04 April 2011

The Impotent Rage of the Clueless

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
Psalms 2:1
As robots insist on spamming my posts I’ve made it a policy to close comments down after a couple of weeks, so I only have to tend to a few recent entries. If a friend of the blog stops by an older post, as sometimes happens, or somebody else contributes something valuable and I happen to notice it, then I’ll okay it. If somebody decides to unload a bucketful of bile at an old post, it will probably go down the toilet without being read. I’m sorry, but my time is reasonably valuable, and I have better things to do as I prepare to be finally pigeonholed in that great archive in the sky.

But the squawk of a complacent gull when he realizes he’s been had by some fast-talking con-artist is music for my soul. One of this breed—a character going by the handle TSVDP—saw fit to spam an earlier post with his inane jibber-jabber. Apparently his feelings were hurt on learning that his favorite Patrick Henry quotation—the one about “this great nation” being founded on Christianity, not religious freedom—is a piece of modern tripe, concocted in living memory and disseminated by sleazy hucksters out to fleece such gullible lambs as he. “You don’t make a point at all,” he squeals, “If not it confirms what Henry said and that he was a Christian.” Well, yeah, not that anybody has ever denied that Henry was a Christian, or a slave-owner, or a father, a lawyer, a legislator, an orator. None of that’s at issue here. The only question before us is the author of that “this great nation” and “religionists” quotation—and fortunately that’s a fact easily determined.

Let’s review, shall we, the bizarre history of this quotation. It begins, in a way, with something Patrick Henry actually did write. On 20 November 1798 the once-fiery orator and successful lawyer sat down to write his last will and testament. After carefully dividing up his lands, money, and slaves amongst his wife and children, he added a pious afterthought:
This is all the Inheritance I can give to my dear family, The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed[.]
The founder passed away in June of the next year, leaving damn little behind him as a legacy to the nation. His words, that had inspired a revolution, were for the most part lost. When William Wirt attempted to collect them for his sketch of Patrick Henry’s life (issued 1816) he had to do for the most part with recollections, fragments, and speeches patched together from the fading memories of those who had been present.

Around 1823 somebody thought it worthwhile to excerpt the “religion of Christ” passage from Henry’s will, and it went the rounds of various periodicals. It wasn’t quite the way Henry had written it, however. Somehow it had undergone a strange metamorphosis:
I have now disposed of all my property to my family; there is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian Religion. If they had that, and I had not given them one shilling, they would be rich; and if they had not that, and I had given them all the world, they would be poor.
This version was reprinted in numerous sources up to the present time, but not without challenge. Some time in the early 1840s James W. Alexander, a Presbyterian minister, went to Charlotte county, Virginia, and obtained the actual words direct from the will. He published them in 1847 as part of a volume called Thoughts on Family Worship. The two versions have remained in competition ever since.

In 1956 a historical revisionist writer for The Virginian used the passage—the fake version—as a springboard for his own thoughts on religion in America. This author wrote:
There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one—that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion.

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

In the spoken and written words of our noble founders and forefathers, we find symbolic expressions of their Christian faith. The above quotation from the will of Patrick Henry is a notable example.
Several people thought this piece of revised history was worth quoting on its own, but it wasn’t until 1988 that somebody had the bright idea of crediting part of the 1956 comment to Patrick Henry himself. It appeared as his (according to David Barton) in a book called God’s Providence in American History by Steve C. Dawson, and was almost immediately picked up and popularized by Barton himself in his Myth of Separation. From there it spread far and wide. Somebody even added that it was from a speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765, despite the fact that Henry was first seated there late that month and no speeches of his are recorded for that time except the famous one in support of his Stamp Act resolutions, reconstructed from memory years after his death. The incongruity of Henry’s speaking of “this great nation” before it even came into existence, and his foreknowledge that “peoples of other faiths” would be “afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here” at a time when religious freedom was nonexistent in most of the colonies apparently shot by the oblivious transmitters of Barton’s fantasies. The thing is, like Chief Seattle lamenting the demise of the buffalo, Henry just plain knows too much. It’s a dead giveaway.

But Christian nation fantaisists apparently have no sense of history whatever. Like their idiot founder, history is whatever suits their fancy. You like the Fifth Monarchy slogan, no king but king Jesus? Why not give it to John Hancock and John Adams and have them say it at the beginning of the battle of Lexington? Does it matter that they weren’t there? Does it matter that there is no record of it’s being said? Not in the least. History by this logic can be whatever you want it to be. If it feels right, then it’s history. Much easier to go by your gut than to do, oh, say, actual research.

Evidence? The Christian Nationites don’t need no stinking evidence when they set out to invent new legends about the past. Or as TSVDP puts it, “No one has to prove anything that has been around and in books for hundreds of years to Atheist Scum trying to rewrite history.” I love the way he turns the world upside down. It’s not Rushdoony and Barton and that gang out to rewrite history—no, it’s the generations of historians that came before them who are doing the rewriting—via time machine, I suppose. And by the way 1988—the date this “religionists” nonsense first appeared as Henry’s in any book—is hardly “hundreds of years” ago, though maybe it seems that way to Ahistoricist Scum like TSVDP. Neither is 1956, the date it was first written, for that matter. Yeah, okay, I know it’s the twenty-first century now, and 1988 is so twentieth century, but that hardly adds up to “hundreds of years”. Or maybe TSVDP has a numerancy problem. Maybe all big numbers look alike to him. Maybe he meant to say “dozens” instead of “hundreds”. He might as well have said “millions”—it would have been just as accurate.

There is one point I do agree with our clueless comment-slinger about, though. “…your boogey man David Barton is a joke,’ he writes, “most people don’t even know who he is…” I don’t know about that last comment, seeing as he’s giving lessons on constitutional law (believe it or not) to congressmen and being featured on popular shows in the mainstream media and advising the Texas Board of Education on history (despite his complete lack of any qualification for the task), but he definitely “is a joke”. Which makes it all the more puzzling, if TSVDP feels that way, that he feels obliged to go way out on a limb to support one of Barton’s, uh, errors—to put it charitably. Nobody ever heard of this Patrick Henry “quotation” before Barton put it in a book—and if it weren’t for his footnote, nobody would even know that he wasn’t the one who first came up with it.

As a parting shot our feckless friend returned a third time to add, “Your comment FAILS in all possible ways that Henry did not say this. The burden of proof is for you to prove he did not say this.” Well, no. Mind you, even if it were I have amply shown that this alleged observation cannot belong to Henry’s time, that it is not found in his writings, and that it was written by somebody else more than a century and a half after Henry’s death. That’s pretty conclusive, really. But it’s all window-dressing, and entirely unnecessary—done only for my own satisfaction. It is always up to the person making a positive assertion to show evidence that what he says is true. In the case of a quotation, fortunately, that burden of proof is easily met. All it takes is a citation to a primary source. Martin Porter’s first principle of quotation is a good rule to follow here: “Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.” If no source is given, or a nonsense source like “May 1765 Speech to the House of Burgesses”, then—lacking other evidence, or the time or inclination to follow up on it by doing actual research—a reader is entirely justified in assuming that the alleged quotation is fake.

A transcription of Patrick Henry’s will is found at the Red Hill Patrick Henry National Memorial website. An earlier transcription appears in George Morgan, The True Patrick Henry (Philadelphia, 1907), pp. 455-7.

The oldest example of the fake version of the quotation from Patrick Henry’s will I could find was in the 29 November 1823 issue of The Manchester Iris, a Weekly Literary and Scientific Miscellany, vol. II, p. 387.

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