10 February 2015

Fake History: George Washington's Prophecy

D
id George Washington foresee a United States of Europe modeled after the United States of America?
No. Not as far as we know, anyway. Obviously many things are possible, but all other things being equal, we have to stick with what the historical record shows. And the record shows that in this case the whole idea came from a common error—assuming that something put in quotation marks is actually a quotation.
I can’t help but feel that there should be a quasi-quotation mark or something—a way of indicating a degree of removal from the original, a warning that the material enclosed lies in the hinterland between the words of the present writer and those of the original. Evelyn Hall could have used it when she wanted to describe Voltaire’s attitude during a trying episode, and came up with that whole disagree and defend to the death bit.
For this story, however, we need to back up a little, if we want to keep things coherent. Specifically we need to set the wayback machine to 15 August 1786 when George Washington wrote Lafayette about the economic future of their two countries. “Altho’ I pretend to no peculiar information respecting commercial affairs,” he wrote, “nor any foresight into the scenes of futurity; yet as the member of an infant-empire, as a Philanthropist by character, and (if I may be allowed the expression) as a Citizen of the great republic of humanity at large; I cannot help turning my attention sometimes to this subject.” He goes on to reflect that commerce connects mankind “like one great family in fraternal ties” and suggests that “the benefits of a liberal & free commerce will, pretty generally, succeed to the devastations & horrors of war.” He doesn’t, however, have any particular thoughts about a potential United States of Europe.
This letter, however, is only one strand in our story. Another is a book written by Joseph Fabre, a French politician and historical writer: Washington, libérateur de l'Amérique: suivi de Washington et la revolution Américaine, published 1882. In Chapter XI, on the “Bienfaits Dus À La Constitution Américaine” Fabre writes:
Washington et ses amis disaient:
      « Notre exemple prouvera aux hommes qu’ils ne sont pas condamnés à recevoir éternellement leur gouvernement du hasard et de la force, et qu’ils sont capables de se donner de bonnes institutions par réflexion et par choix.
      » Nous avons jeté une semence de liberté et d’union, qui germera peu à peu dans toute la terre.
      » Un jour, sur le modèle des États-Unis d'Amérique, se constitueront les États-Unis d’Europe. »
Yes, there’s going to be French in this account. I couldn’t find an English translation, so you’re going to have to put up with my lame efforts. This translates something like this:
Washington and his friends were saying:
      “Our example will prove to men that they are not condemned to eternally receive their government by chance and force, and that they are capable of giving themselves good institutions by reflection and choice.
      “We have cast a seed of liberty and union, which will grow gradually through the whole earth.
      “One day the United States of Europe will be formed on the model of the United States of America.”
Now the key thing to note here is that the material above is not a quotation, despite being between quotation marks. The words are simply (and this should be obvious) Fabre’s rhetorical device for expressing his views of the significance of the American constitution. But the trouble is—and this is why it would be nice to have some alternate punctuation symbol for this situation—when people see something between quotation marks, they tend to assume that it is in fact a quotation.
In this case the guilty party was Gustave Rodrigues, in a 1917 book entitled Le peuple de l'action: essai sur l'idéalisme américain. On p. 207 he wrote:
Washington écrivait à La Fayette qu'il se condérait comme « citoyen de la grande république de l'humanité » et ajoutait : « Je vois le genre humain uni comme une grande famille par des liens fraternels ». Ailleurs il écrivait, prophétiquement: « Nous avons jeté une semence de liberté et d'union qui germera peu à peu dans toute la terre. Un jour, sur le modèle des Etats-Unis d'Amérique, se constitueront les États-Unis d'Europe. »
Fortunately this time I have a translation available, by Louise Seymour Houghton:
Washington wrote to Lafayette that he considered himself a “citizen of the great republic of humanity,” adding: “I see the human race a great family, united by fraternal bonds.” Elsewhere he wrote prophetically: “We have sown a seed of liberty and union that will gradually germinate throughout the earth. Some day, on the model of the United States of America, will be constituted the United States of Europe.” [pp. 209-210]
In both the original and the translation the notes (which I have omitted) refer back to Joseph Fabre’s book, and it will be observed that the first two quotations are in fact from the letter to Lafayette referenced above (as translated into French), while the “Ailleurs” portion is from the pseudo-quotation expressing Fabre’s own views of what “Washington and his friends” had accomplished.
I don’t know who it was who took the final step of combining this material into a single quotation and referring the whole to the letter to Lafayette, but it turns up so combined (and with a final sentence whose source I have not identified) in a number of French sources. Here it is quoted on page 421 of Christian Godin’s La totalité, Volume 6 (2003):
Je suis citoyen de la Grande République de l'Humanité. Je vois le genre humain uni comme une grande famille par des liens fraternels. Nous avons jeté une semence de liberté et d'union qui germera peu à peu dans toute la Terre. Un jour, sur le modèle des Etats-Unis d'Amérique, se constitueront les États-Unis d'Europe. Les États-Unis seront le législateur de toutes les nationalités.
And here it is in an English (translated?) article by André Fontaine, “Farewell to the United States of Europe: long live the EU!” (21 November 2001) at Open Democracy:
I am a citizen of the greatest Republic of Mankind. I see the human race united like a huge family by brotherly ties. We have made a sowing of liberty which will, little by little, spring up across the whole world. One day, on the model of the United States of America, a United States of Europe will come into being. The United States will legislate for all its nationalities.
George Washington envisioned (though disclaiming any insight into the future) a world in which increasing commercial ties among nations would make war too unprofitable to pursue—a prediction, given the fact of at least three world wars and a host of lesser conflagrations between his time and ours, that proves him as bad a prophet as Alfred Nobel. Joseph Fabre’s enthusiasm made him see the US Constitution as a model for a future Europe, something that (so far anyway) has failed to materialize, as André Fontaine’s article gleefully observed. It was only a misreading by Gustave Rodrigues that created the impression that Fabre’s vision was also Washington’s, a misreading made possible by Fabre’s use of a common rhetorical device. (Which again is one reason I think that a pseudo-quotation mark would be a useful addition to our punctuation arsenal.)
 So, anyway, no—George Washington did not envision a future United States of Europe. What he did envision—a world increasingly interconnected by ties of commerce—has indeed come to pass, and it has perhaps made war less profitable, as he thought. But sad to say “the devastations & horrors of war” have not been eliminated, and while the world may well indeed be in some respects “much less barbarous than it has been” (e.g. the elimination of slavery in many countries of the world) in others (Auschwitz, Nagasaki, ISIL) it is, if anything, more barbarous.
I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s description of the game Keep Tomorrow Dark, or Cheat the Prophet. Clever men explain what will happen in the future, and the “players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say”. And once the prophets have died the players “then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”
[A blogger at race/history/evolution notes arrived at these same conclusions about the history of this pseudo-quotation on 30 January 2010.]

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