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Foul Deeds and Stirring Words

Some of what we learned about Lincoln was shrouded in myth rather than historical truth. For years, I truly believed that Abe had written the great address on the back of a couple of envelopes while on the train that took him from Washington to Gettysburg. You can imagine how shattered I was to discover, from biographers and other spoilsports, that he had actually labored over it extensively before leaving the White House.

Enduring myths also found their way into our studies of Washington when he became the center of attention on the day of his birth, ten days after Lincoln's.

Of all the fanciful stories about our first President, none was more popular with school kids than the old yarn about how, as a young boy, he chopped down the family cherry tree, and then confessed the foul deed with the stirring words, "Father, I cannot tell a lie."

Many years later, Mark Twain had some fun with that one. Unimpressed by the tale of childhood candor, Twain boasted: "Unlike young George, I can tell a lie, but choose not to. And that makes mine the higher morality."

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Written by Gary Paul Gates

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