Fake History

At the crossroads where legend and hype meet

  • Recent Comments

    Parents: Beware Chri… on Fake Quotations: Patrick Henry…
    response to Mr. Wein… on Adams and the General Principl…
    Stuart on “No king but Jesus” and the Am…
    Ruth on Comment Grab-Bag
    sbh on Adams and the General Principl…
  • Archives

  • Topix

Archive for August, 2010

Alexander Hamilton and the Evidence of Christianity

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 29 August 2010

Did Alexander Hamilton say

I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man

to a long-time acquaintance?

Well, maybe, sort of. This is another one of those sayings attributed to someone after his death, in which the vagaries of memory and the passage of time may well have taken their toll. There’s also a transmission problem with this one—what we have are actually two attributed quotations run together into one.

The ultimate source for these attributed quotations is a lengthy book by John Church Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton’s son), entitled History of the republic of the United States of America: as traced in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and of his cotemporaries. In volume seven, on page 790, we find the following passage:

It was the tendency to infidelity he saw so rife that led him often to declare in the social circle his estimate of Christian truth. “I have examined carefully,” he said to a friend from his boyhood, “the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor.” To another person, he observed, “I have studied it, and I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.

John Church Hamilton attributes the first of these to the “Reminiscences of General Morton” (presumably Jacob Morton, 1761-1836) and leaves the second without attribution. Lacking context for either makes it difficult to judge the reliability of the attributions; we can’t tell for example if either General Morton or the unnamed “another person” were the alleged auditors of these words or whether they were passing on stories they’d heard from others. We also have no way of knowing what he meant (assuming he actually said these things) by “evidence of the Christian religion”, “authenticity”, or “its truth”. Are we talking theological authenticity, historical authenticity, or perhaps some sort of higher truth? We can’t tell.

In favor of these fragments is the fact that they are brought to us under the aegis of Hamilton’s son. We may assume, at the very least, that these are things he would have liked his father to have said, and most likely that they are things that it was in his character to say, at least as his son understood his character. This is far short of being able to say that the elder Hamilton actually said them; Hamilton the younger does not profess to have actually heard them. Despite the imprimatur of the son we are still at least at one remove from the original, and possibly more.

Now at this point we note that the quotation as usually given on the internet differs from the original in having had the context stripped away, the word “evidences” substituted for “evidence”, and the two separate sayings joined together as one. Obviously the material has been slightly mangled somehow in transmission—and most of the time I’d have to stop there, noting the fact of the change, but without being able to say at what point in the chain it happened. This information is often hard to run down, links may have been lost, or they may be in manuscript form not accessible to the community at large.

In this case, however, we actually can trace the steps of the mangling, thanks to the fact that the transmitters left a paper trail, as it were. They recorded the source of their information, making it possible to backtrack. And while it’s not actually necessary to trace the path of error, it may be instructive in showing the sorts of things that can happen in the course of transmission.

Hamilton’s history appeared in 1864, and a good two decades passed before Sarah Knowles Bolton, temperance reformer and writer of children’s books, came out with Famous American Statesmen. In a chapter on Alexander Hamilton the following passage occurs:

His chief relaxation from work was at “The Grange,” his summer home at Harlem Heights, not far from the spot, it is said, where he first attracted the eye of Washington. Beeches, maples, and many evergreens abounded. The Hudson River added its beauty to the picturesque place. Here he read the classics for pleasure, and the Bible. To a friend he said: “I have examined carefully the evidence of the Christian religion; and, if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity, I should unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. … I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.” [p. 126]

Here the context has been stripped away, and Bolton has used an ellipsis to indicate that words are missing between the two sentences. This is not actually quite correct; these are two separate quotations, and the ellipsis means that they belong together as part of the same text. Still, as she was writing a book for children, she probably didn’t feel that she had to adhere to the standards used in writing serious works.

The next stage comes only a few years later when Baptist minister Stephen Abbott Northrup assembled a book of Christian quotations entitled A Cloud of Witnesses. For Alexander Hamilton he has:

I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.—Page 126, “Famous American Statesmen” by Sarah K. Bolton. [p. 208]

We see here that Northrup has completed the transformation by eliminating the ellipsis and changing the word “evidence” to “evidences”. From this we may easily infer that the common internet version goes back ultimately to Northrup—not surprisingly, really, given that those who quote this are looking for Christian-sounding sayings, and where better to look than a collection like A Cloud of Witnesses?

But in the end these quotations are an unreliable guide to Hamilton’s opinions; they are too far removed from the man himself. His own voluminous writings are a better window to his mind than a couple of unsourced context-free sayings that may—or may not—reflect his ideas. It would be better to avoid them in favor of more reliable material.


History of the Republic of the United States of America (John Church Hamilton)

Famous American Statesmen (Sarah Knowles Bolton)

A Cloud of Witnesses (Stephen Abbott Northrup)

Posing in the Moonlight (sbh)

Dubious Quotation Appearances

Wisdom on Demand

Founding Fathers Quotes (Eades Home Ministry)

The Faith of Our Fathers Part 4 (Jim Bramlett)

What Early Manuscripts of the Bible Exist Today? (Prove the Bible; this author gives Northrup’s version while citing Bolton as his source)

Posted in Alexander Hamilton, Questionable quotation | Leave a Comment »

Franklin and the Well-Informed Nation

Posted by sbh on Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Did Benjamin Franklin write

A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know the price of the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved

as claimed by the Forerunner website here?

No. There are actually three things wrong with this alleged quotation: first, it’s been taken out of context; second, the part that has been quoted has been carelessly altered, and third, it was written by Dr. Henry Stueber, not by Benjamin Franklin.

First, here’s the actual quotation, in context. Dr. Henry Stuber wrote, in consideration of the importance of public libraries:

Libraries were established in various places, and they are now become very numerous in the United States, and particularly in Pennsylvania. It is to be hoped that they will be still more widely extended, and that information will be every where increased. This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men, who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved. It is in the regions of ignorance that tyranny reigns. It flies before the light of science. Let the citizens of America, then, encourage institutions calculated to diffuse knowledge amongst the people; and amongst these, public libraries are not the least important.

Second, this quotation does in fact have a connection to Benjamin Franklin; it occurs as part of a biographical sketch Dr. Stuber wrote about him. At the time the sketch appeared (1790) Franklin’s autobiography was still unpublished, but Stuber had access to part of it, in an unrevised form, and partially based his sketch on it. In the concluding part of this section of the autobiography Franklin wrote about his difficulties in establishing a subscription library in Philadelphia:

And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature, that for a subscription library. I drew up the proposals, got them put into form by our great scrivener, Brockden, and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterwards obtain’d a charter, the company being increased to one hundred: this was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. It is become a great thing itself, and continually increasing. These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.

When Franklin resumed work on his autobiography he gave a longer account:

… I propos’d to render the benefit from books more common, by commencing a public subscription library. I drew a sketch of the plan and rules that would be necessary, and got a skilful conveyancer, Mr. Charles Brockden, to put the whole in form of articles of agreement to be subscribed, by which each subscriber engag’d to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them. So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry, to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. On this little fund we began. The books were imported; the library was opened one day in the week for lending to the subscribers, on their promissory notes to pay double the value if not duly returned. The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns, and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no publick amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observ’d by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.

Dr. Stuber’s account looks like this:

The promotion of literature had been little attended to in Pensylvania. Most of the inhabitants were too much immersed in business to think of scientific pursuits; and those few, whose inclinations led them to study, found it difficult to gratify them, from the want of sufficiently large libraries. In such circumstances, the establishment of a public library was an important event. This was first set on foot by Franklin, about the year 1731. Fifty persons subscribed forty shillings each, and agreed to pay ten shillings annually. The number encreased; and in 1742, the company was incorporated by the name of “The Library Company of Philadelphia.”

Note the independence of Stuber’s account from Franklin’s—either the first, which he had seen, or the second, which he hadn’t. Further, while Franklin either breaks off (in the first account) or soon after goes on to discuss other matters (in the second), Stuber continues to discuss the library project, describing its present holdings, contributions by notable donors, and finally its influence. It is from this last section that the quoted sentence comes. None of this material has any counterpart in Franklin’s autobiography. To put it starkly, this line was not even suggested by something Franklin wrote; it is entirely Stuber’s own.

Although Franklin’s autobiography is a classic, for many years it was available only in a corrupt and unreliable form. Its four parts were written at widely separated times in Franklin’s life, and their publication was irregular. The first publication (of the first part only in 1791) was actually in a French translation, and the earliest English versions were not Franklin’s directly, but rather were retranslated from the French. Two of them appeared in 1793. As Franklin’s account (as then available) broke off so early, both editions provided a biography that told the rest of the story of his life, and in one of these editions (Works of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin, London) that biography was Stuber’s essay reprinted from the point where Franklin’s account broke off.

Although Franklin’s grandson printed a fuller version of the autobiography in 1818 (with, however, many editorial alterations and omissions), and a more accurate and complete version appeared in 1868, editions of the version with Stuber’s essay continued to appear for many years. It seems not unlikely that a careless researcher at some point, stumbling onto one of these, mistakenly quoted this passage from Stuber’s biography as a passage from Franklin’s autobiography, and so the incorrect attribution was born. But the words and the underlying concept are both Stuber’s, not Franklin’s, and they should be correctly attributed.

Editions of the Autobiography with Dr. Stuber’s Essay

Works of the Late Dr. Benjamin Franklin (London, 1793)

The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin with his Life (London, 1824)

The Autobiography and Essays of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1864)

Other Significant Editions of the Autobiography Online

Mémoires de la Vie Privée de Benjamin Franklin (Paris, 1791)

The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin (London, 1793)

Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin (William Temple Franklin edition, London, 1818)

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Edited from His Manuscript (Bigelow edition, London, 1868)


From Memoirs to Autobiography (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Publishing the First Complete “Autobiography”: Paris, 1828 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Wikipedia article)

Fake Quotation Sources

America: Secular State or Christian Nation? (Forerunner Editorial Staff) [Note: this page is remarkable for the large number of fake quotations contained in a single short piece—the Patrick Henry “religionists” mistake, the George Washington “without God and the Bible” fabrication, the James Madison “ten commandments” invention, the John Quincy Adams “indissoluble bond” misattribution, along with many others. Even the historical notes are almost uniformly wrong.]

The False Separation of Church and State (Dennis Peacocke)

Christian? The ACLU Hates You (Right On!)

Benjamin Franklin – Know the Rights God Gave Us (First Amendment Religion Clauses; this author gives as his source Walker P. Whitman, A Christian History of the American Republic: A Textbook for Secondary Schools, [Boston: Green Leaf Press, 1939, 1948], 97.)

Posted in Benjamin Franklin, Fake quotation | 3 Comments »

Benjamin Franklin, Lighthouses, and Churches

Posted by sbh on Monday, 23 August 2010

Did Benjamin Franklin write

Lighthouses are more useful than churches

in Poor Richard’s Almanack, as claimed in the 1997 book Texas iconoclast, Maury Maverick Jr. (pp.110-111)?


This (pseudo-)quotation has been circulating since at least 1997, and possibly since the 1960s or 1970s, but it is not found in Franklin’s works. Sometimes it is given as “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches” or “A lighthouse is more useful than a church,” but no form is authentic.

This is probably intended as a summary of something Franklin is said to have written to his wife on 17 July 1757 after a narrow escape from shipwreck off the English coast. This letter appears to have been lost, but an excerpt appears in a footnote on p. 133 of the 1818 edition of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin:

The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.

Posted in Benjamin Franklin, Fake quotation | Leave a Comment »

Washington and God in the Picture

Posted by sbh on Monday, 9 August 2010

Did George Washington claim

You cannot govern without God in the picture

as quoted here?

Okay, people, you’re not even trying, are you? This one is absolutely ludicrous, from the twentieth-century colloquialism of the second-person general statement to the relatively recent phrase “in the picture” (in this sense, anyway). No, George Washington didn’t say it. He didn’t write it. It’s not his.

This is in fact a misquotation of something written in various forms by James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000), evangelical theologian and author of many inspirational and devotional books. This version comes from his The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary, p. 1332:

Second, without God in the picture we have no sure means of guiding government properly.

Boice wrote similar things elsewhere, but I rather doubt that he ever put it in the second person (as the version quoted at the top of the page has it), based on my limited exposure to his writing style. I could easily be wrong on this point, however, and I don’t insist upon it.

The attribution to Washington may have come about through confusion with another fake quotation, the without-God-and-the-Bible statement I debunked earlier, and sometimes now quoted in the form

It is impossible to govern a nation without God and the Bible.

But as far as this present item is concerned, both saying and concept are Boice’s, not Washington’s; and if the saying seems attractive, it should be correctly quoted and attributed. If it is supposed to gain added stature by its attribution to the first president of the United States and the father of his country rather than to its true author, then it’s probably best to leave it undisturbed in the bag of stale tricks.

Posted in Bible, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, George Washington | 1 Comment »