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Washington and American Schools Revisited

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 30 January 2011

Did George Washington write:

What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ

on 12 May 1779?

No. As I commented before, this is another instance of a fake quotation being framed around a genuine kernel. In this case the phrases in blue were taken from Washington’s reply to a Delaware tribal delegation, while the words in red are adapted from a modern evangelist.

A bit of background is in order here. The Lenape (known as the Delawares to the colonists) lived originally in present-day New Jersey, along with adjacent areas of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York. Pressure from the colonists and the Iroquois forced them west into the Ohio valley, where they were when the American Revolution broke out. The war divided them; some supported the British, some supported the revolutionaries, and a third faction, under the influence of a Moravian mission led by David Zeisberger, were strict pacifists.

On 16 December 1775 the Continental Congress assured Captain White Eyes, a leader of the pro-revolutionary Lenape:

We are pleased that the Delawares intend to embrace Christianity. We will send you, according to your desire, a minister and a schoolmaster to instruct you in the principles of religion, and other parts of useful knowledge. [Journals of the Continental Congress, volume 3, p. 433]

And on 10 April 1776 the Continental Congress resolved:

That the commissioners for Indian affairs in the middle department, or any one of them, be desired to employ, for reasonable salaries, a minister of the gospel, to reside among the Delaware Indians, and instruct them in the Christian religion; a school master to teach their youth reading, writing, and arithmetic; and also, a blacksmith to do the work of the Indians in the middle department. [Journals of the Continental Congress, volume 4, p. 267]

And again, when the Lenape agreed to the Treaty of Fort Pitt on 17 September 1788—the first treaty the new government would negotiate with any group of native Americans—they were promised even more. In addition to the “articles of clothing, utensils and implements of war” they were supposed to receive, the government of the United States promised them that it would at least consider that

should it for the future be found conducive for the mutual interest of both parties to invite any other tribes who have been friends to the interest of the United States, to join the present confederation, and to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress… [Treaty with the Delawares in Charles J. Kappler, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties (Washington, 1904), volume 2, pp. 3-5]

Relations soured quickly after the treaty however. Captain White Eyes, the Lenape leader most favorable to the United States, died while acting as a guide for an American military expedition. The official story was that he died of smallpox, but George Morgan, who brought up George White Eyes, the captain’s son, after his death, wrote on 12 May 1784:

His father was treacherously put to death at the moment of his greatest exertions to save the United States, in whose service he held the commission of a colonel


I have carefully concealed and shall continue to conceal from young White Eyes the Manner of his Father’s death, which I have never mentioned to any one but Mr. Thompson & two or three Members of Congress. [in Joseph Henderson Bausman and John Samuel Duss, History of Beaver County, Pennsylvania (New York, 1904), volume 1, p. 32)]

The result was catastrophic as far as friendly relations were concerned. In early 1789 the pro-American Lenape sent an embassy to the Continental Congress. Among the issues on the table were delivery of the clothing and goods promised them, the need for instructors who could teach their children useful arts, and their desire for support for the Moravian mission under David Zeisberger. As evidence for their desire to cooperate with the new nation they sent three young people to the Congress to receive an American education—George White Eyes, son of the murdered leader, age 8; John Killbuck, age 16, son of Captain Killbuck (another key leader), and Thomas, age 18, Captain Killbuck’s half-brother. (For the record Thomas was apprenticed to a farmer to learn agriculture and blacksmithing, while John and George went to Princeton.) [Louise Phelps Kellogg, Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio 1778-1779, (Madison, 1916), p. 319]

On its way to Congress the embassy happened to pass near Washington’s troops. It was 12 May 1779. Washington wrote of this:

The deputies from the Delaware Nation arrived at Head Quarters two days ago. They 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.

Washington assured the delegation that he had read their paper, and that he “rejoice[d] in the new assurances you give of their friendship. The things you now offer to do to brighten the chain, prove your sincerity. I am sure Congress will run to meet you, and will do every thing in their power to make the friendship between the people of these States, and their Brethren of the Delaware nation, last forever.” To Congress, however, Washington was more candid, writing, “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.”

Three of the points brought up by the Lenape delegation were their need of supplies, the education of three of their youths by Congress, and their desire to receive practical and religious instruction in their own country. Let’s consider these points one by one.

On the first point, the Lenape petition read:

That when Congress and the Delaware Nation renewed their Friendship, as above mentioned, the former promised, & engaged to supply the latter, in Exchange for their Peltries, with Cloathing and other Goods; which from Custom have become absolutely necessary for the Subsistance of their Women and Children. This Engagement has been renewed on the party [sic] of Congress at four different Treaties successively, without ever having been complied with in any degree…

As a military man Washington of course had nothing to do with this issue. He assured them

I am sorry to hear that you have suffered for want of necessaries, or that any of our people have not dealt justly by you. But as you are going to Congress, which is the great Council of the Nation and hold all things in their hands, I shall say nothing about the supplies you ask. I hope you will receive satisfaction from them.

As we’ll see, this would be his pattern with all the replies—an expression of sympathy, followed by an expression of confidence in the Continental Congress.

About the three boys the petition read:

That the said Delaware Nation have on the Invita[t]ion of Congress by their Commissioners & Agent, sent down three Children of their principal Chiefs to be placed at School by Congress. These Children if they live, and imp[r]ove the Advantages offerd to them will naturally have great Interest & Influence in the Councills of the said Nation who therefore wish them to be educated accordingly & for this favour we beg leave to be obligated to the Wisdom and Genarosity of Congress alone.

And Washington expresses his pleasure in their gesture and his confidence in Congress’s reaction:

I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly.

And about instruction for their youth at home the petition read:

… 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 … [and] 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 again Washington expresses pleasure and confidence:

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.

And here, lest you’ve forgotten the main point of all this, let us observe the kernel of the fake quotation—the words “learn,” “above all,” and “the religion of Jesus Christ,” spoken mainly about the Ziesberger mission embraced by the Lenape. Please note there is not one word here about American schools, or what children should learn in them.

In my previous account I made no attempt to trace the actual origin of this fake quotation, since it appears to be very modern and its falsity is obvious. Some people actually criticized me for this—and while it isn’t necessary, I personally find it satisfactory to explain how the mistake came to be. In this case, the missing link appears to be the confused and inaccurate account of this incident that appeared in David Barton’s popular volume, Original Intent. On p. 85, as part of a meditation on the place of religion in American education, Barton wrote:

Perhaps George Washington, “The Father of the Country,” provided the most succinct description of America’s educational philosophy when Chiefs from the Delaware Indian tribe brought him three Indian youths to be trained in American schools. Washington first assured the chiefs that “Congress … will look upon them as their own children,” and then commended the Chiefs for their decision, telling them that:

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.

By George Washington’s own words, what youths learned in America’s schools “above all” was “the religion of Jesus Christ.”

Note the similarity of this last sentence to the fake quotation—it’s in the past instead of the present tense, there are quotation marks around Washington’s actual words, we have “youths” instead of “students”, and “America’s” instead of “American”, but in other respects it is identical. Barton’s inaccurate summary—Washington of course was not speaking of what the youths would learn in American schools, but what the Lenape were learning in their own institutions—clearly led to this fake quotation.

A likely explanation is that somebody, whether by accident or design, omitted the quotation marks and made the other changes and attributed the concoction to Washington. As I noted in my previous account the oldest reference Google Books turned up for the fake 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!”

Kingenberg has taken Barton’s confusion and amplified it. Again, Washington was not speaking about American schools in this passage at all. After saying that he was “glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us” he moves on to “the other matters” of receiving instructors to teach useful arts and of getting support for David Ziesberger’s mission. It is in that connection that he said “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.” He may well have hoped and expected that the three sons of Lenape leaders would likewise have received such instruction, whether in or out of school, but he didn’t say it, which is the only point at issue here. Barton’s mistake and somebody’s failure to check original sources are the clear sources of this particular fake quotation.


Is God with America? (Bob Klingenberg [Amazon Books])

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)

“Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice” — The Remarkable Hypocrisy of David Barton (Part 1) (Chris Rodda)

A Brief History of the Delaware Indians (Richard C. Adams, Senate Document 501, 59th Congress, 1st session)

Update: David Barton on Thomas Jefferson: Gnadedhutten and the Christian Indians (Warren Throckmorton)

Wikipedia Articles


Christian Munsee

David Zeisberger

Gnadenhutten Massacre

Fake Quotation Sources

Founding Fathers Quotes (Eads Home Ministry)

George Washington Quotes (Revolutionary War and Beyond)

Freedom of Religion (Eternalchoice; this one adds the revealing observation that “Apparently ol’ George didn’t get the memo that the founding fathers were supposed to think teaching Christianity in schools was tyranny.”)

Is America a Christian Nation: More Quotes from Our Founders (Shades of Grace)

Arguments for Prayer in School (All About History)

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