly commended by Washington in an autograph letter to the author, who prefixed it to subsequent editions of the tract. His principal works are “Life of George Washington,” which is still largely sold in the rural districts of many parts of this country, and is the most popular biography of that general in existence (Philadelphia, Pa., 1800; llth ed., with additions, 1811); “Life of Gen. Francis Marion” (1805); “Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays” (1817); and “Life of William Penn” (1819).