14 November 2011

David Barton’s “Unconfirmed” Quotations—The Current Score

As yesterday's observations moved one of David Barton’s “unconfirmed” quotations from the Fake to the Slightly Mangled column, I thought it might be fun to see how the entire group stacks up so far. Here they are, in his order:
1. It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!—Patrick Henry
Fake. This one has been done to death; it’s an obvious fake—actually written in 1956, and misattributed to Henry in the 1980s.
2. It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.—George Washington
Fake. This is a misquotation of a saying attributed to Washington by James K. Paulding in a children’s biography of Washington: “It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being”. Paulding insisted in his preface that he got his material from people who had known Washington, and maybe he did, but as he chose not to give his sources, it remains an unverified claim. In any case this rewritten version is manifestly fake.
3. Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. In this sense and to this extent, our civilizations and our institutions are emphatically Christian.—Holy Trinity v. U. S. (Supreme Court)
Fake. The actual author of this quotation is not the United States Supreme Court, but the Illinois Supreme Court (Richmond v. Moore, 1883): “Although it is no part of the functions of our system of government to propagate religion, and to enforce its tenets, when the great body of the people are Christians, in fact or sentiment, our laws and institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise. And in this sense, and to this extent, our civilization and institutions are emphatically Christian, but not for the purpose of compelling men to embrace particular doctrines or creeds of any church, or to support one or another denomination by public burthens, but simply to afford protection to all in the enjoyment of their belief or unbelief.”

Barton’s response on learning this shows that he is still far from embracing scholarly standards on evidence, in spite of his claims—he moved the quotation from the unconfirmed to the confirmed column, apparently on the ground that somebody somewhere had said it, or something like it. If that’s his standard, then all of these quotations should be moved to the confirmed column forthwith, since every one of them was said by somebody on some occasion. The issue, of course, is whether they were said by the person (or in this case court) to which they are attributed. This one isn’t. EOD.
4. We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves . . . according to the Ten Commandments of God.—James Madison
Fake. The only genuine portion of this passage were the words “the capacity of mankind for self-government”—and Barton left them out of his mangled version of the pseudo-quotation. The quotation appears to have originated around 1958 and may be based on Dean Clarence Manion’s exposition of this Madison phrase in The Key to Peace. In any case, it’s not Madison’s.
5. Religion . . . [is] the basis and foundation of government.—James Madison
Fake. Barton prefers to call this one “inaccurate” for some reason, but it’s a fake pure and simple. The word “religion” comes from a passage Madison was quoting, and the words “the basis and foundation of government” are from the title of the piece being quoted. They aren’t Madison’s, and they don’t belong together. EOD.
6. Whosoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.—Benjamin Franklin
Fake. The words are Jacques Mallet du Pan’s, not Franklin’s, though du Pan claims they represent Franklin’s sentiment. He didn’t say where he got this idea.
7. The principles of all genuine liberty, and of wise laws and administrations are to be drawn from the Bible and sustained by its authority. The man therefore who weakens or destroys the divine authority of that book may be assessory to all the public disorders which society is doomed to suffer.—Noah Webster
Unconfirmed—probably genuine. The passage supposedly comes from a letter Noah Webster wrote to an unnamed New York newspaper around 1837.
8. There are two powers only which are sufficient to control men, and secure the rights of individuals and a peaceable administration; these are the combined force of religion and law, and the force or fear of the bayonet.—Noah Webster
Likewise unconfirmed—probably genuine. It is the next paragraph from the same supposed letter, minus the introductory phrase “In my view”.
9. The only assurance of our nation’s safety is to lay our foundation in morality and religion.—Abraham Lincoln
Unconfirmed—likely fake. It can’t be traced earlier than the mid-1970s.
10. The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.—Abraham Lincoln
Unconfirmed—likely fake. This one also can’t be traced earlier than the late twentieth century.
11. A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.—Samuel Adams
Genuine. Samuel Adams wrote to James Warren on 12 February 1779, “A general Dissolution of Principles & Manners will more surely overthrow the Liberties of America than the whole Force of the Common Enemy. While the People are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their Virtue they will be ready to surrender their Liberties to the first external or internal Invader.”
12. I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make us better citizens.—Thomas Jefferson
Attributed. On 15 June 1852 Daniel Webster wrote a letter to “Professor Pease” concerning the sabbath-school movement in which he recalled an afternoon spent with Thomas Jefferson a quarter of a century or so before. In it he quotes Thomas Jefferson as having said to him “I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands.” This letter was published in 1858 and these lines have been quoted from it ever since.
13. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.—Alexis de Tocqueville
Fake. This line is a misquotation from another foreign visitor to the United States, Andrew Reed, who along with James Matheson visited the United States from Great Britain during the Jackson administration. In one of his letters he wrote back home “Universal suffrage, whatever may be its abstract merits or demerits, is neither desirable nor possible, except the people are the subjects of universal education and universal piety. America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.” Quoted a number of times during the nineteenth century, it was garbled early in the twentieth and misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville.
14. 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.—John Quincy Adams
Genuine. Almost. What John Quincy Adams wrote to an autograph collector on 27 April 1837 was “The highest, the transcendent glory of the American Revolution was this—it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the precepts of Christianity. If it has never been considered in that light, it is because its compass has not been perceived.” John Wingate Thornton attributed the version above, sans quotation marks, to John Quincy Adams, making a couple of trivial changes. Perhaps he was quoting from memory, as the changes seem pointless. In any case it has been quoted in the Thornton version ever since.

By my count we have seven fakes, two probable fakes, two possibly genuine items, one attribution, and two legitimate quotations. It could be worse, I suppose. Some of them are plausible, anyway. But at least three of the fakes (the Patrick Henry and the two James Madisons) are so egregious as to make you wonder how anybody could have been deceived by them. And the Illinois Supreme Court decision is grotesque, an out-of-context quotation at its worst. (And three guesses as to why he didn’t quote this line from the same decision: “a total severance of church and State is one of the great controlling foundation principles of our system of government.”) The Washington strikes me as iffy at best, especially in Barton’s form (which goes back to 1893 at any rate), but there’s nothing impossible about it, as there is with the Henry, for example.

With the remaining unconfirmed items keep in mind that the burden of proof is always on the person citing the quotation as genuine. Once again let me invoke Martin Porter’s first principle of quotation: “Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.” It’s not a bad basis to work from.

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