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 16, 2012

George Washington on “veterans of earlier wars”?

Boston 1775 reader Peter Ansoff recently asked me about this quotation:

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.
The earliest appearance I found on Google Books is from an April 1999 Congressional hearing; the witness who quoted those words said that he didn’t know who had originally coined them.

Within a couple of years, however, authors announced the author of that line: George Washington! Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul, published by Jack Canfield and Mark David Hanson in 2001, credited the quote to the general and first President, and there it’s stuck.

Barack Obama, then a U.S. Senator, used the quotation in a speech to the American Legion on 15 July 2005. John McCain, then and now a U.S. Senator, carried a copy of it in his pocket during the 2008 Presidential campaign to quoted from. The Congressional Record shows that many other legislators and witnesses at hearings have repeated it before and since.

Writers from National Review Online asked editors of the Papers of George Washington where those words appeared in the first President’s writings. In February 2008 the website announced that Washington never said it.

The editor-in-chief of that project, Edward Lengel, listed the quotation among several other spurious quotations and myths in his book Inventing George Washington, noting both the N.R.O. posting and how the misquotation remained widespread.

The thought behind that line isn’t at all surprising. Though the words offer a useful argument for preserving or increasing veterans’ benefits, even people who oppose such actions or oppose wars wouldn’t argue with their logic. The fact that our culture has added Washington’s name to the statement shows how much we desire individual and historical authority.

Here’s a challenge for Boston 1775 readers: Can anyone find an appearance of this quotation (or one very much like it) printed before 1999? Any attribution to Washington before 2001? Any version written by or credited to another individual?


JBD said...

Hmm, here's an earlier one, but still cites GW:

NYT for 21 May 1989, "Legislators Enact a Tax Exemption for Veterans" -

"The impact of the new measure will be more symbolic than real, said Timothy S. Carey, Republican-Conservative of Peekskill, who was the chief sponsor of the legislation and the only current Board member who supported the original bill in 1984. The average tax benefit of $250 to $300 dollars ''won't even make one mortgage payment,'' Mr. Carey said.

It is estimated that 10,179 veterans will qualify for the exemption, he said, and the additional yearly cost to the county's other taxpayers will come to ''about $2'' each.

But Mr. Carey, the only Vietnam veteran on the Board, told his fellow legislators they had made an important gesture. Quoting from George Washington's Farewell to the Troops, Mr. Carey observed, ''The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.''


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! Washington's actual farewell to the troops in 1783 doesn't contain those words, of course.

I wonder if the careful attribution in the 1999 record to "Author unknown" was a response to looking for that quotation in Washington's writings and not finding it.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

The use of the phrase "our young people" really rings false in an eighteenh-century context, or really in any context before the mid-twentieth!

Will Hickox said...

British writers in the 19th century such as Dickens sometimes used the phrase "young people," but you may be right in the case of America. We have been concerned about our youth throughout our history, however.

J. L. Bell said...

I ran a search for "our young people" at the Library of Congress's Washington Papers, and Washington did use that phrase in a letter to James Duane on 7 Sept 1783. But that was a letter about Indian affairs, not veterans' affairs.

Anonymous said...

In 1775 how many earlier wars were there? And no regular Army!
Mr. Carleton is right.

Unknown said...

It matters not,the date or author of the quote. What is important is the truth of the "quote". I am a Marine, I served during what I consider the forgotten decade, 1980-1990. It is a tragedy, incomprehensible,and inexcusable,the way and how this Country treats it's Vets.

J. L. Bell said...

We use quotations either because they express a thought particularly well or because they come from a famous person whose identity gives more weight to the thought. That's why people took this straightforward remark and put it into the mouth of George Washington. We may wish that the wisdom of such a statement can stand on its own, but evidently someone felt it needed artificial help.