08 April 2015

Without God and the Bible Part 1: The Playwright

ast time I observed that I plan to tell the tale of a fake quotation—the famous pseudo-Washington observation that It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible—in maybe four installments—one for each of the four men who created and shaped the thing. These four were (in reverse order) a lawyer, a politician, a preacher, and a playwright.
Our paper trail starts with the last of the four, a guy called James Kirke Paulding—playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, satirist—a friend of Washington Irving, a protégée of James Madison, a passionate defender of slavery—Secretary of the Board of Navy Commissioners, Navy Agent at New York, and (under Martin Van Buren) Secretary of the Navy. Of the four guys we’re going to look at Paulding is probably my favorite; at least I’ve run into him in a variety of connections at various points in my life.
For example, many years ago, when I was younger and my stepfather was teaching a course in the literature of slavery I ran into Paulding’s enthusiastic (and long-winded) defense of the institution of slavery. He worries at the thing like a dog pulling apart your favorite antique quilt, showing that science, religion, philosophy, and tradition all support the natural subordination of the African peoples, and that slavery is the rational solution to the difficulty of racial coexistence. If I bought any of his premises I might have been persuaded; it was probably easier back in the day when slavery was so entrenched in American culture that looking the other way seemed like the only way to avoid going mad—or taking up weapons like John Brown.
In my own college days I became interested in the legends of the American Old West, because (unlike ancient and medieval legends) we have at least some chance of tracing their course and of comparing them to the actual history lurking behind them. In the course of things I learned of a play titled The Lion of the West which featured a character named Nimrod Wildfire, viewed at the time (and subsequently) as a caricature of a well-known politician, a fellow known as Davy Crockett to his constituents. This caricature was a stage in the development of his eventual legend, and the man behind it was—you guessed it—James Kirke Paulding.
And again, more recently, during the internet era, when I was looking up classic parodies I’d never had the time or ability to obtain before, I took a peek at something I’d only heard of—The Lay of the Scotch Fiddle—a hideous “parody” (I’d call it a burlesque) of Sir Walter Scott created by—yes, again—James Kirke Paulding.
Now these encounters had happened far enough apart that I had never really realized that the authors of the defense of slavery, the Davy Crockett caricature, and the Walter Scott takeoff, were one and the same. That realization only came only after reading Paulding’s account of George Washington’s life written for the edification of the young, and I only looked that one up while trying to run down the origin of the very quotation now under discussion.
That book is a remarkable production. Paulding explains its origin in its preface:
Shortly after the conclusion of the late war [of 1812], the author of the following work removed to the city of Washington, where he resided several years. His situation brought him into familiar intercourse with many respectable, and some distinguished persons, who had been associated with Washington; and the idea occurred to him of attempting to compile a Life of the Father of his Country, which might possibly address itself to the popular feeling more directly than any one hitherto attempted. With this object in view, he took every occasion to gather information concerning his private life and domestic habits from such sources as could be relied on as authentic. [A Life of Washington (New-York, 1835), volume 1, p. v]
In gathering material he wrote to various people who had known Washington, including James Madison and John C. Marshall. Madison was not encouraging, writing him:
Everything relating to Washington is already known to the world, or will soon be made known thro' Mr. [Jared] Sparks; with the exception of some of those inside views of character and scenes of domestic life which are apart from ordinary opportunities of observation. And it may be presumed that interesting lights will be let in even on those exceptions through the private correspondences in the hands of Mr. Sparks. [Madison to Paulding, April 1831]
In that same letter he warned him also about some of the pitfalls in biography:
In a task properly biographical, the difficulty lies in the evanescent or inaccessible information which it particularly requires. Autographic memorials are rare, and usually deficient on essential points, if not otherwise faulty; and at the late periods of life the most knowing witnesses may have descended to the tomb, or their memories become no longer faithful depositories. Where oral tradition is the resort, all know the uncertainties, and inaccuracies which beset it.
Paulding was not deterred. He continued looking for information from anybody who had known Washington, and even wrote to Jane C. Washington (1786-1855, before her marriage Jane Blackburn), “the present most estimable lady who is now in possession of Mount Vernon.” He “availed himself of all the sources of information within his reach”.
Who or what those sources were, however, he chose not to tell us; in fact he “avoided citing his authority on every occasion.” He often gave some general idea of where an anecdote originated—it was “traditionary in the family” (volume I, p. 64), or it came from “one who was with him at the time” (I, 79), or from “one whose situation afforded him the best means of information” (I, 91), or from “one of his nearest connections, who is still living” (I, 119). Given this studied vagueness, suspicion is inevitable. Did he in fact gather these anecdotes “from the information of his contemporaries then living”—or did he make them up? Sure, he assures us “that he has inserted nothing which he does not believe to be true,” but sans citation is there any way to be sure of that? Vague appeals to “the authority of history, of Washington himself, or of undoubted traditions” don’t really cut it. Paulding’s asking us to trust him across the board—not only his honesty, but his memory and his critical acumen in evaluating the traditions that came to him. It’s a lot to ask.
At some point in his work on the project Paulding changed his mind about the nature of the book—rather than write a popular biography, he would “adapt it to the use of schools.” He thought “that the life of Washington furnished an invaluable moral example to the youth of his country” and so his purpose should be “to enlist their affections—to call forth their love, as well as veneration, for the great and good man whose life and actions he has attempted to delineate.” Rather than write biography, in other words, he would engage in hagiography.
His two-volume Life of George Washington came out in 1835. Edgar Allen Poe loved it. He admired its “forcible, rich, vivid, and comprehensive English,” noting that it “might advantageously be held up, as a model for the young writers of the land.” The volumes “contain many long individual passages of a force and beauty not to be surpassed by the finest passages of the finest writers in any time or country.” He predicted that it would find a place in “every respectable academy in the land.” Perhaps significantly, he said nothing about its reliability, accuracy, or authenticity.
It ought to go without saying that a book of this sort—undocumented, intended for children, based on tradition and rumor—has no authority whatsoever. It ought to—and yet I’ve seen people cite it as authoritative. True, Paulding did know people who had known Washington, like James Madison and Jane Washington, but still—a book for children. A volume based on anecdote and second-hand recollections. A narrative intended to appeal “to the feelings of nature than to the judgment of criticism.” Really.
In a chapter in volume II on Washington’s character, set forth to show that “Those who follow in his footsteps can never go astray,” Paulding discusses his subject’s piety. “It is impossible,” he wrote, “to read the speeches and letters of Washington, and follow his whole course of life, without receiving the conviction of his steady, rational, and exalted piety.” “No parade accompanied its exercise, no declamation its exhibition; for it was his opinion that a man who is always boasting of his religion, is like one who continually proclaims his honesty—he would trust neither one nor the other.” And now comes the key point. “He was not accustomed to argue points of faith, but on one occasion, in reply to a gentleman who expressed doubts on the subject, thus gave his sentiments:—
      “It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being.
      It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.
      “It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. Religion is as necessary to reason, as reason is to religion. The one cannot exist without the other. A reasoning being would lose his reason in attempting to account for the great phenomena of nature, had he not a Supreme Being to refer to; and well has it been said, that if there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.”
Note the section in bold. This is the nucleus of what will become, step by step, the fake quotation. Those steps will be detailed in future parts. For the moment, however, what is under consideration is the passage in the form given by Paulding.
Two issues present themselves. First—what does it mean? What is its function in Paulding’s narrative? How does it connect with similar arguments in time and space? And then, second—its authorship. Who said it? Who wrote it? How likely is it to go back to Washington himself in some form?
The first thing to note, I suppose, is that this is an expression of the cosmological argument for the existence of God, an argument much favored by deists. The existence and maintenance of the universe can only be explained by positing a creator and sustainer. Human reason leads us inevitably to that conclusion. It’s familiar territory. Thomas Paine covered it back in the 1790s. This is worth noting; subsequent developments of the fragment in bold are going to significantly change its focus.
The line about mankind being obliged to imagine a god of course goes back to a 1768 poem by Voltaire, “Epître à l'auteur du livre des Trois imposteurs”. There it reads “Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer” (“If God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.”) The argument there is a utilitarian one—belief in God makes society run better. The hope of heaven and the fear of hell motivate people to keep their promises and behave rightly. Benjamin Franklin made the same point in his infamous “Don’t unchain the tiger” letter to some unknown infidel, and Washington himself alluded to it in his farewell address. Social order is, as Voltaire observed, “le fruit d'une utile croyance.”
Here, however, the observation is being used to make a different point—that it is impossible to conceive of an orderly cosmos without imagining some Supreme Being to keep it in order. And this use seems frankly more like something Paulding would come up with than Washington. Here, for example, is Paulding on his religion:
It is founded in reason and reflection and cannot therefore be orthodox. Since according to all clerical authorities the moment a man consults his reason in matters of faith he becomes little better than an infidel. Does it seem strange that a religion exclusively propounded of rational beings is not to be judged of by reason? [letter to Joseph Sims, quoted in Aderman and Kime, Advocate for America, p. 338]
Washington by contrast was (relatively) conventional in his religion—as least as far as observances are concerned. This deistic statement with its emphasis on reason and its reference to Voltaire reeks of Paulding.
As does its wording. Washington’s characteristic word-choices are quite different. Here, for example, is Washington writing to an author of a book on mathematics:
The science of figures, to a certain degree, is not only indispensably requisite in every walk of civilised life; but the investigation of mathematical truths accustoms the mind to method and correctness in reasoning, and is an employment peculiarly worthy of rational beings. In a clouded state of existence, where so many things appear precarious to the bewildered research, it is here that the rational faculties find a firm foundation to rest upon. From the high ground of mathematical and philosophical demonstration, we are insensibly led to far nobler speculations and sublimer meditations. [George Washington to Nicholas Pike, 20 June 1788]
Here is Washington writing of the Bible:
The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes. [p. 34 of his undelivered first inaugural address]
And here are three examples of Washington referencing the creator of the universe:
It is also most devoutly to be wished that faction was at an end and that those to whom every thing dear and valuable is entrusted would lay aside party views and return to first principles. happy, happy, thrice happy Country if such was the government of it, but alas ! we are not to expect that the path is to be strewed wt. flowers. That great and good Being who rules the Universe has disposed matters otherwise and for wise purposes I am perswaded. [George Washington to Joseph Reed, 27 November 1778]
The man must be bad indeed who can look upon the events of the American Revolution without feeling the warmest gratitude towards the great Author of the Universe whose divine interposition was so frequently manifested in our behalf. And it is my earnest prayer that we may so conduct ourselves as to merit a continuance of those blessings with which we have hitherto been favored. I am etc. [George Washington to Samuel Langdon, 28 September 1789]
The kind interposition of Providence which has been so often manifested in the affairs of this country, must naturally lead us to look up to that divine source for light and direction in this new and untried Scene. [GeorgeWashington to William Heath, 9 May 1789]
The contrast between genuine Washington and the alleged quotation could hardly be more stark.
Of course that doesn’t really settle the authorship issue. Even if the exact words aren’t Washington’s, could the thing go back to him in some form? After all, it’s highly unlikely that either Paulding or his informant (assuming he had one) repeated the words exactly as they came to them. Might the underlying concept be Washington’s, even if the wording is not?
Anything is possible. It depends how much faith you have in Paulding. Mine had worn thin before I was halfway through the first volume. The presence of the horse-breaking incident (a variation on the cherry-tree story) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Again, on pp. 91-93 we find a story attributed to Washington, supposedly passed down by tradition, in which Washington is made to tell in several hundred words how the sight of a massacre in his youth had given him an undying hatred of Indians. That one alone gives rise to the question of how gullible Paulding was—or how gullible he expected his readers to be. He was writing for children, after all.
And then, when you look at the structure of the section on religion—well, Paulding needs some sort of creedal statement to sort of kick things off. It’s really a requirement. If Washington hadn’t said it, or something in the same vein, it would have been necessary for Paulding to invent it.
And there’s the rub. Honestly, I’d like it to go back to Washington, even if only through the historical haze of oral tradition. It would be a fascinating flash of insight into his cosmic beliefs, though nothing more than a single lightning strike. But there’s too much going against it to buy into that notion. Maybe someday somebody with new critical tools, or manuscript access, or a time machine—something—will figure out some new angle that will rehabilitate it. But as it stands, well, better look elsewhere for insight.
Some in Paulding’s audience clearly liked it, though. Thomas Baldwin Thayer included it in Christianity against Infidelity (B.B. Mussey, Boston, 1836, p. 73); Nathaniel Hervey placed it in The Memory of Washington; with Biographical Sketches of His Mother and Wife. Relations of Lafayette to Washington; with Incidents and Anecdotes in the Lives of the Two Patriots (James Munroe and Company, Boston and Cambridge, 1852, p. 123); and John Frederick Schroeder used it in Maxims of Washington; Political, Social, Moral, and Religious (D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1855, pp. 341-2). All three reprinted it as Washington’s without bothering to inform their readers of its questionable antecedents.
So there you have it. The original version of this saying (It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being) was part of an argument for the existence of God either transmitted by a playwright from an unknown informant, or perhaps invented by him out of whole cloth. Nearly three decades will pass before the next stage of the story, when this sentence will fall into the hands of a preacher. What he did with it will be the subject of the next installment: Part 2: The Preacher.

"Death of James K. Paulding," New York Times, 6 April 1860
Paulding, James Kirke,” The New International Encyclopædia (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1905) at Wikisource
Ralph A. Aderman and Wayne R, Kime, Advocate for America: The Life of James Kirke Paulding (Susquehanna University Press, 2003)
James Kirke Paulding, A Life of Washington (Harper and Brothers, New-York, 1835). [At Google Books: volume I; volume II]
Edgar Allen Poe, "Paulding's Washington," Southern Literary Messenger, May 1836

1 comment:

sbh said...

Next post in this series: Part 2: The Preacher

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