n the previous installment on the history of a spurious Washington quotation (“It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible”) we observed its birth in the stew of gossip James Kirke Paulding picked up in the decades following Washington’s death (or maybe cooked up in his own imagination). The next stage takes place during the maelstrom of the Civil War, and our central figure is the preacher—Benjamin Franklin Morris.
The son of an Ohio senator, B. F. Morris was educated at Miami University in Ohio, where William Holmes McGuffy (of McGuffy Reader fame) was a professor. Morris became a minister in the Congregational church, spending most of his life in the Midwest, but eventually ending up in Washington, D.C. Unlike his father Thomas Morris, or his brothers Isaac and Jonathan, he was never elected to Congress and so evaded the necessary “notability” to end up in Wikipedia. (He is the only one of our four quotation-shapers to do so.) In view of the scarcity of information about him, let me give the entire entry on him from The Twentieth Century Dictionary of Notable Americans, volume 7, no page number:
MORRIS, Benjamin Franklin, clergyman and author, was born in Bethel, Ohio, Aug. 18, 1810; son of the Hon. Thomas and Rachel (Davis) Morris. He was graduated at Miami university, A.B., 1832, A.M. 1836. He was a Congregational minister in Iowa and Illinois, 1833-40; pastor of Presbyterian churches in Indiana, 1840-59, and of a Congregational church in Lebanon, Ohio, 1859-61. He removed to Washington, D.C., in 1861, where he engaged in literary work. He is the author of: The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (1864); The Nation's Tribute to Abraham Lincoln (1865); and Life of Thomas Morris (1856). He died in Springfield, Ohio, June 28, 1867.
He was married to Eliza Chittenden in 1833 and they had seven children together, four boys and three girls. At least two of his children died before he did.
Now as I said B. F. Morris was a minister, and if he’d stuck to his profession there’d be no need to drag him out of his well-deserved obscurity. But he didn’t. In addition to his ministerial duties, B. F. Morris engaged in a rather odd hobby—reading through historical and biographical tomes and manuscripts to cherry-pick nice things famous people had said about Christianity and the Bible. (Evangelist David Barton would pursue the same hobby a century and a half later, and he would make it pay.)
Now you have to remember that for Morris this wasn’t simply a matter of going online, finding your source, selecting your passage, copying it, and pasting it into your notes or whatever. Nor could he do as I used to do, carry his source to a convenient photocopier and run off a few pages. Indeed, even propping the volume up by his typewriter and quickly copying his selected passage was out. No, Morris had to copy out his material by hand, relying (most likely) on sunlight for illumination, or maybe candles or lamps if the sun had gone down.
Further, the multi-volume sets and rare pamphlets he wanted were apparently not within his reach. He had to frequent the libraries of wealthy collectors, with all the inconveniences that entailed. In Indiana he used Samuel Parker’s “large political and historical library”; in Ohio he availed himself of Thomas Corwin’s collection. In the nation’s capital he made use of the Library of Congress, the “large and invaluable collection of books and periodicals illustrative of the early history of our country” belonging to Peter Force (and later acquired by the Library of Congress), and Washington’s manuscripts in the State Department. He scanned through the commentaries of Story, Bayard, and Rawle on the Constitution, the works of Webster and Burke and Beecher, the histories of Bancroft and Hall and Grahame, Jared Sparks’ edition of Washington’s works, volumes on preachers and politics, orations, official records, charters, constitutions, collecting bits and pieces, laboriously copying them out by hand—perhaps hastily, perhaps under other less-than-ideal conditions.
I say this because his quotations are often inaccurate. Sentences from separate documents are run together as one, words are substituted for other words, material is silently dropped, quoted material is misattributed or left unattributed altogether. It was Morris who first misattributed “true religion affords to government its surest support” to Washington for example, and it was he who borrowed John Wingate Thornton’s misquotation / paraphrase to make John Quincy Adams write “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.” And he passed on the fraudulent version of Patrick Henry’s famous bequest of Christianity in his will: “I have now disposed of all my worldly property to my family: there is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian religion. If they had this, and I had not given them one shilling, they would be rich; and if they had it not, and I had given them all the world, they would be poor.” He mistakenly supposed (like William Wisner and Jared Sparks before him) that Benjamin Franklin wrote his infamous “Don’t unchain the tiger” letter to Thomas Paine (a mistake later echoed by David Barton). (130) A possible explanation, at least, is that hastily-taken notes were not always clear when it came time for him to turn them into his magnum opus, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, published in 1864.
The purpose of this untidy compilation, if purpose doesn’t seem too grandiose a term for it, is to show that American institutions are not incompatible with Christian principles—indeed, that Christianity holds a special place in American government and law. The closest Morris comes to articulating a thesis is the following passage, towards the beginning of his tome:
The institutions of the North American republic had their birth and baptism from the free inspirations and genius of the Christian religion. This fact has given to the state its political power and moral glory, and shed new light on the benign nature and adaptation of the Christian system to secure the highest political prosperity to a nation.
As the Civil War was raging as he wrote the book (and in fact the last chapter is devoted to “The Christian Element in the Civil War of the United States”) it is possible that he was reacting to the common belief that the war was God’s judgment on a sinful nation. His response was to cast the war as a holy war, portraying the actions of the Confederacy as “an attack on the Christian religion and the institutions of Christian civilization which had grown out of it and were cherished and sustained by it.” While acknowledging “national vices and degeneracy” Morris pronounced that “All devout and thoughtful minds felt that God, while he chastened and humbled the nation on account of its sins, would again interpose for the preservation and perpetuity of the nation.” It was the United States, not the Confederacy, that was on God’s side, and the Christian element would “reinvigorate and recover the republic, its institutions and functions of civil government, and its political and social character, from the decay and degeneracy of national virtue, and to replenish the life of the nation with increased moral vigor and purity.” (pp. 669-70)
In any case, whatever his actual point was, there is page after page of this wearisome stuff. Every time an American commander attributes his success to the aid of the deity, Morris has to dutifully note it. Every time an American statesman closes an address by asking for a divine blessing Morris feels obliged to quote it. Even the use of the familiar “in the Year of our Lord” to date the US Constitution calls for comment.
Nothing is too trivial, nothing is too pathetic for him hide in a decent obscurity. When President Zachary Taylor proclaimed 3 August 1849 a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer in response to a recurrence of the second cholera pandemic in the United States—some five or so years before the true cause of cholera would be discovered—Morris has to record the fact in all its sad fatuity. When John Quincy Adams inflicted a series of wearisome letters about the Bible and its worth on his young son while away in St. Petersburg serving President Madison as ambassador to Russia, Morris feels obliged to quote page after page of this drivel, often incorrectly and oddly jumbled.
His habit of not citing sources makes it difficult for us to evaluate his work properly. For example, when he tells us that Martin Van Buren “died inspired with the immortal hopes of the gospel, saying ‘the atonement of Christ was the only remedy and rest of the soul’ we are stuck with his bare assertion; nobody else seems to know of it. And from what repository did he get the reverend John S. C. Abbott’s account of Andrew Jackson’s death, with his immortal words “That book, sir, is the rock on which our republic rests. It is the bulwark of our free institutions”? We can only guess.
This seemingly endless parade of foolishness and futility extends for hundreds of pages of warped pedantry (the word erudition overvalues his accomplishment) that would make the angels weep. When you consider the labor involved in this sad endeavor, the endless hours spent in libraries miscopying throwaway boilerplate and casual acts of public piety, the further hours spent arranging this claptrap for publication—well, words fail me. I can only hope that B. F. Morris enjoyed the endless hours he spent on this inane project; if writing it was as tedious for him as reading it is for the rest of us it was truly a sad waste of a life.
But—and maybe I’m just kidding myself in thinking that the reverend Morris and I are in some sense kindred spirits—there’s at least a chance that each little discovery of some forgotten gem of piety gave him a kick, a sense of satisfaction combined with the feeling of some vast never-to-be-finished jigsaw puzzle coming together. The work was its own reward. I hope so, anyway.
While the pious abolitionist Morris and the pro-slavery rationalist Paulding seem to be at opposite poles of the human spectrum in some respects, they do have this in common: both attribute the saying It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being to George Washington. But the context they give it is as different as possible. Where for Paulding it was part of an argument for the existence of God, for Morris it was part of the boilerplate conclusion of Washington’s sixth annual address to Congress of 19 November 1794 (Morris’s additions are in bold; his omissions are struck out; the punctuation is his throughout):
“It is impossible,” said he, “to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being. Let us, therefore, unite
therefore in imploring the Supreme Ruler of nations to spread his
holy protection over these United States; to stop turn the machinations of the wicked; to the confirm ing
of our Constitution; to enable us, at all times, to suppress root out internal sedition and put invasion to
flight; to perpetuate to our country that prosperity which his goodness has
already conferred, and to verify the anticipations of this government's being a safeguard to human rights.”
Morris didn’t get this version from Jared Sparks’ edition of Washington’s writings, nor from the official publication of the address to Congress, nor from the manuscript copy in the letter book preserved in the Washington papers. Nor do the differences seem plausible; the insertion of the Paulding fragment is an irrelevancy and interrupts the sense, and the alterations to the “machinations of the wicked” passage seem to be a plain misunderstanding of the text. On the other hand the changes don’t seem to be tendentious. If anything they seem simply, well, pointless. And this leads me back to the hypothesis—for want of any better idea—of Morris’s misreading of his own notes.
If Morris didn’t find the Paulding fragment already embedded in the sixth annual address to Congress—and he manifestly didn’t—then where did he find it? How did he come to attach it to a passage from Washington’s sixth annual address to Congress? Obviously he could have found it in Paulding’s biography of Washington—but I’m inclined to doubt it. Paulding’s biography probably would not have appealed to him, being written by a pro-slavery advocate and for children. I didn’t find any obvious evidence (outside of this passage) for Morris’s use of Paulding—which doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Morris doesn’t mention Paulding in his list of sources, but that also doesn’t mean he didn’t use his work—Morris does not pretend to give a complete list, and he clearly did use many sources he did not specifically acknowledge.
And in fact none of the sources he listed contains our passage. But—and this may not mean much, but I like it—the author of one of his sources did in fact use our passage in a work not cited by Morris. John Frederick Schroeder released his Maxims of Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious in 1855 and included the Paulding fragment on p. 341 under “Religious Maxims”. Several pages later (on p. 348) in the same section he included the conclusion to Washington’s sixth annual address to Congress. (He gave no citation for either.) One possibility at least is that Morris copied one piece from p. 341 into his notes, and then the other from p. 348, and when looking at them later mistakenly thought that they belonged together. There are objections to this hypothesis—but the most likely alternative is to suppose that Morris deliberately falsified the speech for unknown reasons.
Obviously it’s possible that Morris took the speech already falsified from some unknown source, but that just pushes the problem back a stage. How did this hypothetical text-manipulator come to make these changes, and what was his motive? It’s far more likely that Morris himself is the culprit here, whether by incompetence or malice. It’s not like he’s the model of scrupulous care elsewhere. On pp. 33-34, for example, he quotes Washington as writing
I am sure that 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 the Revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them. He must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.
But these are actually fragments from two different letters joined together—the first written to John Armstrong on 11 March 1782, and the second to Brigadier-General Nelson on 20 August 1778. Whatever the cause of these errors—carelessness or dishonesty—Morris appears to be the one responsible for them.
The effect of this incongruous juxtaposition is to change the meaning of the sentence about God’s governance from being a proposition in the argument for his existence to being an axiom from which an action follows: because God governs the universe, therefore we should implore him so that certain desirable results follow. When Morris joined these two bits together he created a false impression, deliberately or not—specifically that the quotation under discussion concerned politics rather than cosmology.
The alleged quotation appears again on p. 510, this time with a different continuation. “‘It is impossible,’ he said, ‘to govern the universe without God,’ and, ‘a fortiori, impossible to govern a nation without him.’” In this version “God” has replaced “the aid of a Supreme Being” and there is also a political addition—a different one. It’s hard to believe that Morris intended the additional words to be attributed to Washington. Since Washington is speaking ex cathedra, as it were, he has no need to interpret his previous words via a logical argument; he might just as well have said on his own It is impossible to govern a nation without God. I can’t help wondering if Morris intended to put the final words in Washington’s mouth, or whether this wasn’t a quotation fail, a printer’s error perhaps, and these words were his own comment on the supposed Washington quotation. In any case the words are Morris’s, whether he intended us to take them as Washington’s or not.
It is the first part of this sentence, the words It is impossible to govern the universe without God, however, that is the seed for future developments. B. F. Morris thus started the process of chipping away at the quotation by separating it from its context, giving it a political spin, and replacing the phrase “the aid of a Supreme Being” with the simple word “God”. (He also took the step of replacing “universe” with another word, “nation”, though this change, for some reason, didn’t take.) And within a few years a contemporary, a politician, would get to work on it in his own way. This will be the subject of the next installment: Part 3: The Politician.