05 June 2009

Undone Homework: A New Sighting of Old Fake Quotations

While randomly lurking about the intertubes—I've been looking for online resources for Benjamin Rush, actually—I stumbled upon a prize-winning essay by Lauren Harr, a junior at Sullivan Central High School in Blountville, Tennessee. While the article covering this is, rather irritatingly, undated, the essay was for the 2008-2009 High School Writing Contest described as occurring "[e]arlier this spring," so I will assume, provisionally, that this is current.

The main point of her essay seems to be that "Students would better benefit if God was recognized in public schools." "If we recognized God in schools," Lauren Harr argues, "students would improve morally and academically because they would learn to follow God’s plan for success." She suggests that more people would believe in "creation" (whatever she means by that) if it were taught in science classes as though it were, well, science—and seems to suggest that this dumbing down of the curriculum would somehow be a good thing. She argues that students should be allowed to pray openly in school—an odd thing to say, since of course under American law governed by the Constitution students are allowed to pray openly in public school right now, so long as they don't disrupt class. After a David Bartonesque passage about separation of church and state not being part of the Constitution, she concludes by claiming that ending global warming, working for world peace, or fighting hunger are not nearly as important as praying, reading the Bible, and campaigning to use the power of the government to enforce Christianity. (At least I assume that's what she has in mind, since she's already free to worship in whatever manner she likes as things stand, without the need for any political action.) "By inviting Him [God, apparently, though she doesn't say which god she has in mind] back into our families, our schools and our world, I believe we can solve any crisis big or small."

That's more of a summary than this essay really deserves—not that it's actually a bad essay, as high school essays go. The organization is sloppy, it's short on facts and long on opinion, but hey—that's a consequence of being sixteen or so. Still, there is such a thing as research, and a little research—very little, actually, in this age of Google—would have saved her from making a humiliating error—or, rather, two humiliating errors, actually.

In her Christian Nationite passage she cites two American founding fathers—George Washington and Patrick Henry—in support of her position, attributing to both words they never said or wrote. Both are familiar misquotations I've dealt with before on this site.

First, she puts the words "It is impossible to rightly govern a country without God and the Bible" in George Washington's mouth. This is a misquotation of a misquotation—a more common version (though equally bogus) is "It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible." This in turn is a misquotation of words attributed to George Washington in an 1867 tract: "It is impossible to govern the world without God." (For the benefit of today's historically challenged high school students, let me observe that George Washington died in 1799, nearly seventy years before this tract appeared.) This may well be a distorted reflection of something attributed to George Washington (without authority) by James Kirke Paulding in his 1835 book A Life of Washington. "He was not accustomed to argue points of faith," Paulding wrote, "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.'" And so on and so forth. It should be noted that Paulding's source—the unsupported recollection of an unnamed gentleman, apparently—is no source at all. And nothing resembling this, or any of its permutations, has ever turned up among Washington's papers. So what we have here is a misquotation of a misquotation of a misquotation of a recollection by an anonymous gentleman more than three decades after Washington died. Real convincing stuff.

The other quotation—the words she puts into the mouth of Patrick Henry—has been debunked many times (Snopes, Ed Brayton, Rational Rant). It runs:

It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this 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.

Okay, once again I'm going to amuse myself, if nobody else, by comparing this with the genuine quote, which was not by Patrick Henry, but by an anonymous writer for The Virginian in 1956 (omitted material in bold; added material struck out):

It cannot be emphasized too clearly and strongly or 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. In the spoken and written words of our noble founders and forefathers, we find symbolic expressions of their Christian faith. The above quotation from the will of Patrick Henry is a notable example.

In other words the very next sentence—the one Lauren Harr conveniently leaves out—makes it clear that this quotation cannot be by Patrick Henry, who is hardly likely to have referred to himself in the third person as a "forefather" of the nation. Of course as I said the source of this 1956 quotation is known. If it makes Lauren Harr feel any better, she can take comfort in the "above quotation" from Henry's will, which does say something nice about Christianity:

This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed.

This is the version in William Wirt Henry's Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches volume 2, p. 631. The author of the "religionists" quotation prefers a more florid version that does go back at least to 1820:

I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more which I wish I could give them, and that is, the Christian Religion. If they have that, and I had not given them one shilling they would be rich; and if they had not that, and I had given them all this world, they would be poor.

The amazing thing about this essay is that, according to the article about the contest, five judges looked this over and apparently were so historically ignorant that they failed to notice either of these fake quotations. So low has this nation sunk, apparently. Too many seem no longer to have any sense of history, of what a particular historical figure is likely to have said in his or her particular time and place. This can't be entirely attributed to wingnut history memes—at least, I don't think so. It seems to me to be something more than that—some fundamental failure to transmit either the facts or the methods of history to the next generation—whether the adults of today, or the kids they're influencing. And the victims of this failure are the Lauren Harrs of this world, who end up shortchanged on all fronts.

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