13 August 2009

More Fake Quotation Sightings

Over at A Simple Prop John M. Lynch gives us an account of a double screw-up by one Anna Falling, who is running for mayor of Tulsa. In the course of a piece about putting a creationist exhibit in the local zoo she finishes off with the following inanity:

Thank you again for your prayers as we proceed to bring God back to our seat of government. As George Washington stated on Feb. 22, 1732, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible”

Of course you'll recognize that this "quotation" is nothing of the sort; it is in fact a misquotation of a misquotation of something attributed to Washington by an 1835 biographer on the basis of the recollection of an unknown person. (See here for the references.) But the classic touch is that the Father of his Country was himself a squalling infant on the day he is supposed to have said this, being either just born (if the Gregorian calendar is meant) or eleven days old (by the Julian calendar then in use). Epic fail, Anna. Maybe you could use a little refresher course in American History.

From the idiotic we move to the ought-to-know-better class of writer. J. Grant Swank, Jr. of Portland Maine is no backwoods bumpkin, having attended classes at Harvard Divinity School, where the standards are high. And yet, a column attributed to him at the somewhat shadowy Post-Chronicle contains no fewer than three fake quotations. First up, a fake George Washington prayer. Swank wrote:

President George Washington wrote a prayer addressed to "O most glorious God, in Jesus Christ" and ended it with this: "Let me live according to those holy rules which thou hast this day prescribed in Thy Holy Word. Direct me to the true object, Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Bless O Lord all the people of this land."

This is actually from the Sunday evening prayer in the notorious Washington prayer book, a well-known literary hoax. (The handwriting in the document bears no resemblance to that of Washington, for one thing.) Also, the passage given as the ending is in fact taken from the middle of the piece. The fraud was exposed in 1926, not long after the document's "discovery" in a trunk (shades of William Henry Ireland) belonging to a later member of Washington's family.

Next up (after a Jefferson quotation I'll deal with later on, as it's not entirely fake) comes a familiar Madison fake:

Religion is the basis and foundation of government. We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.

Oh mighty Jehovah, where to begin with this one? This quotation is a little like a snowball rolling down a hill, gathering bits and pieces of extraneous material along the way. There are two genuine phrases in it. Well, more-or-less genuine. The first is "the basis and foundation of government." Madison quoted these words from the title of the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights: "A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS made by the representatives of the good people of Virginia, assembled in full and free Convention; which rights do pertain to them, and their posterity, as the basis and foundation of government." It will be noted that the words refer here to individual rights, and not to religion. Madison only used them to indicate the source of his claim that "'the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion, according to the dictates of conscience,' is held by the same tenure with all our other rights." For more on how the fake quote was manufactured take a look at this cool exegesis by Jim Allison.

The second genuine phrase is "the capacity of mankind for self government". Madison in fact used that phrase in The Federalist Papers (XXXIX), but nothing else in this is genuine. At some point in the mid-twentieth century somebody used the phrase as the basis for a new concoction: "We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it, but upon the capacity of mankind for self-government." A variant version also circulated; by 1958 the two were combined into a single frankenquote with some nonsense about the Ten Commandments tacked on to the end. A more extended explanation is available here.

Other than these two phrases, the entire quotation is a fake.

Next up we have this from Patrick Henry:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, property, and freedom of worship here.

Regular readers of this web log will recognize this as a 1956 comment from The Virginian. There is nothing of Patrick Henry in this at all.

So, these are the three out-and-out fakes. In addition, however, at least two of the others have serious problems as quotations. First, let's take a look at his Jefferson quotation:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.

You probably recognize the bulk of this as coming from Notes on the State of Virginia. But what about the opening sentence, "God who gave us life gave us liberty"? It doesn't belong here. Where did it come from? Well, it's a fragment from A Summary View of the Rights of British America: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them." It has been forcibly joined to the Notes on the State of Virginia passage without any indication that that the two quotations do not actually belong together. The actual leading sentences ran in the original: "For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor." This juxtaposition may have been suggested by the quotations on panel 3 of the Jefferson Memorial; it is still sloppy work.

And second comes an alleged Lincoln quotation:

The ways of God are mysterious and profound beyond all comprehension. 'Who by searching can find Him out?' God only knows the issue of this business. He has destroyed nations from the map of history for their sins. Nevertheless, my hopes prevail generally above my fears for our Republic. The times are dark, the spirits of ruin are abroad in all their power, and the mercy of God alone can save us.

Now first, I have to note once again that we are dealing with words not actually written or spoken by the alleged author, but rather words put into his mouth by the recollection of another person. In this case they are words attributed to Lincoln by the Reverend Byron Sunderland (occasional Senate chaplain) some ten years (1872) after Lincoln allegedly said them (late 1862). In a letter Sunderland recalled the visit with President Lincoln, and produced a passage of over five hundred words that he attributed to him. Is this likely? I'm going to ask the reader to engage in a little thought exercise. Think back to a speech you heard in 1999. Do you think you can recall accurately a passage of five hundred words from it? How much of it do you think you would recall accurately? A short passage, yes, a story, maybe, but much more than that? No, it's not bloody likely. The editors of Recollected words of Abraham Lincoln likewise note: "The length of this recollection alone makes it dubious as anything more than a Sunderland sermon based on a certain amount of Lincoln text."

Oh, and another thing—this is actually two sections of Sunderland's recollected speech jammed together. The first two sentences are the opening; the remainder is the closing. A great many words have been silently omitted.

All in all not a bad showing of dishonesty or ignorance. Three fakes and two problematic quotations. Swank could hardly have done better if he were trying to provide me with an object-lesson on the use of fake quotations. I do wish he could have seen his way clear to use the Franklin "primitive Christianity" quotation; it would have rounded out the fakes he did use nicely.

So we have a would-be mayor and a religion columnist each doing their bit to make sure that fake history marches on. It's hard to know what to say. Is there any likelihood that either of them will, oh, say—mend their goddamn ways? It's probably too much to hope for. Each of them made a conscious decision to abandon their principles to pimp for their faith, or so it would appear. Like all good advertisers they put their product above truth.

Update: Anna Falling fixed the minor error of attributing a fake quotation to the day Washington was born, but she left the fake quotation intact. I left this comment at her site:

Okay, cool, you fixed the minor error. What about fixing the major one? The fact is, Washington never said these words. They are an 1893 misquotation of an 1867 misquotation of words attributed to him by a biographer in 1835 on the strength of a recollection by an anonymous person. See http://fakehistory.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/fake-quotations-washington-and-governing-without-god/ for the gory details.

Will this make it through comment moderation? I suspect not. [14 August 2009]

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