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Legal Destination: Weems-Botts Museum

Take a drive from Northern Virginia to Richmond and while you’re in Prince William County, you’ll no doubt see the brown sign that reads, “Weems-Botts Museum, Exit 152A.”

Not much detail there, but the Weems-Botts Museum is a project maintained by Historic Dumfries Virginia Inc., a group dedicated to preserving the history of Virginia’s oldest chartered town. In 1749, Dumfries was the first of seven chartered towns approved by the General Assembly; it was named after Dumfries, Scotland.

The museum is in a house built more than 250 years ago and named for two of its owners.

One of the leading locals there in the late 18th century was Rev. Mason Locke Weems, a/k/a Parson Weems. The good parson came to Virginia from Maryland and served in various churches, including Pohick Church in Lorton, where George Washington sometimes worshiped. In fact, George became the parson’s meal ticket: In 1800 Weems published “Life of Washington,” an 80-page pamphlet purporting to tell the first president’s biography. It was Weems who introduced the stories of the chopped-down cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie…”) and Washington’s throwing a rock across the river. Needless to say this stuff was popular, if mostly spin.

Weems sold the house to a lawyer, Benjamin Botts, in 1802. He used the building as his law office. Botts is probably best known as a member of the defense team representing Aaron Burr, who was tried for treason in 1807 on a charge of plotting with the Spanish to peel off the western part of the new nation. The trial, held in federal court in Richmond and presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall, ended in an acquittal.

Botts and his wife Jane were among the victims of the Dec. 26, 1811, theater fire in Richmond that decimated Virginia society; the governor, George William Smith, was among those who perished.

If you go: Weems-Botts Museum, Dumfries. Take Exit 152A off of Interstate 95. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission (includes guided tour): $4 for adults; seniors and children $2.50. Children under 6 free. Call (703) 221-2218 for any additional details. (Photo borrowed with appreciation from a Weems family site on RootsWeb).

3 comments

  1. Most modern historians criticize Weems saying he can not be trusted because he claims to have been the rector at Mount Vernon Parish, and since there is no Mount Vernon Parish, that proves Weems is a liar in his Life of Washington book as well. Well just so happens Weems WAS the rector, granted the interim rector for quite some period at Pohick Church, that is in the Mount Vernon District of Fairfax County, so reasonable to be called the “Mount Vernon” parish. Washington’s journals record at least three visits of Weems to GW’s Mount Vernon estate, and also correspondence by GW to Weems complimenting Weems on his book written before GW died. The Cherry Tree Story did not appear until the 3rd edition, another reason historians claim Weems “made up the story”, yet the first time the story is recorded is by a relative of GW who told the story in a eulogy in February a.d. 1800. There is a tradition in Fredericksburg, that one missing cherry tree in a row along the bank of the river was the one young George chopped, not down, but causing the tree to die, and his father Gus made George dig out the dead tree by the roots to teach his son the consequences of his actions. I related most of this at the City of Alexandria George Washington “Man of the Millennium” Book Festival in February a.d. 2000 broadcast by C-SPAN TV.

  2. By the way, another little wayside of History is the Collingwood Library along the George Washington Parkway. That is where the nephew of Lincoln lived, Tobias Lear, a Harvard man recommended by his uncle, Benjamin Lincoln, the man on the white horse in the painting of the surrender of the British at Yorktown. Tobias Lear was at the bedside of GW when he died, and is the source of the description of the death that we have. Related bits of fun facts is that Lincoln, who was the military officer in command who suppressed the Shays Rebellion in January a.d. 1787, that gave added reason to create this Constitution, was the LT. GOV. under John Hancock. Both Lincoln and Hancock named sons for George Washington. And NO, Ben Lincoln was NOT related to less than honest Abe Lincoln, but was related to another Lincoln from the same town of Higham, Mass, one Levi Lincoln. Levi Lincoln was Attorney General under Jefferson and is responsible for the very poor government argument in Marbury v. Madison. Later he was confirmed by the Senate for the U. S. supreme Court (small s as written in Article III), but declined to serve.

  3. OOPS, almost forgot. Likely due to Lincoln’s recommendation, Harvard grad Tobias Lear “beat out” Yale grad Noah Webster for the position of personal secretary to George Washington, and tutor to Martha’s grandchildren. Finally, B. Lincoln used to send barrels of cranberries from the bogs in Massachusetts to his friend and fellow general in Virginia, George Washington. In 1828, Webster wrote a GREAT one paragraph biography of George Washington, that says more in that one paragraph than many biographers convey in many volumes. If you would like to learn more about Washington, go to http://www.SecondToNoneWashington.com, the book has pictures of three Lincolns, Lear and Webster, as well as many other folks.

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