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Archive for the ‘Fake quotation’ Category

Thomas Jefferson and a Prayer for Peace

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 6 February 2011

Did Thomas Jefferson proclaim the following prayer

Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people, the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those whom in Thy name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

on 4 March 1801 as claimed at the Shades of Grace website, for example?

No, it’s from the American Book of Common Prayer, and has been attributed to George Lyman Locke (1835-1919), a Rhode Island minister.

In 1880 the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America appointed a committee to consider “certain alterations in the Book of Common Prayer in the direction of liturgical enrichment and increased flexibility of use.” This committee issued its report in 1883. A number of alterations and new prayers were proposed; one of these, entitled simply “For the Country,” appeared on pp. 63-64 of the Report of the Joint-Committee on the Book of Common Prayer in the section “The Proper Order for Thanksgiving-Day.” It read:

ALMIGHTY God, who in the former time leddest our fathers forth into a wealthy place, and didst set their feet in a large room, Give thy grace, we humbly beseech thee, to us their children, that we may alway approve ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Defend our liberties, preserve our unity. Save us from violence, discord and confusion, from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Fashion into one happy people the multitude brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those whom we entrust in thy Name with the authority of governance, to the end that there be peace at home, and that we keep our place among the nations of the earth. In the time of our prosperity, temper our selfconfidence with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

No author is given, and the committee explicitly disclaim authorship, observing

Their object has been to search for what seemed necessary or desirable in the way of additions among the rich stores of devotional forms which are the common heritage of the Catholic Church, rather than to undertake new compositions of their own. Among the later sources which have thus been drawn upon, they feel bound to mention, especially, Canon Bright’s Ancient Collects, and The Daily Service of our own lamented Hutton.

Nothing quite like it appears in the named sources, though Canon Bright’s

We beseech Thee, Almighty God, that the prosperity bestowed upon us may not lead us to be ashamed of Thy worship, but rather may alway enkindle us to render heartier thanks to Thee…[Ancient Collects, pp. 90-91]

could have suggested

In the time of our prosperity, temper our selfconfidence with thankfulness…

and his

…give the Spirit of wisdom to those to whom Thou hast given the authority of government… [p.182]

is not dissimilar to

Endue with the spirit of wisdom those whom we entrust in thy Name with the authority of governance…

in “For the Country.” According to Christopher L. Webber (Give Us Grace: An Anthology of Anglican Prayers, [Harrisburg PA, 2004], p. 318), however, the author was George Lyman Locke (1835-1919) who “wrote the Prayer for Our Country at the suggestion of the Reverend Daniel Reed Huntington.” This same attribution is given in a reprint in a Life Magazine editorial (“The American Moral Consensus,” 25 December 1955, pp. 56-57). In any case this change was approved and the prayer duly appeared in the 1885 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

In 1913 another committee was appointed to revise the Book of Common Prayer, and their 1916 report suggested the following version, entitled “For Our Country” (pp. 29-30):

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour, glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties; preserve our unity; fashion into one happy people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, to the end that there be justice and peace at home, and that through obedience to thy law we show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble suffer not our trust in thee to fail; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And in this form it duly appeared in the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

So, how exactly did it come to be attributed to Thomas Jefferson? Well, in 1994 William J. Federer wrote, “President Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1805, offered A National Prayer for Peace:”, and followed it with the prayer, complete with the changes of “honourable industry” to “honorable ministry” and “arrogancy” to “arrogance”. [America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis, 1994), pp. 327-8] Federer in turns claims to have got it from a Plymouth Rock Foundation newsletter. So far no older source for the misattribution has turned up, and there is no clear answer to how the confusion originated. However it may have originated, though, Federer and the Plymouth Rock Foundation (assuming it actually made this claim) are flat wrong. It’s not by Jefferson.

And as noted by the Monticello site,

it seems unlikely that Jefferson would have composed or delivered a public prayer of this sort. He considered religion a private matter, and when asked to recommend a national day of fasting and prayer, replied “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from inter meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises…” [Letter to Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808]


Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Reverend Samuel Miller, 23 January 1808, (in Paul Leicester Ford, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition [New York and London, 1904-5), Vol. 11)

William Bright, Ancient Collects and Other Prayers (London, 1862)

Report of the Joint Committee on the Book of Common Prayer (1883)

Book of Common Prayer (1885 edition)

Report of the Joint Commission on the Book of Common Prayer (1916)

Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition)

Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, National Prayer for Peace (Monticello website)

Ed Brayton, Rodda on NCBCPS Bible Curriculum (Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 2007)

Fake Quotation Sources

William J. Federer, America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis, 1994), pp. 327-8 [no link available]

Natalie Nichols, Is America a Christian Nation? More Quotes from the Founders (Shades of Grace, 2010)

Anonymous, Prayers of the Presidents (BeliefNet, 2005)

Ben Rast, Separation of Church and State?
Don’t Blame Thomas Jefferson
(Contender Ministries, 2003)

Jeff Disario, What Separation of Church and State? (The National Report, 2008)

Thomas Spence, Moving Towards the National Day of Prayer with Thomas Jefferson’s Prayer for our Nation (Examiner.com, 2010)

Posted in Fake quotation, Thomas Jefferson | Leave a Comment »

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)

Posted in Christian, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, George Washington | Leave a Comment »

Madison and the Advantage of Being Armed

Posted by sbh on Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Did James Madison write

Americans have the right and advantage of being armed—unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms

in the Federalist Papers #46?

No. Two phrases are his, but the words linking them are not.

In 1787 the Constitutional Convention produced a plan for a new federal government for the former British colonies in America. Before it could go into effect, however, the various states had to ratify it, and proponents and opponents produced pamphlets and newspaper columns arguing its merits. One question involved the proposed federal army—might it not become an instrument of tyranny? Madison argued that the existence of state militias should prevent that possibility. In that context he wrote

It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.

(As usual the passages in bold are the nucleus of the fake quotation.) The fake quotation as given is not an unreasonable summary of one of Madison’s points, and had it been phrased

Americans have the right and “advantage of being armed”—unlike the citizens of other countries whose “governments are afraid to trust the people with arms”

it would probably be acceptable.

And that’s very likely how this passage was in fact created. A good guess would be that somebody originally quoted it like this, and that somebody else accidentally omitted (or deliberately ignored) the original quotation marks.

And there is some evidence for this conjecture. As Phid comments here:

Phyllis Schlafly used it in her “Schlafly Report” of 2000: “James Madison: Americans have ‘the advantage of being armed’—unlike the citizens of other countries where ‘the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.’” You can see that quotations are around Madisons words, and not around the modern-day paraphrasing of the rest of what he said. Thus, it seems that the misquote began after people started omitting the necessary quotation marks.

This can’t be the entire story, however, as the fake form appeared in James Gazori’s 1987 book, Firearms in America (again as Phid noted), thus preceding Schlafly’s correct version. Possibly Schlafly was repeating herself, or copying somebody else. Or maybe she repaired the quotation as I did above, by comparing it to the original.

In any case, the quotation as given above is a modern paraphrase with two phrases of Madison’s embedded in it, not an actual quotation.

(And many thanks to J. L. Bell’s Boston 1775 weblog, which is a wonderful compendium of accurate information about the American Revolution with a focus on Boston. His piece cited below both informed me of the existence of this particular misquotation, as well as of the source of the original.)

Further Information

Another Fake Founders Quotation (J. L. Bell)

The Federalist #46 (James Madison)

Sites Employing the Fake Quotation

Hide Your Weapons Now (RegularJoeNews)

Could a Search Warrant Be Your Death Warrant (Robert G. Heinritz, Jr.)

Quotes on the Right to Bear Arms (Eric S. Raymond)

Brainy Quote (unknown)

Spirit of America Liberty Quotes (Michael G. Leventhal)

Posted in Fake quotation, James Madison | 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 »

Thomas Jefferson and the End of Democracy

Posted by sbh on Thursday, 22 July 2010

Did Thomas Jefferson write:

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not

as claimed here for example?

No. It’s a modern fake, first seen in 1986 in a book written under the pseudonym John Galt, the name of a character in a piece of once-popular fiction (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged).

For matters related to Thomas Jefferson I strongly recommend the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia at the Monticello.org website. It has a brief article devoted to this fake that gives the databases used in running it down; the short version is that they ran the phrases “democracy will cease to exist” and “willing to work” through several digitized collections of Jefferson’s words and failed to find it, or anything much like it, for that matter. I amused myself by running various phrases from the saying through the Library of Congress Jefferson papers search engine (the collection by the way does not include everything Jefferson wrote) as well as an online version of Ford’s edition, and while I am quite convinced that Jefferson used each and every one of the words of this saying, I can not find any example of his using them together in this sequence. In other words, it appears to be a fake.

Out of curiosity I attempted to run down any nineteenth century uses of the phrase “democracy will cease to exist” without notable success. The closest I came was in a 1907 English translation of a tract by Wilhelm Liebknecht entitled “No Compromise; No Political Trading.” The passage reads:

No, Social Democracy must remain for itself, must seek for and generate its power within itself. … Therefore, we will not turn from the old tactics, nor from the old program. Ever advancing with science and economic development, we are what we were and we will remain what we are.

Or—the Social Democracy will cease to exist.

And a 1919 writer observes:

The average man in our democracy must be fitted to understand and comprehend sound principles of government, or American democracy will cease.

Neither of these gets us anywhere. Going back to the Jefferson Encyclopedia we learn from the researchers there that they found a superficially similar passage among Jefferson’s works:

To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, “the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.”

This comes from a comment Jefferson made in a prospectus for translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy (found here [Lipscomb & Berg, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, 13:466]), but Jefferson is not here writing about democracy or its possible demise, but about the unfair effects that certain forms of taxation have on different groups of people. And there is nothing whatever to suggest that the genuine quotation in any way gave rise to the fake. It’s another dead end.

The Jefferson Encyclopedia researchers noted that

To establish the earliest appearance of this phrase in print, the following sources were searched for the phrase, “democracy will cease to exist” and “willing to work”: Google Books, Google Scholar, Amazon.com, Internet Archive, America’s Historical Newspapers, American Broadsides and Ephemera Series I, Early American Imprints Series I and II, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, American Periodicals Series Online, JSTOR.

What they found is that the authority for claiming this saying as Jefferson’s is an unreferenced quotation given on page 312 of Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics as if Freedom Mattered (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), written under the pseudonym of “John Galt”.

Now it may of course be that the fictional tycoon has a valid source (perhaps some unpublished scrap of Jefferson’s writing) for this otherwise unattested saying—but if so, it is his business to give it. Until he does, and that source proves to be in fact by the third president of the United States, the saying can only be regarded as fictional as its promoter.


The Democracy Will Cease to Exist (Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia)

Posted in Fake quotation, Thomas Jefferson | 2 Comments »

“No king but Jesus” and the American Revolution

Posted by sbh on Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Did John Adams and John Hancock reply to Major Pitcairn

We recognize no sovereign but God and no king but Jesus!

when the British officer called on the assembled minutemen to disperse on 19 April 1775? (source: Eads Home Ministries, by 16 January 2006)?

No. This is a recent (probably twenty-first century) concoction.

The Eads Home Ministries site tells the story like this:

Until then let me tell you a story: on april 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington Pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of minutement. “Disperse ye villians, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England. The immediate response of John Adams and John Hancock was “WE RECOGNIZE NO SOVEREIGN BUT GOD AND NO KING BUT JESUS!

The Eads Home Ministry site does not give a source for this tale, but does seem to be the earliest to give it in exactly this form. There are several difficulties with this account. First, John Adams and John Hancock weren’t present at the encounter between Major Pitcairn and the minutemen. John Hancock and Samuel (not John) Adams had indeed stayed the night at Jonas Clark’s house, but they had fled upon receiving Paul Revere’s warning. Second, while Jonas Clark was an agitator and involved in training the militia, the minutemen were in this case led by Captain John Parker.

Oddly, the Eads Home Ministry version of the tale is virtually word-for-word identical to an earlier (2001) relation by Charles A. Jennings, with only one telling detail (aside from a couple of misspellings) different:

On April 18, 1775 John Adams and John Hancock were at the home of Rev. Jonas Clarke, a Lexington pastor and militia leader. That same night Paul Revere arrived to warn them of the approaching Redcoats. The next morning British Major Pitcairn shouted to an assembled regiment of Minutemen; “Disperse, ye villains, lay down your arms in the name of George the Sovereign King of England.” The immediate response of Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company was: “We recognize no Sovereign but God and no King but Jesus.

Note that the sole significant difference between the two lies in who gave the immediate response—“John Adams and John Hancock” in the Eads Home Ministry account has replaced “Rev. Jonas Clarke or one of his company” in the Jennings version. Why the historically impossible substitution was made is anybody’s guess, but it seems that it was one of the minutemen—Jonas Clark or one of his associates—who actually made the remark in question.

Or was it? Jennings gives sources (mostly non-scholarly narratives with a Christian Nationite bent) for some of his assertions, but not this one. Still, as this event has been told and retold innumerable times, we should have no trouble running it down. Let’s start with Jonas Clark’s own account. What does he have to say? Well, for one thing he does confirm that Samuel Adams (not John) and John Hancock were present at his house:

On the evening of the eighteenth of April, 1775 we received two messages; the first verbal, the other by express, in writing, from the committee of safety, who were then sitting in the westerly part of Cambridge, directed to the Honorable John Hancock, Esq; (who, with the Honorable Samuel Adams, Esq; was then providentially with us) informing, “that eight or nine officers of the king’s troops were seen, just before night, passing the road towards Lexington, in a musing, contemplative posture; and it was suspected they were out upon some evil design.”

As both these gentlemen had been frequently and even publicly, threatened, by the enemies of this people, both in England and America, with the vengeance of the British administration:—And as Mr. Hancock in particular had been, more than once, personally insulted, by some officers of the troops, in Boston; it was not without some just grounds supposed, that under cover of the darkness, sudden arrest, if not assassination might be attempted, by these instruments of tyranny!

To prevent any thing of this kind, ten or twelve men were immediately collected, in arms, to guard my house, through the night.

Some attempt was made to gather intelligence as to what the British were up to, and then

Between the hours of twelve and one, on the morning of the nineteenth of April, we received intelligence, by express, from the Honorable Joseph Warren, Esq.; at Boston, “that a large body of the king’s troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12, or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston, and gone over to land on Lechmere’s Point (so-called) in Cambridge: And that it was shrewdly suspected, that they were ordered to seize and destroy the stores, belonging to the colony, then deposited at Concord,” in consequence of General Gage’s unjustifiable seizure of the provincial magazine of powder at Medford, and other colony stores in several other places.

Joseph Warren had sent this intelligence, though Clark didn’t say so, through the now-famous midnight ride of Paul Revere. The militia assembled and sent out observers to collect intelligence on the British movements; after a while one of them returned and reported that all was quiet, at which point the militia dispersed. The result was that they were taken by surprise when the British troops actually appeared, and the militia had to be called hastily back by means of signals with drums.

Immediately upon their appearing so suddenly, and so nigh, Capt. Parker, who commanded the militia company, ordered the men to disperse, and take care of themselves; and not to fire.—Upon this, our men dispersed;—but, many of them, not so speedily as they might have done, not having the most distant idea of such brutal barbarity and more than savage cruelty, from the troops of a British king, as they immediately experienced!—!—For, no sooner did they come in sight of our company, but one of them, supposed to be an officer of rank, was heard to say to the troops, “Damn them; we will have them!”—Upon which the troops shouted aloud, huzza’d, and rushed furiously towards our men.—About the same time, three officers (supposed to be Col. Smith, Major Pitcairn and another officer) advanced, on horse back, to the front of the body, and coming within 5 or 6 rods of the militia, one of them cried out, “ye villains, ye Rebels, disperse; Damn you, disperse!” —or words to this effect. One of them (whether the same, or not, is not easily determined) said, “Lay down your arms; Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms!”—The second of these officers, about this time, fired a pistol towards the militia, as they were dispersing.—The foremost, who was within a few yards of our men, brandishing his sword, and then pointing towards them, with a loud voice said to the troops, “Fire!—By God, fire!”—which was instantly followed by a discharge of arms from the said troops, succeeded by a very heavy and close fire upon our party, dispersing, so long as any of them were within reach.—Eight were left dead upon the ground! Ten were wounded.—The rest of the company, through divine goodness, were (to a miracle) preserved unhurt in this murderous action!—

So, Jonas Clark made no mention of the “No king but Jesus” line—or the demand in the name of George the sovereign king of England that supposedly led to it. In fact, given the rapidity of events as Clark described them, it’s difficult to see where there would have been time to fit it in.

Frank Warren Coburn wrote an account of the battle early in the twentieth century, taking into account not only Clark’s narrative but a wide variety of other sources. Here’s how he narrated the encounter (notes omitted):

On came the British, almost on the run, the light companies of the Tenth Regiment in advance. At their head rode Major John Pitcairn and two other mounted officers.

“Stand your ground,” exclaimed Parker; “don’t fire unless fired upon. But if they want to have a war let it begin here!”

Major Pitcairn galloped up to within six rods of Captain Parker’s foremost line, and exclaimed:

“Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse.”

Captain Parker, seeing the utter hopelessness of armed resistance, gave the order to disperse and not to fire. He did not, however, order his men to lay down their arms. Evidently Pitcairn wished to disarm them, for while they were dispersing he shouted again:—

“Damn you, why don’t you lay down your arms?”

But no answer came back, and each one of Capt. Parker’s little band retiring from the field, carried his gun with him.

Then one of the other mounted officers, about two rods behind Pitcairn, name unknown, brandished his sword and the regulars huzzaed in unison. He then pointed his pistol towards the minute-men and fired.

Pitcairn was back to that officer, so did not see him fire. He heard the discharge, and easily might have mistaken it as coming from an enemy, for he had not authorized it himself. Furious with passion he gave the order:


There was hesitation to obey from his men, for he repeated:

“Fire, damn you, fire!”

The first platoon of eight or nine men then fired, evidently over the heads of the minutemen, for none were killed or wounded. Pitcairn saw the effects of that volley and realized that his men did not aim to kill. Then came his next order:

“G-d d—n you, fire at them!”

The second volley surely was fired to kill.

From the notes we see that Coburn used in addition to Clark’s narrative depositions of Captain John Parker, William Wood, Thomas Fessenden, John Robbins, William Draper, William Munroe, Simon Winship, John Munroe, and John Bateman (a British soldier). Besides these he used Paul Revere’s narrative and a handful of British sources. And there’s still no mention of “George the Sovereign King of England” or “no king but Jesus.”

It’s beginning to look as if not only did John Hancock and John Adams not say it, but neither did Jonas Clark or any of the men with him.

So who did say it?

Well, No king but Jesus was a slogan of the Fifth Monarchy men a century before the American Revolution. These were opponents of the monarchy during the Interregnum who justified their opposition to monarchy by claiming to believe that the second coming of Jesus was imminent, bringing the Fifth Kingdom prophesied by the prophet Daniel that would be ruled by Jesus himself. One of them went so far as to write a future history of Europe based on this belief, and while the Fifth Monarchists themselves were crushed by the return of the British monarchy, this idea was still kicking around, ready to be used by anybody needing a justification for throwing off the shackles of tyranny. It’s quite conceivable that that some during the American Revolution employed this concept, and there is at least a shred of evidence in its favor. The British parliamentary records include this item (22 April 1774):

SIR RICHARD SUTTON read a copy of a letter relative to the Government of America, from the Governor of America to the Board of Trade, shewing, that at the most quiet times, that the disposition to oppose the laws of this country were strongly ingrafted in them, and that all their actions conveyed a spirit and wish for independence. If you ask an American who is his master, he will tell you he has none, nor any Governor but Jesus Christ. I do believe it, and it is my firm opinion, that the opposition to the measures of the Legislature of this country, is a determined prepossession of the idea of total independence.

So here we have No governor but Jesus, but how on earth did it mutate to No king but Jesus? Well, this item did turn up in a number of places over the years, among them William J. Federer’s America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations, and it may well be from some such place that Senator John Ashcroft (later to be Attorney-General) dredged up his misremembered account in May 1999 in a short speech at Bob Jones University:

A slogan of the American Revolution which was so distressing to the emissaries of the king that it was found in correspondence sent back to England, was the line, “We have no king but Jesus”. Tax collectors came, asking for that which belonged to the king, and colonists frequently said, “We have no king but Jesus”.

In any case the furor over that speech popularized this form of the saying, and it’s after that that we start seeing the saying grafted onto the account of the opening moments of the Battle of Lexington. Internet sites like Eads Home Ministry and Truth in History seem to have taken the lead; according to Google Books the first time the John Adams and John Hancock version of the story turns up in print was in 2007, and the Jonas Clark version doesn’t turn up in print until 2008.

  • To review: John Adams seems to have been included in the narrative by mistake for Samuel Adams.
  • Neither John Adams nor John Hancock (nor for that matter Samuel Adams) was present at the time the alleged statement was supposed to have been made.
  • Jonas Clark, who was there, and according to an earlier version of the story, may have actually made the statement, says nothing of it in his account.
  • Nobody seems to have written anything of this statement until John Ashcroft misquoted the No governor but Jesus line in a 1999 speech at Bob Jones University.
  • In 2001 it turns up grafted onto an account of the opening of the Battle of Lexington at the Truth in History website. John Adams is mistakenly substituted for Samuel Adams in this version, but the No king but Jesus slogan is attributed to Jonas Clark or one of his associates.
  • In 2006 the same account turns up word-for-word at the Eads Home Ministries website with John Adams and John Hancock substituted for Jonas Clark or associate.
  • The next year the story starts turning up in printed books. (At least one of them credited the Truth in History website as its source for the story.)

The sequence of events seems relatively clear. Not only did John Adams and John Hancock not say it, nor Jonas Clark nor an anonymous minuteman, it is quite possible that nobody said it at all in connection with the American Revolution until John Ashcroft threw it into a short speech at Bob Jones University.


Summary of American Governor’s Letter Read in Parliament (by Sir Richard Sutton)

Opening of the War of the Revolution (Jonas Clark)

The Battle of April 19, 1775 (Frank Warren Coburn)

Speech at Bob Jones University (John Ashcroft)

No King But King Jesus (Charles A. Jennings, 22 April 2001 cache at Internet Archive)

Tutorial: explaining Founding Fathers quotes that seem to show they weren’t Christian (Eads Home Ministries)

Further Reading

Barton is At It Again (Jim Allison)

Not a Nation of Christians! (W. D. Clabaugh)

English Dissenters: Fifth Monarchists or Fifth Monarchy Men (ExLibris)

Battles of Lexington and Concord (Wikipedia)

Posted in Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, John Adams, John Hancock, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Adams and the General Principles of Christianity

Posted by sbh on Saturday, 8 May 2010

Did John Adams write:

The general principles upon which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principals of Christianity… I will avow that I believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God

as he has been quoted on many blogs and websites—here, here, here, and here, for example?

No, not really. This is a patchwork of three phrases taken from a letter (28 June 1813) to Thomas Jefferson juxtaposed to give a misleading impression of Adams’ meaning:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were …

… the general principles of Christianity …

I will avow, that I … believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God….

The omissions here are easily significant enough to give this extract the red designation.

Understanding this passage involves going back to the year 1798, when John Adams was president of the United States. While the nation attempted to maintain neutrality in the ongoing war between Great Britain and revolutionary France, the French started seizing American vessels, leading to an undeclared war. It was in this context that a group of young men from Philadelphia wrote to Adams to express their support for his actions:

The youth of the American nation will claim some share of the difficulty, danger, and glory of its defense; and although we do not hold ourselves competent to form an opinion respecting the tendency of every measure, yet we have no hesitation in declaring that we place the most entire confidence in your wisdom, integrity, and patriotism; that we regard our liberty and independence as the richest portion given to us by our ancestors; that we perceive no difference between the illegal and oppressive measures of one government and the insolent attempts now made to usurp our rights by another; that as our ancestors have magnanimously resisted the encroachments of the one, we will no less vigorously oppose the attacks of the other; that at the call of our country we will assemble with promptitude, obey the orders of the constituted authorities with alacrity, and on every occasion act with all the exertion of which we are capable; and for this we pledge ourselves to you, to our country, and to the world.

John Adams returned a polite reply, in which he ventured to give some paternal advice:

It would neither be consistent with my character, nor yours, on this occasion, to read lessons to gentlemen of your education, conduct, and character; if, however, I might be indulged the privilege of a father, I should with the tenderest affection recommend to your serious and constant consideration, that science and morals are the great pillars on which this country has been raised to its present population, opulence, and prosperity, and that these alone can advance, support, and preserve it.

Without wishing to damp the ardor of curiosity, or influence the freedom of inquiry, I will hazard a prediction, that, after the most industrious and impartial researches, the longest liver of you all will find no principles, institutions, or systems of education more fit, in general, to be transmitted to your posterity, than those you have received from your ancestors.

Thomas Jefferson was then vice-president under Adams, and he favored policies entirely at odds with his. Something about this seemed to sum up for him a basic difference between the Federalists’ view and his own, and years later (on 15 June 1813) he wrote to Adams about it:

One of the questions, you know, on which our parties took different sides, was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, etc. Those who advocated reformation of institutions, pari passu with the progress of science, maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, denied improvement, and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom, and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance. Although in the passage of your answer alluded to, you expressly disclaim the wish to influence the freedom of inquiry, you predict that that will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors.

Adams, in his reply (28 June 1813), disclaims any such general application of his words. He limits the “principles … received from their ancestors” to two areas: “the general principles of Christianity … and the general principles of English and American liberty”. What did he mean by “the general principles of Christianity”? He doesn’t spell them out in the letter, but they are principles held in common by a diverse range of beliefs, including “Roman Catholics, … Presbyterians, Methodists, … Universalists, … Deists and Atheists ….” In other words, Adams had in mind the common system of morals held by all humankind throughout history. And far from giving it the unique status implied by the patchwork quotation, he couples “the general principles of Christianity” throughout with “the general principles of English and American liberty”.

Here is what Adams wrote to Jefferson, with the selected passages in bold:

Now, compare the paragraph in the answer with the paragraph in the address, as both are quoted above, and see if we can find the extent and the limits of the meaning of both.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.” Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

If the passage as given above can really be considered a fair summary of the entire passage, then so can this version, emphasizing the other elements Adams gave as the “general principles on which the fathers achieved independence”:

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were … the general principles of English and American liberty … I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that … those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system.

Obviously neither version is a fair representation of the original. Each leaves out one essential element in the original mix so that even though these extracts are made up of Adams’ own words, the overall quotation (particularly sans ellipses) is as dishonest as the Patrick Henry “religionists” misattribution or the Washington “impossible to govern without the Bible” concoction. One of the sites given above promotes all three of these fake quotations, and has the gall to attempt to justify them as follows:

And yes, there are the detractors who would say that the quotes are wrong or taken out of context. That will be argued for generations. But to deny that faith has played an integral part in this nation’s history is simply to show an ignorance of that very history.

Nice distraction—and typical of many who manufacture and distribute these counterfeit wares. Ideology trumps fact—and who can really know the truth about the past? Actually, it is not all that difficult to run down a quotation to its source—it just takes time and effort. Nothing about these fakes “will be argued for generations”—unless by ideologues who choose to stubbornly ignore the facts. As Adams went on to observe to Jefferson

I might have flattered myself that my sentiments were sufficiently known to have protected me against suspicions of narrow thoughts, contracted sentiments, bigoted, enthusiastic, or superstitious principles, civil, political, philosophical, or ecclesiastical.

Apparently not.


1798 Exchange between Adams and Philadelphia Young Men (Anonymous and John Adams)

Letter to Adams (15 June 1813) (Thomas Jefferson)

Letter to Jefferson (28 June 1813) (John Adams)

Posted in Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, John Adams | 5 Comments »

John Adams and the Awful Blasphemy

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 25 April 2010

Did John Adams say

God is an essence that we know nothing of. Until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world

in 1820?

No. The two sentences given above were both written by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, the first in 1820 and the second in 1825, but (as the dates show) they were not joined together, not written on the same topic, and not even part of the same letter.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, fellow firebrands in the American Revolution, became bitter political rivals in the early constitutional period, Adams being of the Federalist party and Jefferson of the Antifederalist. The election of 1800, in which Jefferson defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States, was extremely divisive, and left lasting wounds. Nonetheless, when the sound and fury had died, the two ex-presidents resumed their friendship and exchanged what has become a classic series of letters on a wide variety of topics. One of those topics was religion. Neither man believed in the orthodox doctrine of the trinity, that desperate fourth-century compromise that tried to insist that the deity could be both tripartite and unitary. And neither bought into the doctrine of the incarnation, either. In a letter of 22 January 1825 Adams expressed his dismay about Jefferson’s plan to staff his college with European scholars because

The Europeans are all deeply tainted with prejudices, both ecclesiastical and temporal, which they can never get rid of. They are all infected with episcopal and presbyterian creeds, and confessions of faith. They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschell’s universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.

The bolded section will be recognized as the source for the second sentence in the frankenquote as given above. As for the first, in a discussion of matter and spirit suggested by a book the two had recently read, Adams wrote on 17 January 1820:

When we say God is a spirit, we know what we mean, as well as we do when we say that the pyramids of Egypt are matter. Let us be content, therefore, to believe him to be a spirit, that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.

He followed this by signing off with “Behold the creed and confession of faith of your ever affectionate friend.” Again, the portion in bold is obviously the source for the first sentence of the alleged quotation. Had this been quoted

…God is … an essence that we know nothing of…

it could be said to be a fair quotation, though it would have been better to be a bit fuller, say

… God is a spirit … that is, an essence that we know nothing of, in which originally and necessarily reside all energy, all power, all capacity, all activity, all wisdom, all goodness.

Something like that, anyway. But following it with the 1825 sentence makes it seem as though the “awful blasphemy” is the concept of god, rather than the specific doctrine of the incarnation. (Which is why it earns the red designation, even though the words are all those of Adams himself.) The source for this misleading combination seems to have been a BBC program entitled Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief (later shown in the US as A Brief History of Disbelief) that first aired in 2004. Google Books shows it appearing in a 2008 book entitled The Quotable John Adams, compiled by Randy Howe.

It looks as though the editing of the 1820 quotation was done in the interest of making John Adams appear to have atheist leanings, something that would have been harder to maintain with a fuller quotation. However, I haven’t seen the program, or how the quotations were used, and the context might explain a lot. In any case, this quotation, as usually given, is bogus.


Letter to Thomas Jefferson 17 January 1820 (John Adams)

Letter to Thomas Jefferson 22 January 1825 (John Adams)

A List of Quotations Used in A Short History of Disbelief


Jonathan Rowe and Tom Van Dyke have more information about the “awful blasphemy” quotation and other matters related to John Adams at American Creation. It may be more than you want to know, or maybe less. But it’s worth taking a look at.

Posted in Fake quotation, John Adams, Quotation, US Founding Fathers | 3 Comments »