29 April 2015

Without God and the Bible: Concluding Remarks

’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.

15 April 2015

Without God and the Bible Part Four: The Lawyer

s you may recall, I’ve been reviewing the steps in the textual transmission of a bizarre fake George Washington quotation. It has led us from a step in an argument attempting to demonstrate the existence of a supreme being assigned to Washington by a playwright (It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being) to its simplification while making it apply to human governance by a preacher (It is impossible to govern the universe without God), and to a further tweak putting it firmly in the realm of terrestrial affairs by a politician (It is impossible to govern the world without God). Our next (and final) stop in this little road show leads us to the lawyer—Howard Hyde Russell.
Born in 1855, the son of a Protestant Episcopal clergyman, Howard Hyde Russell grew up to become in turn a clerk, a cattle-herder, a newspaper editor, and a lawyer, before finally giving in and following in his father’s footsteps. Although his law-practice is said to have been lucrative, he gave it up in 1883 to study theology, and in 1885 he became a Congregational minister. In taking this course he may have been influenced by his wife Lillian (they married in 1880) who was obsessed with religion.
Merely being an ordinary minister wasn’t enough for him; in 1888 he turned to the “temperance” movement as an outlet for his energies. In 1893 he helped establish the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, of which he was named the first state superintendent. Two years later he took part in founding the American Anti-Saloon League and was named the first national superintendent. He lived long enough to see both the birth and death of Prohibition in the United States, eventually dying in 1946 at the age of ninety.
For our purposes the main thing he accomplished in his life was writing one book: A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible, a work of recycled Christian apologetics that wrapped up the arguments (along with the outmoded scholarship) of the likes of Paley and McIlvaine into a colorful package to put under the tree of a new generation. The volume came out in 1893, the same year that saw him turn his interests to the anti-alcohol movement.
This slick repackaging of tired apologetics is couched in the conceit of a trial:
We will place the gospel of Christ on trial and by aid of the clearest reason we possess, and under the careful scrutiny of legal rules and precedents, we will test and weigh for ourselves the evidences which prove Christianity to be the God-given religion for mankind. [p. 16]
So the case of Christianity vs. Infidelity is presented, with the readers as the jury. Russell at the outset however restricts his jury to believers. “Christ discriminated—as should we—between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is ‘Can't believe’—unbelief is ‘Won’t believe.’ Doubt is honest, unbelief is obstinate. Doubt looks for light, unbelief is content with darkness.” In other words, believers who have doubts are welcome; unbelievers are not. Human reason is not welcome either: “pride in the powers of human reason, is often the source of prejudice against the Christian Religion [sic].”
Russell tells the following anecdote:
They have a court tradition in an Iowa County, how upon the trial of an important case, after the counsel for the prosecution had ended his argument and before the defendant's counsel began to speak, one of the jurors ran out of the Court-room into the jury-room. When the Court asked an explanation of his conduct he said, “I have got my mind made up now, and I don’t want to have it disturbed.” There is many an error of law and fact, in court and out of court, because the opinion had been formed before the facts had been heard.
In view of Russell’s extremely one-sided presentation of what he likes to think of as evidence this is, shall we say, humorous. There is no question of anything in his book disturbing the minds of his reader-jurors. Here, for example, is his treatment of Thomas Huxley, called on page 44 as a witness for Infidelity: “What then do we know about the originator or originators of the gospel? absolutely nothing. * * * * I repeat without the slightest fear of refutation that the four gospels, as they have come to us are the work of unknown writers.” “In this matter as in many others, infidelity merely enters its denial,” Russell claims. “But denial is not disproof. The objection of infidelity must according to law be overruled.”
Okay, not so fast. This may fly in Russell’s kangaroo court, but we’re in a higher court now, the Court of History, and we’d like to hear what Huxley had to say for ourselves. And the result turns out badly for Russell—because Huxley didn’t actually write what Russell claims. To say that Russell misrepresents Huxley would be an understatement. Russell flatly lies about what Huxley is saying. He did so under necessity—if he had allowed Huxley to testify freely it would have been fatal to his case.
As is often the case, context means everything. Now the context of Huxley’s remarks was an ongoing (let us say) discussion between him and Henry Wace, author of the still-useful Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature, concerning the true meaning of the word agnosticism. Like certain present-day atheists (though for different reasons) Wace was determined to bulldoze the distinction between disbelief and unbelief, insisting that agnosticism was merely a weak synonym for infidelity. Huxley, who after all had coined the word, wrote to set him straight. (And honestly the article is not one of Wace’s shining moments.) This back-and-forth extended over several articles and was joined by others, the whole thing being eventually archived for posterity (that’s us) in a volume entitled Christianity and Agnosticism: A Controversy (New York, 1889).
In discussing the plausibility of the story of the Gadarene swine Huxley observed that the episode belongs to the “groundwork” of the first three gospels, rather than the “superstructure.” This refers to the contemporary status of the synoptic problem—the issue of the relationships among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is self-evident that the three share a common textual ancestor; comparison allows extraction of the parts where the three run together. This triple tradition, or “groundwork” as Huxley calls it, may be assumed to be a source. (The consensus of opinion today is that the common source and canonical Mark are in fact identical; in other words that Mark is Matthew’s and Luke’s source. But B. H. Streeter et al had yet to come along, and this is where matters lay then.) It is in this context that Huxley observes:
What then, do we know about the originator, or originators, of this groundwork—of that threefold edition which all three witnesses (in Paley's phrase) agree upon—that we should allow their mere statements to outweigh the counter-arguments of humanity, of common sense, of exact science, and to imperil the respect which all would be glad to be able to render their Master? ¶ Absolutely nothing. There is no proof, nothing more than a fair presumption, that any one of the Gospels existed, in the state in which we find it in the authorized version of the Bible, before the second century, or, in other words, sixty or seventy years after the events recorded. And, between that time and the date of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Gospels, there is no telling what additions and alterations and interpolations may have been made.
Huxley’s point here was that we know alterations were made to the gospels during the time when manuscript evidence is available—the additions of an ending to Mark and of the story of the woman taken in adultery to John are the most noteworthy (though far from the only) examples—and that we have no way of knowing what alterations may have been made earlier. He argued this point at the necessary length, presenting the necessary evidence—which means that Russell was twice wrong here—Huxley wasn’t saying what Russell claimed, nor did he merely enter a denial sans evidence. “Judge” Howard Hyde Russell is, to use a technical term, full of shit.
And further, Russell deliberately falsified the quotation, substituting the words “the gospel” for Huxley’s “this groundwork.” He further tacked on a footnote from the same page that actually was (at least indirectly) about the authorship of the gospels, but was a side-note for Huxley. To back up a little Huxley had made an observation in an earlier piece (“Science and the Bishops,” The Nineteenth Century, November 1887, p. 632) about alleged miracles like withering a fig tree or cursing pigs with demonic possession “Whether such events are possible or impossible, no man can say; but scientific ethics can and does declare that the profession of belief in them, on the evidence of documents of unknown date and of unknown authorship, is immoral.” An anonymous author in The Quarterly Review (“Robert Elsmere and Christianity,” October 1888, pp. 288-290) took issue with Huxley, claiming that “the case against the authenticity of the New Testament books has in the main completely broken down.” He says that even Ernest Renan (who had written a skeptical life of Jesus decades before this) had admitted as much, though in fact Renan explained the similarities of the synoptic gospels in part by assuming that subsequent scribes had attempted to make them more complete by borrowing from each other. Huxley replied to this in a footnote repeating that the gospels “as they have come to us” are the work of unknown writers—that is, that whoever may have written the hypothetical original works, our present documents had been altered in unknown and unknowable ways.
Russell’s reply is lame but predictable. It’s the old appeal to tradition bit. Christians have always believed in the “authenticity” of the gospels in an unbroken tradition going back practically to the beginning, therefore they are “authentic.” QED. Russell traces the tradition back all the way to Hermas and Barnabas, companions of the apostles. Too bad he apparently hadn’t bothered to consult Joseph Lightfoot’s relatively recent edition of the Apostolic Fathers. He would have learned that nobody still suffered from the illusion that the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas were actually written by the Hermas mentioned in Romans or the Barnabas who figures in Acts.
So what have we learned from this side-excursion? Well, we’ve picked up at least two valuable things about Howard Hyde Russell. His scholarship was wretched and he was entirely capable of altering a quotation to serve his ends. With these things in mind we are now ready to examine his (alleged) George Washington quotation.
Washington is dragooned into being a witness for the plaintiff concerning the “authenticity of the testimony” on p. 40, along with a number of other U. S. presidents and an incongruous Queen Victoria. Thus Andrew Jackson is made to testify “That book, sir, is the rock on which our republic rests,” as he had in the account in Morris’s book. And Martin Van Buren likewise is made to say as he had in Wilson’s pamphlet “The atonement of Christ is the only remedy and rest for the soul.” Russell, unlike Wilson, obviously did not rely on a single source for the bulk of his quotations.
So what about the Washington quotation? What he received was the saying as Henry Wilson had left it: “It is impossible to govern the world without God.” But in that form it didn’t really serve its purpose. This is unsurprising; it originally meant that a divine force was needed to keep the world running, not that God had to be a copilot at the world’s helm. That was easily fixed; the infinitive “to govern” could be neatly split with an adroit “rightly” and all was well with the world. A greater difficulty was the fact that Russell’s book was about the Bible, and this saying made no mention of it. The addition of three small words—“and the Bible”—took care of that problem, and voila! the saying as we know it at last achieved its canonical form.
Now of course it’s always possible that Russell was not the person responsible for this bit of tinkering, that he found it ready-made in some second-hand repository, but there is no necessity for assuming that—at least, on the available evidence. Occam’s razor and all that. Russell had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to commit this bit of forgery, and as we saw from his alteration of the Huxley quotation, his ethics did not bar him from falsifying evidence if it served his ends.
So this reasonably brings to an end the story of this fake quotation. A playwright first gave it to us in the form It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a supreme being—this as part of an argument for the existence of God; a preacher simplified it to It is impossible to govern the universe without God and applied it to temporal affairs; a politician cemented that interpretation by changing the word universe to world; and a lawyer gave it a final twist by adding rightly and and the Bible, to create the ultimate version:
It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.
I’ll have a few final observations tomorrow.

Sources and further information:
James Terry White (ed.), “Russell, Howard Hyde,” The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (J.T. White, 1906), vol. 13, p. 330
John William Leonard et al (eds.), “Howard Hyde Russell,” Who's who in New York City and State, Issue 3 (L.R. Hamersly Company, 1907), p. 1136
“Howard Hyde Russell,” Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State (Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1937), vol. 4, pp. 391-393
Howard Hyde Russell,” Anti-Saloon League Museum website, Westerville Library
Howard Hyde Russell, A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible (Fleming H. Revell, 1893)
Edwin A. Abbott, “Gospels,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, ninth edition, vol. 10, pp. 789-854 [useful for the state of the synoptic problem at the end of the nineteenth century]
Henry Wace, Thomas Henry Huxley et al., Christianity and Agnosticism: A Controversy (D. Appleton, 1889)

14 April 2015

Without God and the Bible Part 3: The Politician

ynopsis: In our previous episodes we’ve seen how a playwright cooked up a proposition (It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being) as part of an argument for the existence of God and assigned it to Washington in a book intended for the instruction of children. This proposition was then chiseled from its context and simplified by a preacher (It is impossible to govern the universe without God) more interested in human government than in cosmological questions. There are two more men who will hack away at this bit of pyrite—a politician and a lawyer. Today’s installment will look at the (small) contribution of the politician—Henry Wilson.
Now I don’t want to make assumptions about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of my readers, but I’m betting you have no idea who Henry Wilson was. Even assuming that you live in the United States and were afflicted by what passes for American history in most schools, he wasn’t exactly a household name. And yet during the Grant administration he was a heartbeat away (as they say) from the presidency. Even his being one of the handful of vice-presidents (like George Clinton and James Sherman) who died in office doesn’t exactly make him stand out.
And yet … and yet … this guy was an important figure in his time. Practically an embodiment of the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches-by-his-own-bootstraps fantasy that left behind a trail of broken people in the wreckage of their broken dreams, Henry Wilson—originally named Jeremiah Jones Colbath—was born into the sort of bleak poverty that dehumanizes the best of us. He educated himself by omnivorous reading while indentured to a neighboring farmer who could never spare him for school attendance, rose to be a major figure in the Senate, and might well have made it to the presidency had things gone a bit differently.
A man of his time—and in some ways a man out of his time. At a time when women were somewhere between property and second-class citizens he went so far as to introduce a bill that would allow them to vote. Even though not (apparently) convinced that the descendants of Africans brought to America as enslaved laborers were intrinsically on a par with the descendants of Europeans he nonetheless believed that all should be treated equally under the law. He helped repeal laws that prohibited interracial marriage and kept black kids from attending public schools. Much of his political career was devoted to preventing the expansion of slavery at all costs.
Wilson looked at slavery as America’s original sin whose taint brought on the cataclysm that was the Civil War. In his three-volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (yes, Wilson—despite his lack of formal education—was an historian), he wrote
In the lights of the present, it is now more clearly seen that the dark spirit of slavery was the inspiration of these crimes against the peace, the unity, and the life of the nation, and that these sacrifices of property, of health, and of life were the inflictions of the Slave Power in its maddened efforts to make perpetual its hateful dominion. These bitter fruits of the seeds sown in colonial times afford another signal illustration of the truth of the inspired declaration that “righteousness exalteth a nation, and sin is a reproach to any people.” [I, v]
He wrote with a kind of controlled fury about an institution he obviously loathed. “God’s Holy Word declares that man was doomed to eat his bread in the sweat of his face. History and tradition teach that the indolent, the crafty, and the strong, unmindful of human rights, have ever sought to evade this Divine decree by filching their bread from the constrained and unpaid toil of others.” Knowing abject poverty first-hand himself he had absolute contempt for “caste and privilege, those deadly foes of the rights and well-being of mankind, which can exist only by despoiling the many for the benefit of the few.” The American system of slavery “reduced man, created in the Divine image, to property. It converted a being endowed with conscience, reason, affections, sympathies, and hopes, into a chattel. It sunk a free moral agent, with rational attributes and immortal aspirations, to merchandise.” It was a “system antagonistic to the doctrines of reason and the monitions of conscience, and developed and gratified the most intense spirit of personal pride, a love of class distinctions, and the lust of dominion.” He contrasted the arrival of a Dutch ship in James River in August 1619 “with its ill-starred burden of wretchedness and woe” with that of the Mayflower “with its freight of learning and Christian civilization”. Here were “the seeds of a system destined, after a struggle of two hundred and forty years for development, expansion, and dominion, to light the fires of civil war, and perish in the flames its own hand had kindled.”
He traced the rise and fall of the Slave Power (as he termed it) through two volumes and died while working on the third. The first volume ended with the admission of Texas as a slave state, and the second with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The third volume, issued posthumously, covered the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.
The annihilation of slavery became the reason for his political existence.
I saw slavery beneath the shadow of the flag that waved over the Capitol. I saw the slave-pen, and men, women, and children herded for the markets of the far South; and at the table at which sat Senator Morris of Ohio, then the only avowed champion of freedom in the Senate of the United States, I expressed my abhorrence of slavery and the slave-traffic in the capital of this democratic and Christian republic. I was promptly told that ‘Senator Morris might be protected in speaking against slavery in the Senate; but that I would not be protected in uttering such sentiments.’ I left the capital of my country with the unalterable resolution to give all that I had, and all that I hoped to have, of power, to the cause of emancipation in America; and I have tried to make that resolution a living faith from that day to this [applause].
The “Senator Morris” mentioned here was, by the way, not only an implacable opponent of slavery, but also the father of the B. F. Morris who was the subject of the previous piece in this series.
The two men, B. F. Morris (1810-1867) and Henry Wilson (1812-1875), were contemporaries, both involved in the anti-slavery movement, and for all I know may well have known one another. (I have no evidence of that, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.) They are connected here through an action taken by Wilson on 23 December 1866. On that date he lectured the Natick YMCA on the subject of “The Testimonies of American Statesmen and Jurists to the Truths of Christianity.” We live in a “Christian republic” he told them, whose founders “have borne testimonies to the vital truths of Christianity.” At a time when “the providence of God, the religion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the inspiration of Holy Writ, [are being] doubted, questioned, denied” it is necessary to recall what these “men of varied and large experience, accustomed to the classification and comparison of facts, the sifting and weighing of evidences” have said. And then he quoted them. At length. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the lot. One after another. At the end he urged his audience to “remember, ever and always, that your country was founded, not by ‘the most superficial, the lightest, the most unreflective of all the European races,’ but by the stern old Puritans, who made the deck of ‘The Mayflower’ an altar of the living God, and whose first act, on touching the soil of the New World, was to offer on bended knees thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” It must have been a hideously tedious evening. The American Tract Society, however, liked the speech well enough to have it printed up as a tract for general distribution.
You’re probably way ahead of me on how this speech connects Wilson and Morris, but I’m going to spell it out anyway: Wilson lifted most of his material from Morris’s book, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, published a mere two years before his speech.
If you’re willing to take my word for it, feel free to skip the next several paragraphs; otherwise follow along for some evidence of the connection. Wilson’s use of Morris betrays itself again and again. Morris is sloppy; he changes words in his sources, and he runs material together from different documents as though they were a single seamless quotation. Wilson is even sloppier; he repeatedly takes quotations that are adjacent in Morris and runs them together sans ellipsis or any other indication (however illegitimate) that his source material is stitched together from different originals. Here, for example, is what Morris wrote on pp. 604-5 about Martin Van Buren (bolded material being paralleled in Wilson):
When entering upon the responsibilities of his office, [he] said,—
      I only look to the gracious protection of that Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the dispensations of his providence to bless our beloved country with honors and length of days; may her ways be ways of pleasantness, and all her paths peace.”
      Similar sentiments were officially announced in all his messages. Mr. Van Buren publicly testified to the value of the Christian religion by joining the Dutch Reformed Church in the autumn of 1860. He died inspired with the immortal hopes of the gospel, saying “the atonement of Christ was the only remedy and rest of the soul.”
And here is what Wilson has for Van Buren:
I only look to the gracious protection of that Divine Being, whose strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently pray to look down upon us all. The atonement of Christ is the only remedy and rest for the soul.
Wilson has here plucked out adjacent sayings quoted by Morris and run them together as a single quotation. (This is even more significant when you remember that Morris appears to be the first writer to report Van Buren’s reference to “the atonement of Christ.”) Again, here are two adjacent quotations given by Morris as by James Monroe:
      “With a firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God, I shall forthwith commence the duties of the high trust to which you have called me.”
      Deeply impressed with the blessings which we enjoy, and of which we have such manifold proofs, my mind is irresistibly drawn to that Almighty Being, the great source from whence they proceed, and to whom our most grateful acknowledgments are due.
And again Henry Wilson runs them together as one in his version:
James Monroe assumed the duties of fourth president of the United States with the expression of a “firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God. Deeply impressed with the blessings which we enjoy, and of which we have such manifold proofs, my mind is irresistably drawn to that Almighty Being, the great source from whence they proceed, and to whom our most grateful acknowledgments are due.”
Again, on John Adams. Morris (pp. 117-8):
The Christian religion,” Adams said, “as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the character of the eternal, self-existent, independent, benevolent, all-powerful, and all-merciful Creator, Preserver and Father of the universe, the first good, the first perfect, and the first fair. It will last as long as the world. Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation, could have discovered or invented it.” “Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free governments, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the combinations of human society. Science, liberty, and religion are the choicest blessings of humanity: without their joint influence no society can be great, flourishing, or happy.”
And Wilson:
The Christian religion, as I understand it, is the brightness of the glory and the express portrait of the eternal self-existing, independent, all powerful and all merciful Creator. Preserver and Father of the Universe; it will last as long as the world. Neither savage nor civilized man, without a revelation could have discovered or invented it. Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free governments, but of social felicity under all governments and in all the constructions of human society.
The likelihood of such connections happening by chance is minimal. Henry Wilson’s criminal ineptitude in his treatment of quotations is amazing, but is a matter of fact. As an historian Wilson should have known better; his treatment of quotations here is absolutely inexcusable. I can only suppose that as this was merely a throw-away speech for a YMCA event that Wilson felt lower standards applied. (If so, shame on him.) Or maybe he merely delivered a speech written by some minor functionary.
In any case, here is his treatment of Washington:
It is impossible to govern the world without God. 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 implore his protection and favor. 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 the revolution; or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of Him, 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.
To create this concoction Wilson indulged in an extremely dubious procedure. In Morris (p. 510) he found Washington quoted as saying “It is impossible to govern the universe without God.” What Wilson decided to do (and as a historian he really should have known better) was to create a frankenquote out of parts of other sayings. Starting with this piece he changed the world “universe” to “world”, added to it a fragment hacked from Washington’s first Thanksgiving Day Proclamation (Morris, p. 275), and then took an earlier frankenquote from Morris (pp. 32-33) that had joined fragments from two different letters, one to John Armstrong on 11 March 1782, and the other to Brigadier-General Nelson on 20 August 1778. Wilson’s dependence on Morris is manifest—not that that excuses him for this fakery.
As far as his effect on this quotation is concerned, though, it all boils down to one thing. He took Morris’s It is impossible to govern the universe without God and turned it into It is impossible to govern the world without God. A change of one word. The manifold glories of the universe reduced to a single chunk or rock hurtling through space. It is an odd change in one respect, and I have no explanation for it. Why world? You’d think nation would be a better choice. Did he avoid nation because he was about to use the phrase “duty of all nations” in the bleeding member from the butchered Thanksgiving Proclamation? Even so, why not country or people? I mean, he was screwing around with it anyway. It’s not like he had any integrity to maintain here.
Well, some mysteries are beyond the reach of historical investigation, and this may well be one of them. Nearly three decades will pass before the last of our four men gets his grubby hands on it. And that, friends, will be the subject of our next installment, Part 4: The Lawyer.

Elias Nason and Thomas Russell, The Life and Public Services of Hon. Henry Wilson (B. B. Russell, 1872)
“Wilson, Henry,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography: Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic, and of the Men and Women who are Doing the Work and Moulding the Thought of the Present Time (J. T. White Company, 1895), Volume 4, pp. 13-14
William M. Thayer, Turning Points in Successful Careers (T. Y. Crowell, 1895), pp. 247-256
Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), pp. 233-239
Thomas G. Oey. Review of Myers, John L., Henry Wilson and the Coming of the Civil War. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2007

12 April 2015

Scheduled Programming Will Resume As Soon As Possible

’m still alive. I paid a visit to the emergency room and got tested, but despite the pain and difficulty breathing there’s nothing seriously wrong with me. My heart is apparently in good shape and the symptoms are rapidly disappearing. I just wish I knew what they were symptoms of

09 April 2015

Without God and the Bible Part 2: The Preacher

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 confirming 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.

Technical Difficulties … Please Stand By

’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m having chest pains and difficulty breathing. I’m sorry I didn’t get the next installment of “Without God and the Bible” posted yet, but as soon as I’m up to it I’ll have it up. Sorry about that.

08 April 2015

Stan Freberg (1926-2015)

ith Stan Freberg it’s always hard to know where fantasy ends and reality begins. He liked to tell a good story, and his autobiography—which he rehearsed in interview after interview—is made up of good stories. For this piece, however, the good stories will have to take a back seat. This one’s going to be, you know, just the facts, ma’am.
Born 7 August 1926, the son of a Baptist minister, Stan Freberg (like Walt Kelly) never shed his Christian upbringing despite being on the liberal end of the sociopolitical spectrum. Occasionally it got the better of him (“Yulenet” comes to mind here), but most of the time it just helped to ground him, to give him a place to defend in the storm of moral relativism that seemed always to be lurking at the edge of the fifties and sixties. After a stint of doing voices for cartoons and Cliffie Stone’s radio show Freberg had a fluke hit on Capitol with “John and Marsha”, which was actually banned on some radio stations for being too suggestive. The year was 1951. He followed that up with a send-up of Pete Seeger’s then group, the Weavers, giving “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” the “On Top of Old Smoky” treatment. (As a child I particularly liked the line where Freberg apologizes to the singers—“I’m sorry. I loused it up. Let’s start the thing over” only to have them sing it back to him in perfect harmony with the melody.) The release of “Maggie” in February 1952 seems to have fallen relatively flat, as far as I can tell, but the release of “Try” the next month, co-written with Ruby Raksin (the brother of the composer of “Laura”) did not pass unnoticed. A near-perfect send-up of Johnnie Ray, it enraged the owners of the original song (“Cry”) who responded by suing both Freberg and Capitol Records. That year also saw the forgettable “Abe Snake for President” and the technically clever “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” issued.
Spike Jones must have seen the writing on the wall at this point; he had a few more singles left in him but Freberg’s rising sun was burning out the repertoire of the King of Corn. 1953 brought one of Freberg’s most memorable pieces—“St. George and the Dragonet”—which applied Jack Webb’s understated style to the medieval legend of St. George and the Dragon. Co-written with Daws Butler and also featuring June Foray as a maiden who’d almost been devoured (“Believe me, I got it straight from the dragon’s mouth”), the piece instantly became a pop classic. “That’s Right, Arthur,” scheduled to be released late that same year, might have done as well—but Capitol’s lawyers, perhaps afraid of another lawsuit like the one over “Try”, ran the savage Arthur Godfrey takeoff past that entertainer’s lawyers, and they refused to okay it.
For the next several years it seemed that Freberg could do no wrong as he released takeoff after takeoff on the likes of Ferlin Husky (“A Dear John and Marsha Letter”), the Chords (“Sh-Boom”), Eartha Kitt (“C’est Si Bon”), the Platters (“The Great Pretender”), Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel”)—well, you get the idea. And then in 1957 CBS radio gave him the 7:30 Sunday slot, following Jack Benny repeats. And the Stan Freberg Show was born.
The actual show was not nearly as revolutionary as the best-of compilation double album made it appear. The album dropped the more conventional sketches, the songs by Peggy Taylor, and most of the reprises. But even so it was too close to the edge for CBS. It started with arguments over the perhaps too-long “Incident at Los Voraces,” which simultaneously satirized the Las Vegas trashing of culture and morals and the Cold War arms race. Freberg probably didn’t make things any easier by his obvious disdain for conventional advertising (ruthlessly mocked on more than one episode). But he managed to produce some great comedy bits—the interview with the abominable snowman, the coverage of a rocket launch, the tuned sheep, the Lawrence Welk parody, the Sam Spade send-up, and a surreal bit where a man tries to use cash to buy a tool for his home workshop instead of credit, with unfortunate results. And of course, “Elderly Man River.” And that noxious muckraker with the inside scoop on historical events. (That one Freberg would recycle a few years later into the far superior Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, possibly his masterpiece.)
Struggles over the CBS radio show, the release of his Yuletide satire “Green Chri$tma$,” and a prolonged struggle with a producer over a stage version of the Freberg USA album seem to have robbed him of his enthusiasm for the record business. Commercials were perhaps more lucrative; at any rate he made a success of them. I personally kept hoping to hear him back in the saddle again—Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison trying to record “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Celebration of the Lizard” against Freberg’s clueless A&R man, for instance, or Tommy James performing “Crimson and Clover” overwhelmed by effects gone wrong. But there was nothing. Oh, there were the commercials, and I collected them when I could, but it wasn’t exactly the same.
You might not know it, but Stan Freberg has been around, active and performing, in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond. I don’t feel that any of his later work, including the disappointing sequel to the original United States of America album, lives up to that of his glory days, but in that time and place he was incomparable. I received the news of his passing with inexpressible sorrow. His work was unique, and he will be missed.
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