Fake Quotations: Washington and American Schools
Posted by sbh on Friday, 2 April 2010
Did George Washington write:
What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ
on 12 May 1779 (or at any point in his life)?
No. This is another instance of a fake quotation being framed around a genuine kernel—in this case the words given in blue above.
It is a curious fact that George Washington almost never used the expression “Jesus Christ” in his extant writings. The genuine ones, anyway. Where reality lacks, invention often races in to fill the void, and so various fake George Washington prayers and prayer-books and the like have come down to us, and some of them refer in fulsome terms to Jesus Christ, but, as I said, there is only one genuine reference, and it was discovered and first printed only in the twentieth century. It is from this document that the words “learn,” “above all,” and “the religion of Jesus Christ” were lifted.
I’ve often been struck by the lack of a sense of history betrayed in so many of the modern fake quotations that have come to my attention. For George Washington to be commenting on students learning about the religion of Jesus Christ in schools ought to set off anybody’s BS detector. When would he have been likely to say such a thing? As a colonial surveyor? As a soldier in the French and Indian War? As a general during the Revolution? As President of a new nation that had no public school system? He had no kids, but I suppose he could have been commenting on the education of a young relative or friend, but, really—it’s a stretch. It just isn’t likely. If the fake had been attributed to somebody known to be interested in education—Noah Webster and William McGuffey come to mind—it might pass. But it seems unlikely on the face of it to have come from George Washington.
And of course it didn’t. The genuine document emerged as part of events in the west during the Revolutionary war. The Delaware Indians had been formidable opponents in earlier conflicts, but under the influence of Moravian missionaries, whose pacifistic brand of Christianity dampened their war ardor, they had settled down somewhat. The Continental forces wanted to keep it that way. Efforts to keep the lid on the situation took a blow when in November 1778 influential chief White Eyes died during an American expedition. The official story was that he had caught smallpox; it came out later that he had been murdered by members of the militia. In a last ditch effort to save the peace the pacifist and pro-Christian party among the Delawares sent out an embassy to the Continental Congress. Passing near George Washington’s forces they presented him with their petition. The date was 12 May 1779.
Washington was taken aback. He had no instructions from Congress on how to deal with the situation. The delegation, he wrote,
… presented me with a long memorial on various points, which they intend to present also to Congress. I was a little at a loss what answer to give and could have wished they had made their first application there. But as an answer could not be avoided, I thought it safest to couch it in general but friendly terms and refer them to Congress for a more particular one. Though there is reason to believe, they have not adhered very scrupulously to their pretended friendship, it appeared to me to be our present policy at least to conciliate; and in this spirit my answer was conceived. I hope I may not have deviated from the views of Congress. I send a copy of my answer.
It is this “answer” that contains Washington’s only use of the phrase “Jesus Christ”. The relevant sentence was a reply to their 4th (in part) and 5th points:
4th … The Delaware Nation think they cannot give more ample Testimony than this, of their firm Resolution to continue an inviolate Friendship with the United States of America to the end of time; and for this desirable purpose the said Delaware Nation repeatedly applyed to Congress through their Commissioners & Agent, for School Masters and Mistresses to be sent among them, & for useful Tradesmen and Husbandmen to instruct the Youth of their Nation in useful Arts: These, tho expensive at present, may in time be fully repaid to the United States in many respects.
5th That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation—the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their Power.
Washington replied to these points:
My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.
There is, of course, nothing in this about American schools, or about what students should learn there.
The fake quotation is very modern, probably twenty-first century in origin. I’ve made no special effort to run down its history; the oldest reference Google Books turned up was from 2006, in a book called Is God with America? by Bob Klingenberg (p. 188). The passage there reads:
How far have we fallen? To answer that question, we have but to listen to a quote from President George Washington. On May 12, 1779, speaking to and assuring the Delaware Indian Chiefs, the founding father of America said: “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ.” Public education and Christianity were spoken in the same sentence. Ipso facto! Not only would the Indian children learn Christianity in America’s schools, it was the paramount subject in the classroom. President Washington put it his way: “Above all!”
In light of the passages cited above, the rank dishonesty of this account needs no special emphasis.
Speech of Delawares to Washington and Congress (in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, volume 23)
Speech to the Delaware Chiefs (George Washington)
To the President of Congress (George Washington)