04 November 2014

George Washington, Perpetuity, and the Young


T
oday went down the tubes in another futile attempt to locate the source of an alleged George Washington quotation, to this effect:
The perpetuity of this nation depends upon the moral and religious training of the young.
In the earliest appearance that I can find, Marion Lawrance’s 1916 Special Days in the Sunday School, it is already cited as a “famous quotation” and yet, for all its fame, earlier occurrences elude me. There are other forms of this saying about what the perpetuity of this nation depends on—the “religious education of the young”, for example—but none of them is even that old.
Looking at it from the other end I find from searching through George Washington’s works in print and the Library of Congress online collection of his papers that the general was not fond of the word perpetuity, using it only in the legal phrase “in perpetuity”, and he appears to have shown little or no interest in the moral or religious education of the young. The moral and/or religious education and/or training and/or instruction of the young seems to have been on intense interest to a number of people during the nineteenth century, especially during the latter half, but not to the father of his country. (I’m speaking here of the words, by the way, not necessarily the subject.)
Perpetuity is an odd word to have chosen here, anyway—isn’t a word like perpetuation more like what the author must have had in mind? I tried various combinations of synonyms, but without any luck.
The phrase “perpetuity of our nation” or the like seems to have been popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As examples let me give you:
Edward P. Ingersoll, D.D. in 1881:  The perpetuity of our nation is guarded by the church. [“National Dangers and Guards,” in The Preacher and Homiletic Monthly, Volume 5 (Funk & Wagnalls, 1881) p. 78]
William Jennings Bryan in 1896: Our form of government recognizes the right of the States to do certain things, and the perpetuity of this nation depends as much upon respecting local self-government as it does upon recognizing national supremacy. [The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896 (W. B. Conkey Company, 1896), p. 519]
The mayor of Seattle in 1906: As has been well said, the perpetuity of our nation and institutions, and the welfare and happiness of our people, depend upon the intelligence of our citizenship. [Proceedings at the Opening of the Seattle Public Library Building, December 19, 1906 (Ivy Press, 1907, unnumbered page]
It seems curious that Washington should have so neatly anticipated a turn of phrase that would not become popular until a century had passed, and that that saying should not emerge until that very time. Honestly, it passeth belief. My strong suspicion, given this, is that this saying—who ever really said it—belongs to this era, rather than to the time of the founders.
I could be wrong. If anybody knows when and where George Washington said or wrote this thing, or what genuine words of Washington this saying paraphrases, or whatever the true story is, I would be quite interested in hearing from you. Write me—or post it at Wikiquote. Nothing depends on it—but I’d like to know.

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