eriodically my attention is drawn to a particular fake quotation attributed to George Washington, soldier, statesman, and father of his country:
It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.
Now before I go any further let me cut to the chase: there is no evidence whatsoever that Washington said, wrote, muttered, or whispered these words. None. It isn’t found in Washington’s papers. No associate of his is on record as saying that Washington said it. It first turns up, sans authority, nearly a century after Washington died.
And yet people seem to like it. It gets quoted again and again, often by people who should know better. Evangelist David Barton, whose hobby is collecting antique American documents that mention God, first included it in his books, though he later on distanced himself from it in the original version of his “unconfirmed” quotations list. Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, who seems to be an expert on everything, used it to back up his bizarre dating advice. Chuck Grassley, who as a Senator has the archives of the republic at his command, cited it in support of his particular brand of public policy.
But it’s not Washington’s. For one thing, the language is wrong. If Washington had voiced the concept, he wouldn’t have said it that way. He liked high-sounding words. I view with unspeakable incredulity the possibility that the governance of this terrestrial sphere could be maintained without the assistance of the vast controller of the Universe and the volume of his celestial legislation. Something more along that line, anyway.
For another, why would Washington be concerned with governing the world? Where did this megalomania come from? Washington seems to have felt it quite enough of a job to govern the tiny portion of it along the east coast of North America that fell to his lot. Four years of it was plenty—he’d actually written his original farewell address and was set to step down gracefully until talked into staying for another four years by friends of the young nation convinced that only he could keep the thing on course. Perhaps feeling the difficulty of this some people have substituted “a nation” for “the world”—but the canonical version is the one given above.
So where did this saying come from, and how did it come to be assigned to Washington? Could it have been something he said that somehow didn’t get recorded? Could the record have been lost? Did somebody think it would have been a cool thing for Washington to say, and simply put the words into his mouth? Was it a mistake? Did it start as a story, a joke, or a dream?
Actually, we don’t have to rely solely on random guesses as to where the thing came from. There is what those of us with at least one foot in the historical racket like to call “evidence”. “Support.” “Documentation.” A textual pedigree. A paper trail that can be followed. And that trail shows us that in this case what we have is more like a pebble shaped by the stream of time. A lawyer carved it into its classic form, but he got it from a politician. That politician in turn reshaped it a trifle when he got it from a preacher. That preacher hacked it out of a chunk of text that he had received (perhaps indirectly) from a playwright. And that playwright got his version—part of a argument for the existence of God—from—well, he doesn’t actually say, but he assures us that he included nothing in his work that he did not believe to be true, and he appeals to “the authority of history” and “undoubted traditions” for his claims.
But there’s more to the story than a simple recital of the changes made over time. Why they happened is also significant. So I intend to cover the thing in the time it deserves, taking as many installments as necessary. If you’re in a hurry, and are not in the mood to humor me, I’ve already given the outline of the tale in brief at Fake History, and you can read it there. Or you can rely on the authoritative decree of the Mount Vernon website. Otherwise, stick around. First up: Part 1: The Playwright.