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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 »

Fake Quotations: Washington and American Schools

Posted by sbh on Friday, 2 April 2010

Did George Washington write:

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

on 12 May 1779 (or at any point in his life)?

No. This is another instance of a fake quotation being framed around a genuine kernel—in this case the words given in blue above.

It is a curious fact that George Washington almost never used the expression “Jesus Christ” in his extant writings. The genuine ones, anyway. Where reality lacks, invention often races in to fill the void, and so various fake George Washington prayers and prayer-books and the like have come down to us, and some of them refer in fulsome terms to Jesus Christ, but, as I said, there is only one genuine reference, and it was discovered and first printed only in the twentieth century. It is from this document that the words “learn,” “above all,” and “the religion of Jesus Christ” were lifted.

I’ve often been struck by the lack of a sense of history betrayed in so many of the modern fake quotations that have come to my attention. For George Washington to be commenting on students learning about the religion of Jesus Christ in schools ought to set off anybody’s BS detector. When would he have been likely to say such a thing? As a colonial surveyor? As a soldier in the French and Indian War? As a general during the Revolution? As President of a new nation that had no public school system? He had no kids, but I suppose he could have been commenting on the education of a young relative or friend, but, really—it’s a stretch. It just isn’t likely. If the fake had been attributed to somebody known to be interested in education—Noah Webster and William McGuffey come to mind—it might pass. But it seems unlikely on the face of it to have come from George Washington.

And of course it didn’t. The genuine document emerged as part of events in the west during the Revolutionary war. The Delaware Indians had been formidable opponents in earlier conflicts, but under the influence of Moravian missionaries, whose pacifistic brand of Christianity dampened their war ardor, they had settled down somewhat. The Continental forces wanted to keep it that way. Efforts to keep the lid on the situation took a blow when in November 1778 influential chief White Eyes died during an American expedition. The official story was that he had caught smallpox; it came out later that he had been murdered by members of the militia. In a last ditch effort to save the peace the pacifist and pro-Christian party among the Delawares sent out an embassy to the Continental Congress. Passing near George Washington’s forces they presented him with their petition. The date was 12 May 1779.

Washington was taken aback. He had no instructions from Congress on how to deal with the situation. The delegation, he wrote,

… presented me with a long memorial on various points, which they intend to present also to Congress. I was a little at a loss what answer to give and could have wished they had made their first application there. But as an answer could not be avoided, I thought it safest to couch it in general but friendly terms and refer them to Congress for a more particular one. Though there is reason to believe, they have not adhered very scrupulously to their pretended friendship, it appeared to me to be our present policy at least to conciliate; and in this spirit my answer was conceived. I hope I may not have deviated from the views of Congress. I send a copy of my answer.

It is this “answer” that contains Washington’s only use of the phrase “Jesus Christ”. The relevant sentence was a reply to their 4th (in part) and 5th points:

4th … The Delaware Nation think they cannot give more ample Testimony than this, of their firm Resolution to continue an inviolate Friendship with the United States of America to the end of time; and for this desirable purpose the said Delaware Nation repeatedly applyed to Congress through their Commissioners & Agent, for School Masters and Mistresses to be sent among them, & for useful Tradesmen and Husbandmen to instruct the Youth of their Nation in useful Arts: These, tho expensive at present, may in time be fully repaid to the United States in many respects.

5th That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation—the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their Power.

Washington replied to these points:

My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

There is, of course, nothing in this about American schools, or about what students should learn there.

The fake quotation is very modern, probably twenty-first century in origin. I’ve made no special effort to run down its history; the oldest reference Google Books turned up was from 2006, in a book called Is God with America? by Bob Klingenberg (p. 188). The passage there reads:

How far have we fallen? To answer that question, we have but to listen to a quote from President George Washington. On May 12, 1779, speaking to and assuring the Delaware Indian Chiefs, the founding father of America said: “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ.” Public education and Christianity were spoken in the same sentence. Ipso facto! Not only would the Indian children learn Christianity in America’s schools, it was the paramount subject in the classroom. President Washington put it his way: “Above all!”

In light of the passages cited above, the rank dishonesty of this account needs no special emphasis.


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)

Posted in Christian, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, George Washington | 3 Comments »

Questionable Quotes: William McGuffey and American Religion

Posted by sbh on Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Did William McGuffey, educator and author of the McGuffey readers, once used extensively in American schools, write:

The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our nation, on the character of God, on the great moral Governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free Institutions. From no source has this author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. From all these extracts from the Bible, I make no apology

in an 1836 essay?


This version comes from a Christian website; another version is found in the internet scam document often called “Forsaken Roots”. The actual quotation runs

The christian religion, is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions.

It can be found in a piece called “Duties of Parents and Teachers” that appeared in Transactions of the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Western Literary Institute, Cincinnati, 1836, pp. 129-152. This quotation appears on p. 138. The last two sentences appear nowhere in this article, nor do they sound much like McGuffey’s prose style.

As I remarked in an earlier piece on this subject:

Little as I like McGuffey’s turgid prose style, I’m quite positive he would not have written of himself in the third person like this—“the author”, phooey. And I’m sure he wouldn’t have written “From all these extracts” instead of “For all these extracts”.

I’ll also repeat myself on the overall content of the piece:

In reading McGuffey’s piece I was continually reminded of Samuel Schoenbaum’s line, “A penalty of the scholar’s vocation … is the reading of rubbish”. At the time, when the issues in question were live and a matter of some import to educators, it probably made interesting reading. No, I take that back. Even then it must have been mind-numbingly dull. The context for the given quotation is a section developing McGuffey’s concern about “the great variety of intellectual and moral character, found among [a teacher’s] numerous pupils.” It’s necessary for a teacher, he observes, to fit his approach to each individual student, and to modify it as necessary. Students should neither be pushed too fast, nor held back unnecessarily to make the teacher’s life easier. And while teachers may have their own speculative opinions on morality, those opinions should not be brought into the schoolroom. Christianity is the basis of American culture; it is the only guarantee that people will tell the truth under oath, and the belief in an all-seeing entity is the only way to make them behave themselves. Without this supernatural guarantee, everything “that is beautiful, lovely, and valuable in the arts, in science, and in society” would be at risk. For this reason the “revolutionary principles of modern infidelity” should not be taught; neither, however, should “sectarian peculiarities in religion”. McGuffey seems to have in mind a sort of bland, generic christian morality as the basis of character formation in schools.


Dubious Documents: The Case of the Fractured Founders part 3 (sbh)

Duties of Parents and Teachers (Wm. H. McGuffey)

Forsaken Roots (author unknown)

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

Fake Quotations: Madison and Government’s Basis

Posted by sbh on Saturday, 15 August 2009

Did James Madison write:

Religion is the basis and foundation of government

in his Memorial and Remonstrance?

No.  It’s a fake made by taking “the basis and foundation of government” from a title Madison was citing, the word religion from a few lines before it, and inserting the word is from a section in between.

Here is the passage as it appeared originally (the quoted words are in bold):

SECTION 15, Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.

Although it would have been technically correct to quote it in this form: “… religion … is … the basis and foundation of government …” in that all these words are actually found in the source, that still would have been a fake quotation, as it does not in any way reflect the sense of the original. It’s particularly worth noting that the word religion comes from one quoted passage, while the words the basis and foundation of government are from a title.  The words in the title refer to various individual rights of which the free exercise of religion is one.  The document in question is usually referred to as The Virginia Bill of Rights.  Madison is indeed arguing that freedom of religion is a basic right; he is by no means asserting that “religion is the basis and foundation of government,” which would be quite a different thing.

The quotation turns up in David Barton’s Myth of Separation and in Federer’s America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations. As both authors are familiar with Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance it is hard to how their use of it in this form could be an honest mistake.


Did Madison ever say that religion is the foundation of government? (Jim Allison)

Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man (James Madison, 1824 edition at Google Books)

Posted in Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, James Madison, US Founding Fathers | Leave a Comment »

Fake Quotations: Franklin and Primitive Christianity

Posted by sbh on Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Did Benjamin Franklin say:

He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.

to his disciples in Paris?


This is a translation of a summary of views attributed to Franklin by a political opponent. It does not pretend to be a direct quotation.  Here’s the passage from a 1793 English translation:

Franklin often told his disciples in Paris, that whoever would introduce the principles of primitive Christianity, into the political state, would change the whole order of society. An absolute equality of condition; a community of goods; a Republic of the poor and of brethren; associations without a Government; enthusiasm for dogmas, and submission to chiefs to be elected from their equals,—this is the state to which the Presbyterian of Philadelphia reduced the Christian Religion.

The author of the passage is Jacques Mallet du Pan, royalist propagandist, journalist, and pamphleteer. Here is the same passage in the original French:

Francklin repéta plus d’une fois à ses éleves de Paris, que celui qui transporterait dans l’état politique les principes du christianismê primitif, changerait la face de la société. Egalité absolue des conditions, communauté des biens, République de pauvres et de frères, association sans Gouvernement, enthousiasme pour les dogmes et soumission à des chefs électifs, choisis entre des Pairs; voilà sans doute à quoi le presbytérien de Philadelphie réduisait la religion chrétienne…

Please note, neither in the original French nor in the English translation is this presented as a quotation of Franklin’s. It is rather a hostile paraphrase of his (alleged) views.  In 1866 historian Henri Martin, however, turned it (perhaps inadvertently) into a direct quotation:

La présence de Franklin à Paris, personnifiant la République sous une forme si respectable, exerça une grande influence morale. Nos philosophes, en discutant avec lui dans Paris la constitution américaine, se préparaient à discuter les lois futures de la Révolution française. Un publiciste royaliste, Mallet-Dupan, nous a conservé un grand mot que Franklin, dit-il, répéta plus d’une fois à ses élèves de Paris: “Celui qui transporterait dans l’état politique les principes du christianisme primitif changerait la face du monde.” [Henri Martin, Histoire de France depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’en 1789 (4th edition, 1862), volume 16, p. 489]

[The presence of Franklin at Paris, personifying the republic under a form so worthy of respect, exercised a great moral influence. Our philosophers, in discussing with him at Paris the American Constitution, prepared themselves to discuss the future laws of the French Revolution. A royalist publicist, Mallet-Dupan, has preserved for us a great saying, which Franklin, he says, repeated more than once to his pupils at Paris: “He who shall carry into politics the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world.”] [Henri Martin, Martin’s history of France: The decline of the French monarchy.  Trans. Mary Louise Booth.  Boston: Walker, Fuller, and Co., 1866, vol. 2, p. 442]

Martin’s wording here is ambiguous; the quotation marks correctly show the material is quoted, but Martin’s words imply that he is quoting Franklin rather than Mallet du Pan.

The next stage in the transmission of this item comes when historian George Bancroft, in volume 3 of The American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1866, volume 3, p. 492), observed of Franklin:

He remarked to those in Paris who learned of him the secret of statesmanship: “He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world;”…

The translation is different. Bancroft doesn’t give any sources, but he certainly was aware of Henri Martin’s work. (The publisher of the English translation went so far as to note that “The eminent historian, Hon. George Bancroft, has generously volunteered his highly prized aid to the translator, and will enrich the edition by valuable annotations”, though no such annotations actually appeared.) The simplest explanation is that Bancroft got the quotation from Martin’s work directly and translated it himself. The wording is identical to that of the commonly-circulated version, making George Bancroft the most likely source for it. Certainly it is obvious that Samuel Arthur Bent had Bancroft in mind when he quoted Franklin as saying this in Short Sayings of Great Men (p. 227); the very next saying of Franklin he quotes likewise followed immediately in Bancroft. Of course such a collection of sayings is the ideal medium to allow a fake quotation to propagate.

As this is a paraphrase, and quite distant from the alleged source (third-hand at least), there is relatively little point in trying to go any further with it. Do equality of conditions, community of goods, or enthusiasm for dogmas sound like doctrines of Benjamin Franklin? This material really stands or falls with how these elements are evaluated. If these ideals are in fact those of Franklin, then perhaps Mallet du Pan’s paraphrase is accurate. Otherwise—and I’m definitely on the otherwise side myself—this sounds like the kind of misrepresentation often spread by a man’s opponents.  And Jacques Mallet du Pan was beyond doubt an opponent of Benjamin Franklin.

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

Franklin and God’s Gift

Posted by sbh on Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Did Benjamin Franklin write

Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God.

in his Maxims and Morals in 1789?

No.  Not in the least.

First of all, Maxims and Morals of Benjamin Franklin is a 1927 book by one William S. Pfaff (not a 1789 book by Benjamin Franklin). Not having seen a copy yet, I can’t say whether this quotation actually appears there or not, but it isn’t relevant. What we have here is a slight misquotation from an essay by John Webbe, a publisher contemporary with Benjamin Franklin, that originally appeared in Franklin’s paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, on 1 April 1736. It probably became attributed to Franklin through confusion of author and publisher.  The original quotation ran:

Thank God! we are in the full enjoyment of all these privileges. But can we be taught to prize them too much? or how can we prize them equal to their value, if we do not know their intrinsic worth, and that they are not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature?

(There is no clear antecedent in the text for “these privileges,” but the privileges enjoyed under the constitution of Great Britain are clearly meant—in effect, the privileges of a representative government where the powers are held by the people, rather than by an aristocracy.)

Webbe’s essay was anonymous, though the paper later named him as author. Perhaps overlooking this, William Duane included it in his 1834 Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin (vol. 2, pp. 439-440), as did Jared Sparks in his 1882 Works of Benjamin Franklin (vol. 2, pp. 278-282). Sparks, however, included the following note with his essay:

What proof there is, that the two essays on Government were written by Franklin, except that they appeared in his Gazette, I have no means of determining. The internal evidence does not appear very strong. They are included in Duane’s edition. — Editor.

And by 1905, when Albert Henry Smyth’s The Writings of Benjamin Franklin started emerging from the press, the confusion had been cleared up.  Smyth wrote the following in the first volume (pp. 171-172):

“The Essays on Government” which were published by Sparks and Bigelow, are acknowledged in a later issue of the Gazette to have been written by John Webbe.

So the basic facts are: this is (1) a slight misquotation from (2) a 1736 essay (3) written not by Benjamin Franklin, but by John Webbe. There is nothing wrong with citing it correctly if attributing it to John Webbe; as a Benjamin Franklin quotation it is totally bogus.


Freedom is a Gift Bestowed by God (sbh)

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

Fake Quotations: Harvard Student Handbook

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 19 July 2009

Did the original Harvard Student Handbook have

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17:3; and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.

as its first rule?

No. This is a misquotation (and a bad one) of rule 2, not rule 1.

This rule is taken from “Rules, and Precepts that are observed in the Colledge,” as printed in New England’s First Fruits, a 1643 booklet printed in England.  Rule 2 (again, not rule 1) reads:

2. Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and lesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17. 3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.

And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himselfe by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov 2, 3.

Where did this garbage at the end of the pseudo-quotation come from?

Well, a document sometimes entitled “Forsaken Roots” started making its way around the internet by 2002.  In its original form it contained this:

In the original Harvard Student Handbook, rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the scriptures: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17:3; and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him (Proverbs 2:3).

Up to a point this is a reasonably accurate modern-spelling version of the original with two strange lapses: the insertion of the word “Jesus” in front of the word “Christ” and the silent omission of the words “in the bottome” immediately after “Christ”.  Okay, that explains a bit, but where on earth did that gibberish about the ten commandments come from?

Well, later in the document we have the rhetorical question:

Is it not a permissible objective to allow our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

Now early in the transmission of “Forsaken Roots” the document was violently (and seemingly mindlessly) shortened by the omission of two sections.  One of these omissions included every word between “foundation” (in the Harvard rules quotation) and “our children” (in this rhetorical question).  Apparently the word “for” was inserted in the gap to produce:

…and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

A number of copies actually have it end with a question mark and no closing quotation mark, as rendered above, though most have smoothed it out a bit by replacing the question mark with a period and closing quotation mark.  The short form of “Forsaken Roots,” by the way, has circulated most widely under the title “History Forgotten.”

In its original form “Forsaken Roots” referred to the first rule as requiring students to know Latin and Greek.  This is correct.  The first rule ran:

1. WHen any Schollar is able to understand Tully, or such like classicall Latine Author extempore, and make and speake true Latine in Verse and Prose, suo ut aiunt Marte; And decline perfectly the Paradigim’s of Nounes and Verbes in the Greek tongue: Let him then and not before be capable of admission into the Colledge.

Where “Forsaken Roots” went wrong was in quoting part of the second rule without citing it as the second rule, thus making it seem as though the first rule was being quoted.  Not a major sin, but still very sloppy work.  The silent alterations to the text are likewise extremely sloppy, though as they don’t distort the meaning, they fall short of criminal.

Since “History Forgotten” has circulated, the fake form of the second rule from “Rules and Precepts” has been pulled out and circulated separately, without anybody seeming to notice that it’s absolute gibberish.

(In the above transcriptions I have replaced the long s (ſ) with an ordinary s.  Thus “Verſe and Proſe” become “Verse and Prose” as above.)


America’s Christian Roots (sbh; this version has the lacunae of the abbreviated text in blue)

New England’s First Fruits (Anonymous, 1865 reprint at Google Books)

On the Authorship of “New Englands First Fruits” (Worthington C. Ford, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1909)

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Fake Quotations: Patrick Henry and the Worth of the Bible

Posted by sbh on Thursday, 9 July 2009

Did Patrick Henry say

The Bible is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.

toward the end of his life?

No.  Probably not, anyway.  It’s another quotation based on a second-hand story, though better than some.

Ultimately the account appears to go back to George Dabney, one of Patrick Henry’s neighbors.  (I say appears because there is an element of inference still, as we’ll see.)  Captain George Dabney fought in the Revolutionary War, and afterwards was an associate of Declaration-signer and Virginia governor Thomas Nelson.  According to a newspaper clipping reprinted in a Dabney family history,

Patrick Henry was his intimate friend and neighbor, and from him Mr. Wirt obtained much of the information which he has embodied in his life of Patrick Henry.

William Wirt (1772-1834) was the prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s treason trial, Attorney-General under James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, and the author of Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817). From its introduction we learn that George Dabney was Patrick Henry’s friend during his childhood and youth, and that William Wirt got his information from him through Nathaniel Pope, as he himself was not acquainted with George Dabney.

In this book the story first appears.  Wirt tells it like this:

Mr. Henry’s conversation was remarkably pure and chaste. He never swore. He was never heard to take the name of his Maker in vain. He was a sincere Christian, though after a form of his own; for he was never attached to any particular religious society, and never it is believed, communed with any church. A friend who visited him, not long before his death, found him engaged in reading the bible: “here,” said he, holding it up, “is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed: yet it is my misfortune never to have found time to read it, with the proper attention and feeling, till lately. I trust in the mercy of heaven, that it is not yet too late.” He was much pleased with Soame Jenyns’ View of the internal evidences of the christian religion; so much so, that about the year 1790, he had an impression of it struck at his own expense, and distributed among the people. His other favourite works on the subject were Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul,” and Butler’s “Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed.” This latter work, he used at one period of his life, to style by way of pre-eminence, his bible. The selection proves not only the piety of his temper, but the correctness of his taste, and his relish for profound and vigorous disquisition. [pp. 401-2, links added]

William Wirt gives no source, but when William Wirt Henry (Patrick Henry’s grandson) wrote his 1891 Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches he retold the same incident:

One of his neighbors going to see him found him reading the Bible. Holding it up in his hand, he said: “This book is worth all the books that ever were printed, and it has been my misfortune that I have never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till lately. I trust in the mercy of Heaven that it is not yet too late.

His source for this is “Statement of George Dabney, MS. Letter to Mr. Wirt, Wirt’s Henry.”  And as he notes in his introduction that he had “access to nearly all of the material used by Mr. Wirt, including most of the communications received from the contemporaries of Mr. Henry,” it seems a reasonable assumption that both versions came from the same source.

So on the plus side, assuming that the George Dabney connection to be correct, the story emanates from a person close to the alleged source.  On the minus side we still don’t know whether Dabney was the “friend” or “neighbor” who supposedly heard this, or whether he was only reporting what somebody else had told him.  And, distinctly on the minus side, this is a familiar sort of legendary embellishment, the story about the man near death who seeks comfort from the Bible.  If it never happened, somebody probably would have invented it.

Also, and I may be a little hyper-critical here, Henry seems to have been well-acquainted with the Bible.  Certainly his reading matter (as described above) is extremely heavy-going without familiarity with the Christian scriptures, and I personally find it difficult to believe that Henry had “never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till” shortly before his death. To me that has a strong flavor of legendary embellishment.


Should a Class Focusing on the Bible be Taught in Public School? (sbh)

A View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion (Soames Jenyns, 4th edition, page images at Google Books)

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Alleged Quotations: Washington and the Duty of Nations

Posted by sbh on Monday, 6 July 2009

Did Washington say:

It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits and humbly implore his protection and favor.

in 1789?

Yes, almost.  This was part of his Thanksgiving proclamation, the first in the nation’s history under the Constitution.  The text ran as follows:

City of New York, October 3, 1789.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th. day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

The proclamation is in the handwriting of William Jackson and signed by Washington.

As noted the proclamation was issued in response to a request from Congress.  The resolution was introduced in the House on 25 September by Elias Boudinot (P, NJ), the one-time president of the Continental Congress who would later write The Age of Revelation in reply to Paine’s The Age of Reason and serve as first president of the American Bible Society.  “Mr. Boudinot said,” according to the Annals of Congress, that “he could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the Untied States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”  The resolution he proposed:

Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.

There were rumblings of discontent at the proposal.  Aedanus Burke (A, SC) objected to “this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.  Two parties at war frequently sung Te Deum for the same event, though to one it was a victory, and to the other a defeat.”

Boudinot rejoined that he “was sorry to hear arguments drawn from the abuse of a good thing against the use of it.  He hoped no gentleman would make a serious opposition to a measure both prudent and just.”

Thomas Tudor Tucker (A, SC) made some pointed objections: he “thought the House had no business to interfere in a matter whcih did not concern them.  Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?  They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.  We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.”

Roger Sherman (P, CT) “justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point.  This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.”

Elias Boudinot additionally justified the proclamation by citing the practice of the Continental Congress, and the matter was voted on and passed.  A joint committee consisting of Boudinot, Sherman, and Peter Silvester (P, NY) from the House, and William Samuel Johnson (P, CT) and Ralph Izard (P, SC) from the Senate, laid the resolution before President Washington.  And as we saw above Washington proclaimed 26 November a day of prayer and thanksgiving on 3 October 1789.


Thanksgiving Proclamation (Text at University of Virginia)

The Thanksgiving Proclamation (Papers of George Washington)

The Constitution and Separation of Church and State part 1 (Jim Allison)

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