J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Putting Words in Washington’s Mouth

Last month the St. Petersburg Times reported on yet another attempt to enlist the politicians of the late 1700s in today’s culture wars, and yet another misrepresentation:

The billboards showcase quotes from early American leaders like John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. Most of the quotes portray a national need for Christian governance.

Others carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

“I don’t believe there’s a document in Washington’s handwriting that has those words in that specific form,” [billboard renter Terry] Kemple said. “However, if you look at Washington’s quotes, including his farewell address, about the place of religion in the political sphere, there’s no question he could have said those exact words.”
Kemple apparently feels no embarrassment about repeating a lie because, he says, Washington “could have said those exact words.” Never mind that he didn’t—according to Kemple, he could have, and that’s just as good. Entertainingly, Kemple has cast himself as a truthteller, insisting that the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state is a “lie.” 

Earlier in the month, Kemple organized a “tea party” protest, another attempt to coopt the U.S. of A.’s founding symbolism for his causes. More often he’s demanded that governments adopt his narrow religious positions on social issues such as forbidding same-sex marriage (he’s on his second marriage, but doesn’t want other couples to have their first), and making schools teach creationism but not sex education.

The Washington misquotation that Kemple tried to justify isn’t a recent coinage, having appeared in an 1893 book titled A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible, written by Howard H. Russell and published by an evangelical press. It was debunked in 1990 in They Never Said It, by Paul F. Boller, Jr.

Boller went on to offer what he believed was one of the rare statements by Washington on the Bible, from an early draft of his first inaugural address:
The blessed Religion revealed in the word of God will remain an eternal and awful monument to prove that the best Institutions may be abused by human depravity; and that they may even, in some instances be made subservient to the vilest of purposes.
Though referring to “the word of God,” that passage actually looks more like a warning that people can use organized religion as an excuse for bigotry and other wrongdoing—not what Kemple’s group would choose to advertise, I suspect.

What’s more, as Jon Rowe pointed out, that passage was probably drafted by Washington’s aide David Humphreys. The President threw out the whole thing and started over, never mentioning the Bible during his speech. Or, for that matter, in his other political statements. He could have, but he didn’t.


Peter Ansoff said...

Out of curiosity, I just did a global search on the world "bible" in Washington's papers at the Library of Congress. I found exactly two references: a 1772 invoice to Robert Carey & Co. for a family bible "for the use of Miss. Martha Parke Custis," and a response to a letter from Rev. John Rogers in 1783. (Rogers had suggested that the Congress issue a bible to each Continenal soldier upon his discharge from the army. Washington liked the idea but felt that it would be impractical, because so many soliders had already been discharged.)

Anonymous said...

As an avid reader of your blog, I completely agree with you and your thoughts on this wacko Kemple speaking for Washington. However, you have made your political leanings on this website quite clear and it is rather disappointing. Just because the man helped to organize one of the nation's Tea Party's does not mean he is using our symbolism for his own good. We cannot always assume these things. Furthermore, it was rather distasteful to take personal jabs at the man and his marriages. I wish you would stick to history and not gossip or politics, because your blog is one of the best out there.

J. L. Bell said...

To the anonymous commenter, I rather doubt you’d be disappointed with reading my political statements if you agreed with them.

I didn’t say that Kemple was using Tea Party symbolism “for his own good” (though he apparently makes his living as a political organizer). I wrote that Kemple tries to use the country’s Revolutionary heritage “for his causes,” and apparently doesn’t care that much about historical accuracy because he thinks the causes are more important.

Kemple seems genuinely concerned about the issues he focuses on. And when it comes to restricting marriage, he also seems genuinely blind to the hypocrisy of his position.