[Originally posted 5 July 2011]
I see that for whatever reason myriads are storming the fort here and over at Fake History regarding something Patrick Henry allegedly said:
There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one—that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion. It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this great nation was founded, not by “religionists”, but by Christians—not on religion, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.
Regular readers (both of them) are probably sick of this by now, but as questions persist, I’ve thrown together a sort of FAQ on the subject.
Q – When did Patrick Henry say this?
A – He didn’t.
Q – How do you know?
A – Well, first and most important, it isn’t found anywhere in Henry’s known letters, or in the fragments of recovered and reconstructed speeches.
Q – Couldn’t he have said it anyway? Not everything somebody says gets written down, after all. Maybe it was passed down by word of mouth or something.
A – Or maybe he was misquoted. Or maybe it was said by somebody else altogether. People often make mistakes about what other people have said, or attribute something to the wrong person. That’s why giving your source is so important.
Q – I have a source that says he said it. It’s in a book/in a magazine/on a website. Doesn’t that count?
A – Not unless Patrick Henry himself wrote the material in that book, or magazine, or website. That’s why it’s so important to be able to say where he wrote it, or when he said it.
Q – Okay. My mother/my pastor/a book/somebody on the internet says he said it in a speech to the House of Burgesses in May 1765. That ought to be good enough, right?
A – How do we know he said it then and there? Where was it recorded?
Q – Well, they must have kept records, right?
A – Actually, no. Not of the exact speeches, anyway. Remember, there were no recorders, no cameras, no stenographers taking things down as people said it. Sometimes the text of a speech made it into print—more often not. In Patrick Henry’s case, only one speech from May 1765 is on record, and only a fragment of that. And that’s the famous (reconstructed) “if this be treason” exchange.
Q – And this wasn’t part?
A – No.
Q – But I’ve seen the date 1774 for it—also 1776. Couldn’t one of those be right?
A – Again you have the same problem. Where was it recorded? How do we know it was Patrick Henry who said it, and not some other person?
Q – Well, but people have been saying Henry said it for generations. When something’s been passed down by tradition, different rules apply, right?
A – There are two things wrong with that. Traditional evidence is evaluated in the same way as other evidence—and the pseudo-Henry quotation has not been passed down by tradition. It was first attributed to Henry in the 1980s.
Q – What do you mean about evaluating traditions like other evidence? How is that possible?
A – First, there is the matter of external attestation. How old is the tradition? How likely were the transmitters to know what they were claiming? Things like that. Second, there is internal evidence. Does the tradition jibe with things we know about the period from which it is supposed to have come? The pseudo-Henry quotation fails on both fronts.
Q – Well, how old is this tradition?
A – The oldest claimed source for these words as Henry’s is a book called God’s Providence in American History published in 1988 by Steve C. Dawson. It’s a long time between Dawson and Henry, and there’s no obvious chain of custody to get it there.
Q – What about the internal evidence?
A – The words don’t belong to Patrick Henry’s time. The phrase “false propaganda” for example was common from the early twentieth century on, but was unknown in Henry’s time. The author refers to “this great nation”—a nation that in Henry’s time had yet to come into existence. And “peoples of other faiths” would not be “afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here” until much later. There was no “freedom of worship” for most of the country at the time Henry is alleged to have said this.
Q – Still, if you can’t say where it did come from, I’m still entitled to quote it as Henry’s, right?
A – Not unless you have a source for it.
Q – I have lots of sources for it—websites, politicians, evangelists—don’t they count for anything?
A – You only need one source for it—the book Henry wrote, the speech he made, the letter he sent where those words appear. Otherwise you got nothing.
Q – Well, but you’ve got nothing to back your claim either.
A – Uh, actually I do. In point of fact the words were originally written in the April 1956 issue of The Virginian in a brief item about—not by—Patrick Henry. Not that that matters. The burden of proof is always on the person making the positive claim.
Q – So if you didn’t need to show where it came from, why did you?
A – It amused me at the time, and I had nothing better to do.