11 February 2015

Another Fake Washington Quotation (What God Wants)


I
‘ve got to say that sometimes it feels like you guys aren’t even trying. While looking for fake George Washington quotations I lurched into this one at a site called Ignorant Fishermen:
Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength.[a]
This is wretched. Pitiful. And no, it’s obviously not Washington’s. Mind you, I went through the motions of consulting the varied online repositories of Washington’s writing. Nothing turned up. I searched on synonyms, combinations of words, phrases. Still nothing. If it’s a paraphrase of something he said, I didn’t find it.
Oddly enough, the oldest posting of this saying I could find anywhere online was at Free Republic on 25 February 2010.[b] The poster called himself The Ignorant Fisherman. When somebody asked him for a source for his quotations (there were several) he replied: Google it.
Never trust a jerk who gives you a Google It instead of a citation.
Out of curiosity I took a look at some of his other (alleged) George Washington quotations. Many of them are familiar, and most of them are legitimate—up to a point. The same goes for his fakes—except for this one, most of them are familiar at any rate. Anyway, here’s a rundown, starting with those that are substantially genuine.
The Ignorant Fishermen (TIF) quotes Washington as saying (sans citation):
I earnestly pray that the Omnipotent Being who has not deserted the cause of America in the hour of its extremist hazard, will never yield so fair a heritage of freedom a prey to “Anarchy” or “Despotism”.
And this is in fact the closing of a letter to James McHenry (17 July 1788), allowing for a word or two being off and the substitution of quotation marks for emphasis. (As usual bold indicates the portion used in the quotation.)
I earnestly pray that the Omnipotent Being who hath not deserted the cause of America in the hour of its extremest hazard; will never yeild so fair a heritage of freedom a prey to Anarchy or Despotism.[c]
The next two items come from Washington’s first inaugural address of 30 April 1789. Presidential speeches, like other official pronouncements, have difficulties of determining actual authorship—many of them are written by, or at least contain significant input from, people other than the person who delivers it. Ghost writing is an interesting occupation; the actual writer is not writing as himself but as somebody else. It lies somewhere in the hinterland between editing and parody, in that the object is to express the (alleged) author’s ideas in a way in which he would have expressed them given the time and the ability without slavish fidelity (as in editing) or outré exaggeration (as in parody). The actual author of Washington’s first inaugural address is believed to have been James Madison. This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to attribute them to Washington; only that the situation is likely to be a bit more complicated than that. Anyway, here is TIF’s version of this next item:
No people can be bound to acknowledge the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.
Other than the omission of the words “and adore” it’s pretty much what the inaugural address actually had:
In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either: No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.[d]
And likewise from that same address (again uncited) TIF has Washington say:
The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.
And here is the first inaugural address a bit further on:
I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the œconomy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. [d]
About this next one there are no (as far as I know) caveats or qualifications. TIF quotes Washington as follows:
I am sure that never was a people, who had more reason to acknowledge a Divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our Revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.
This one is practically dead on, except for a couple of punctuation differences. Washington in fact wrote in a letter to John Armstrong (11  March 1792):
I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency which was so often manifested during our Revolution—or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.[e]
Next The Ignorant Fishermen presents us with a handful of fragments, one taken from Washington’s General Orders, 9 July 1776, about chaplains, another taken from a routine reply to a church offering its congratulations (19 August 1789), and still another from his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 3 October 1789, written at the request of Congress.
A parenthetic note about military orders: I personally object to quoting them as the words of the officer involved, simply because they are often actually written by subordinates and merely signed by the guy in question. And they tend to be pragmatic instructions, not well considered expressions of opinion or the result of deep thought on a subject. You might as well quote interoffice memos or grocery lists. But anyway, TIF has a fragment (uncited of course) from Washington’s General Orders of 9 July 1776:
The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.
The subject of this section is chaplains; the full context is more or less self-explanatory:
The Honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-three Dollars and one third per month—The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly; persons of good Characters and exemplary lives—To see that all inferior officers and soldiers pay them a suitable respect and attend carefully upon religious exercises: The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger—The General hopes and trusts, that every officer, and man, will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.[f]
Another version of the text has “a Christian and soldier” in place of “a Christian Soldier”.
When Washington was elected the first president of the United States under the Constitution he received many congratulations from people and groups throughout the nation. It appears to have been his practice to reply briefly to each of these communications, recycling at least some of their content while putting his own spin on it. It is from one of these replies that TIF lifted the following phrase:
Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.
A communication of 19 August 1789 from the Protestant Episcopal Church had concluded “We devoutly implore the Supreme Ruler of the Universe to preserve you long in health and prosperity, an animating example of all public and private virtues—the friend and guardian of a free, enlightened, and grateful people—and that you may finally receive the reward, which will be given to those whose lives have been spent in promoting the happiness of mankind.” George Washington picked up on this wish in his reply:
The satisfaction arising from the indulgent opinion entertained by the American People of my conduct, will, I trust, be some security for preventing me from doing any thing, which might justly incur the forfeiture of that opinion. And the consideration that human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected, will always continue to prompt me to promote the progress of the former, by inculcating the practice of the latter.[g]
Official proclamations (like presidential addresses) have the difficulty of determining actual authorship in any meaningful way. Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation of 3 October 1789 was ordered by Congress and is in the hand of William Jackson; how much of it is Washington’s is anybody’s guess. TIF gives this snippet from it:
It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors.
This is from the first clause of the proclamation, which reads
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”[h]
I’ve dealt with this elsewhere, and I’ll probably write about it again some foul day. But anyway, the fragment is reasonably accurate, though it should have been presented as a fragment, not a stand-alone item. But whatever.
The next item is one of those “quotations” remembered by somebody else after a lapse of time. In this case the author is Gouverneur Morris, recalling something Washington supposedly said a decade before. TIF gives it like this:
If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.
Now historians differ as to its authenticity. I’m inclined to reject it, myself, for two reasons—first, the lapse of time makes it unlikely that Morris would remember the exact wording of the thing. And second, it comes from a goddamn funeral oration. In my observation, funeral orations rank with sermons as unreliable vectors for accurate transmission of quotations. It’s like the rules don’t exist at such times. You say something nice about the guy even if you have to make it up. Maybe Morris remembered something of the sort—or maybe he flogged his memory until it produced something suitable. Anywhere, here is the context:
Americans! let the opinion then delivered by the greatest and best of men, be ever present to your remembrance. He was collected within himself. His countenance had more than usual solemnity; his, eye was fixed, and seemed to look into futurity. “It is (said he) too probable that no plan we propose will be adopted. Perhaps another dreadful conflict is to be sustained. If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.” This was the patriot voice of Washington; and this the constant tenor of his conduct. With this deep sense of duty, he gave to our Constitution his cordial assent; and has added the fame of a legislator to that of a hero.[j]
The rest of the Ignorant Fishermen’s quotations are fakes. I have dealt with “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and Bible” before, and am in the process of writing in excruciating detail on it again. This particular version goes back to Howard Hyde Russell, a lawyer and founder of an anti-saloon league, who published it in 1893. He gave no authority for it, and as he was born when Washington was cold in his Mt. Vernon grave can hardly have heard it himself.
You’d have to be an ignorant fool to believe that “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ” was an authentic pronouncement of General Washington, and of course it isn’t. Its oldest appearance is in a 2006 book by Bob Klingenberg, entitled Is God with America? (p. 188). I’ve traced its course through a misunderstanding by David Barton of a passage addressed by Washington (though probably not written by him) to the Lenape in 1779 elsewhere, but as far as this particular fake is concerned, neither Barton nor Washington bears any responsibility for it.
The Weekly World News of 15 May 2001 is the only source I could turn up for this one, given by TIF in this form:
My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.
For the first sentence I turned up no earlier source. The second is a cliché, and it has been attributed (though on no authority I could determine) to Washington. It has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The final sentence of this goes back at least as far as an 1887 anthology (Mile-stones of history, literature, travel, mythology, sculpture, and art) edited by Frank McAlpine. An anonymous piece called simply “Mother” quotes Washington as saying “I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual, and physical education which I received from my mother.” Other sources indicate that this was a response from Washington when resolutions of condolence were passed on the occasion of her death, but still another account says that no such resolutions were passed.
And this brings us back to where we came in. TIF finally has something unique, a fake quotation that (as far as I can tell) originated with him:
Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength.
It’s not great—but it’s something. Sources follow.

[a] The Ignorant Fishermen, “Christian Quotes from President George Washington,” The Ignorant Fishermen Blog, 4 July 2013.
[b] The Ignorant Fisherman, “A Few Quotes from George Washington,” Free Republic, 15 February 2010.
[c] “From George Washington to James McHenry, 31 July 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2014-12-01). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6, 1 January 1788 – 23 September 1788, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997, pp. 409–410.
[d] “First Inaugural Address: Final Version, 30 April 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2014-12-01). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 2, 1 April 1789 – 15 June 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 173–177.
[e] “From George Washington to John Armstrong, 11 March 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2014-12-01). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 10, 1 March 1792 – 15 August 1792, ed. Robert F. Haggard and Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002, pp. 85–87.
[f] “General Orders, 9 July 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2014-12-01). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 5, 16 June 1776 – 12 August 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 245–247.
[g] “From George Washington to the Protestant Episcopal Church, 19 August 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2014-12-01). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 3, 15 June 1789–5 September 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989, pp. 496–499.
[h] “Thanksgiving Proclamation, 3 October 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2014-12-01). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, pp. 131–132.
[j] Oration upon the Death of General Washington, Delivered at the Request of the Corporation of the City of New York On the 31st of December, 1799, by Gouverneur Morris.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey, you're getting some great Washington materials going here. Good show! rfh

Karen Whiting said...

Citation for quote: Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength.

George Washington, The Writings of Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1932), Vol. XV, p. 55, from his speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779.

sbh said...

Karen Whiting:

Your citation is incorrect. Washington's speech to the Delaware Chiefs was the first place I looked for this in point of fact. That speech (written by Robert Hanson Harrison and signed by Washington) has been published in a number of places, including volume XV of Fitzpatrick's edition, pp. 53–56. The words "Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength" do not appear anywhere in it. You can look for yourself here. For more information about Washington's encounter with the Lenape chiefs here is a piece I wrote about the event several years ago.

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