’m not feeling well and facing the monthly crisis of paying the rent, so my enthusiasm for stomping on fake quotations is, shall we say, minimal, but I did start this series, however much I may regret it, and I feel obliged to somehow sum things up.
Obviously the story of the fake quotation It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible didn’t end with Howard Hyde Russell’s invention; if that were the case there would have been no need to write this series. (And I’m sure there are some of you who feel that there was no need to write it in any case—a fake is a fake is a fake, right?) It’s easy to find hundreds of examples over the next century. Here is one picked at random:
George Washington said, and said truly: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” All irreligious schemes are bound to be failures. Any government founded on such inadequate and dangerous principles is sure to crumble. [The Herald and Presbyter, 21 September 1921, p. 2]
Nor did the presence of more evolved forms of the saying drive out the ancestral forms. Here is an instance of Wilson’s version, somewhat truncated, from the same year:
Here is something from George Washington’s own lips, and over his own pen: “It is impossible to govern the world without God. He must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.” [David Eugene Olson in The Gauvin-Olson Debates on God and the Bible (Peter Eckler Publishing Company, 1921), p. 98]
And here is an example from the other end of the twentieth century:
As president, Washington continued his custom of earlier years; he remained outspoken and adamant in his promotion of the importance of Christianity in government. For example, in an October 9, 1789, letter to the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in North America, Washington declared:
While just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion provides to government its surest support.
He further declared:
It is impossible to rightly govern … without God and the Bible.
[David Barton, The Myth of Separation (Wallbuilder Press, 1992), p. 113, ellipsis in the original]
(This last one is classic: two fakes for the price of one. I also like how the author has sidestepped the megalomania problem by discreetly omitting the words “the world”.) And in the post-paper world of the internet it is easy to find the quotation in all stages of development and in a variety of contexts—here, for example, is one where the fake is nestled inside Washington’s farewell address, as found in the popular internet document entitled “Forsaken Roots”:
Consider these words from George Washington, the Father of our Nation, in his farewell speech on September 19, 1796: “It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, our religion and morality are the indispensable supporters. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
In the cross-currents of conflicting influences that is the internet new variations seem to flourish; as another example James Montgomery Boice’s proverb that “without God in the picture we have no sure means of guiding government properly” collides with our saying to produce
You cannot govern without God in the picture.
Like the chainsaw-wielding character in a slasher movie, there’s no killing it.
Before going further I suppose it’s worth asking—is there any chance this thing could still somehow be genuine? Is there any possibility that George Washington is actually responsible for it? Could it somehow, in spite of the evidence, be “authentic”?—whatever that is supposed to mean.
The short answer is “no”—but that’s an answer I can’t give. Anything is possible. The difficulties are formidable—barring the discovery of further evidence. Anybody who wants to claim that the final (Russell) version is authentic needs to explain how Russell came by it after the lapse of nearly a century. Oral tradition won’t cut it. Nor, given his rank dishonesty in other matters, can we appeal to his upright scholarly character for the benefit of doubt. The Wilson version is similarly unredeemable; his dependence on Morris is manifest, and by far the simplest explanation is that he got it from that source. Dependence on the Morris version requires an explanation of all his other errors and distortions; given his sloppiness the simplest explanation—again—is that Morris got it from Paulding, whether directly or indirectly. If there is an “authentic” version, then, this is it.
Paulding certainly had the opportunity to pick up his story from oral tradition, and considering that he knew people who had known Washington it is conceivable that the chain of transmission was a short one. But we don’t know that. We know nothing of how he came by the story. Given the low quality of the other material he supplied from oral tradition, it is difficult to believe in this one, especially in view of its dissimilarity to anything Washington is known to have said on the subject. You can believe it if you like, I suppose, but would you bet your family business on that sort of information? Maybe somebody should ask Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson how far out on that limb he’s willing to go. Me, I’ll stay closer to the trunk of actual history.
So how did we get here, and what is the significance of it all? If there’s no moral to it, no larger meaning, isn’t it no longer history, but rather, as the philosopher Homer Simpson once observed, “just a bunch of stuff that happened”?
Well, the fact is, I don’t know and I don’t care. I have a story to tell, and I’ve told it. But there are some general observations perhaps worth making. I don’t insist on it, however.
Legends serve a purpose. National legends bind people together via a common collection of shared tales about their alleged past. The same goes for other sorts of institutional myths—religious, political, economic, corporate. Emotional resonance is what matters in these things—not truth. The Muslim who insists on the “reality” of the insubstantial early history of Islam, the Turk who claims there was no Armenian genocide, the American who believes that the founders fought hard to eliminate slavery, all have in common that these things resonate with how he feels things ought to be. Stephen Colbert’s one enduring accomplishment may well be the concept of truthiness—things that feel true, no matter how baseless they may be.
When the North American colonies detached themselves from Great Britain to form a new national entity, its intellectual leaders set out to establish just such a body of national myth. The “history” taught in its schools is a superstructure erected on this foundation.
The men responsible for creating this national myth—which included both Jared Sparks and James Kirke Paulding—were confronted with a variety of tasks. Certain men—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson—would be promoted as larger-than-life icons. Others—Benjamin Rush, for example, or John Adams—would be relegated to a more humble place. (Rush and Adams in fact complained of this process, considering Washington and Franklin at least to be overrated.)
In fitting out Washington for his new role as plaster saint, something had to be done about his religion. The fact is, there is relatively little information about George Washington’s religious beliefs. We do know—both from public expressions of piety and from private observations in letters—that Washington believed in a deity that interposed in human affairs, not in an absent creator who wound the universe up and let it run unattended. His church attendance and his occasional reference to “the divine author of our religion” show that he was a Christian, though not necessarily all that devout. And in fact, historically speaking, Washington’s religious views are unimportant. He influenced the course of events as a military and political leader, not as a theologian, a preacher, or a cult-leader. He could have believed in Yahweh, Zeus, or Cthulhu, as far that goes. The history comes out the same.
But to make him a role model for the youth he had to be pious, and so stories of his acts of piety had to be invented. Paulding (like Mason Weems) understood this perfectly well, and his chapter on Washington’s character makes his piety self-evident.
And this is one of the principal factors that contributed to the development and perpetuation of this thing. The need to instruct the young. Both Paulding and Wilson were avowedly writing for the instruction of youth, and, as we all know, scholarly standards are irrelevant in children’s books. (I disagree emphatically with this position, but nobody put me in charge of standards and practices.)
As the nation grew up, and various groups came into conflict with one another, factionalism impelled people to try to seize this or that national symbol for their particular interest. Religious groups were no exception. B. F. Morris and Howard Hyde Russell come in here. Both were interested (though for apparently different reasons) in claiming Washington as one of their own, and neither felt bound (for whatever reasons) by the standards of scholarship when a religious object was in view.
A growth like ours would have stood no chance in the antiseptic environment of serious history. This, no doubt, is why nothing like it is found in the editions of Jared Sparks, Worthington Chauncey Ford, or John C. Fitzpatrick. The far less inhospitable environments of children’s literature and religious controversy however were ideal places for such fungoids to grow. And the ease of transmission and lack of critical standards found on the present-day internet make it likely that this thing will survive and mutate into the foreseeable future.
And I don’t in fact see this one disappearing any time soon. It’s got too much going for it. It has George Washington, father of his country, saying something nice about the Bible, America’s best seller. It’s got God safely in charge, running the world. For all his criminal inaccuracy, Howard Hyde Russell was onto something. The marketplace has spoken—and once again, the will to believe triumphs over reality. It’s inspiring, in a hideous sort of way.