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Of Deathless Remarks…

July 2024
15min read

A few notes for Mr. Bartlett

One day in 1921 a researcher rummaging through the archives of the Service Hydrographique de la Marine in Paris chanced upon a surprising document. What it was doing there and who wrote it have never been explained, but the paper turned out to be the only eyewitness account known to history of one of the high moments of the American Revolution. And it shockingly alters the picture America has always cherished ofthat great moment.

The document was a diary written in English by a Frenchman who had been visiting the American colonies. He may have been an agent of his government, but neither his name nor his mission is now known. The validity of the document itself, however, is not in doubt. It is full of detailed and intelligent comment on the geography, accommodations, customs, and people of the country its author passed through, and it is written objectively and without bias. The writer had no idea that he was damaging an American tradition at its birth.

On May 30, 1765, the diarist happened to be in Williamsburg, Virginia, when the House of Burgesses was in session. “I went immediately to the assembly,” he wrote, “where I was entertained with very strong Debates Concerning Dutys that the parlement wants to lay on the American Colonys, which they Call or Stile stamp Dutys.”

This, of course, was the day and the occasion when Patrick Henry, as tradition tells us, spoke the flaming words that every schoolboy knows, or should. “In a voice of thunder, and with the look of a god,” his first and most famous biographer tells us, Patrick Henry rose in his seat and said: “Caesar had his Brutus—Charles the First, his Cromwell, and George the Third——”

Here came cries of “Treason! Treason!” from the assemblage. But, we are told, Henry “faltered not for an instant … [and] finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis—‘ may profit by their example . If this be treason, make the most of it.’”

It was a grand and unforgettable moment, a milestone on the glory road to rebellion, war, and independence. Unfortunately, nobody took notes on the speech at the time—except our French traveller. And as the only eye-(or ear) witness on record, he gives us an ending different, and distinctly less thrilling, than the traditional one.

After the cries of “Treason!” according to our diarist, “…the Same member stood up again (his name is henery) and said that if he had afronted the speaker, or the house, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would shew his loyalty to his majesty King G. the third, at the Expence of the last Drop of his blood, but what he had said must be atributed to the Interest of his Countrys Dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have lead him to have said something more than he intended, but, again, if he said anything wrong, he beged the speaker and the houses pardon…”

An apologetic Patrick Henry professing undying loyalty to the Crown and offering to bleed for his king is not quite what we’re used to, but that is what the record—the only on-the-spot record—says. The speech as we know it and as it is given in the schoolbooks first appeared a half century after the event and is a work of historical paleontology by William Wirt, a Virginia lawyer and man of letters. Admitting that “not one of his [Henry’s] speeches lives in print, writing, or memory,” Wirt reconstructed the oration from the uncertain and fading recollections of a handful of aging men who were there, using a phrase from one and a sentence from another and fleshing out the body of the speech from his own imagination. What we have as one of the great American orations is actually a literary dinosaur pieced together out of a handful of memory bones and fossils.

Still, Patrick Henry did indeed say something inflammatory on that memorable day in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Though no account gives us his words verbatim, whatever he said caused something of a commotion. We know that the royal governor, Francis Fauquier, reported on the stamp debates to the Board of Trade in London and called attention to “very indecent language” used by “a Mr Henry a young lawyer.” Weeks after the event, a London newspaper mentioned the speech with some indignation and reported that an unnamed member of the House had “blazed out” with references to Tarquin, Caesar, and Charles the First. (Tarquin disappears from the classic version of the speech, though the Frenchman’s report includes him.) And Thomas Jefferson was present at the debate, standing in the lobby entrance of the hall, where he heard everything. When Wirt consulted him fifty years later, he “well remembered” Henry’s fiery oratory and the defiant remarks about George the Third. If Henry backed down at the end, Jefferson didn’t mention it to Wirt.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to get around those awkward notes of the itinerant Frenchman or to ignore the fact that William Wirt never heard or even saw Patrick Henry. Something of the same cloudiness surrounds the “liberty or death” speech, the very pinnacle of Revolutionary oratory, for which, again, we have only Wirt’s undocumented version as a source.

On examination, a startling number of our most cherished sayings turn out to be of dubious provenance, the products of what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin has called “posthumous ghost-writing.” He cites, among other instances, the celebrated slogan attributed to James Otis: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” This has become an imperishable principle in the American credo and is endlessly quoted as the rallying cry of the Revolution. But it does not appear on the record anywhere until 1820, in the notes of John Adams. Otis may have said it when he is credited with having said it, but we can’t be sure now that he actually did. “From the era of the Revolution,” Boorstin tells us, “the ringing words were those imagined to have been heard.”

Did John Paul Jones, when called upon to strike his colors on the burning and battered Bonhomme Richard , reply: “I have not yet begun to fight”? He could have, but there is no proof that he did. He himself, in his own account of the battle, doesn’t mention it, and it is unlikely that a man who got off a line like that would forget it. When the French demanded a bribe of $250,000 from the United States as the price of receiving the newly appointed American minister in 1797, did Charles Cotesworth Pinckney rise to the situation by thundering out the slogan “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute”? Well, no. What he said was: “No, no, not a sixpence!”—which, though just as emphatic, was not particularly memorable. The schoolbook-saying he is credited with was invented afterward by somebody else and transferred to Pinckney, who should have thought of it in the first place, but didn’t.

Time and again, in all ages, the key figure in a dramatic event or historic situation has failed to produce the immortal words expected of him, or if he did there was nobody on hand to record them. The gap has often been filled by some volunteer ghost writer, contemporary or posthumous, who produced his version of what ought to have been said but unfortunately wasn’t.

When, for instance, the Baron de Cambronne was called upon to surrender at the Battle of Waterloo, all France was thrilled at the report of his reply: “ La Garde meurt, mais ne se rend pas ”—“The Guards die but do not surrender.” To this day the words are inscribed on his statue in his home town of Nantes, and they have passed into other languages, including our own.

But the Baron himself repeatedly denied that he ever indulged in any such quote-book rhetoric, and the inescapable fact is that he did not die but was taken prisoner. What he actually said, he insisted, was “ Merde ,” which is still sometimes referred to in France as le mot Cambronne . A journalist who was nowhere near the battle invented the fancier version for him.

Voltaire would seem to be the last to need anyone’s help in the creation of memorable phrases. Nevertheless, the one most often associated with him is not his. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” cannot be found anywhere in his works. The words first appeared in 1906 in a book whose author considered them an accurate reflection of Voltaire’s philosophy, and they seemed so right for him that they have been taken for granted as his ever since. In the same way Galileo’s famous “ E pur si muove ”—“And yet it does move”—was put into his mouth long after his death. What he really said, if anything, after his recantation before the Inquisition on the movement of the earth around the sun is not known, but he could hardly have bettered “ E pur si muove ,” and it has become his just as irrevocably as if a shorthand stenographer had been present to take it down as it was uttered.

Despite the historian’s obsession with accuracy and his passion for “as it actually happened” and all that, embellishment and invention often prove to be superior to literal truth when it comes to historic sayings and great phrases—the words men live by. In these matters the people themselves have long since decided that mere correctness is a trifle when weighed against the essential Tightness, the poetry, the dramatic impact, of a given saying or familiar quotation.

So it makes little difference, from this viewpoint, whether William Tecumseh Sherman ever said “War is hell” in precisely those words. They are not discoverable in any of his writings or speeches. At a G.A.R. convention in Columbus, Ohio, on August 11, 1880, he said: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” The public, wielding its instinctive editorial pencil, shortened this to the more powerful and uncluttered three-word saying that is now standard and classic.

The public not only edits, shortens, and polishes, but it also invents, repeating words that were never uttered until they become imbedded in the national consciousness just as surely as if they had been truly spoken in the first place. Sherman, again, on his march to the sea was approaching the key supply depot at Allatoona, Georgia, when he learned that the place was under critical pressure by the enemy. Surveying the situation from Kennesaw Mountain, thirteen miles away, he sent off two messages to the Allatoona commander. One included the phrase “hold out” and the other “hold fast,” and both included Sherman’s promise he would soon arrive with relief. The two dispatches were subsequently condensed in the popular mind into “ HOLD THE FORT! I AM COMING .” Though the phrase was never actually used, “Hold the fort!” became a Union slogan and was put into a rousing revival hymn that swept the country.

No historic personage, no matter how eloquent or exalted, escapes this touching up, revision, and embellishment by the public, which seems to have a fairly infallible ear for the right sound and shape of a saying. When Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister in Britain’s most precarious hour of World War II, his first address to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, included the sentence “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The resonance and rhythm of the words was such that he subsequently used them over again, in the same order, on other crucial occasions during the war. They have been quoted thousands of times since—but seldom in the way Churchill first said them. The public ear apparently detected a hint of redundancy in “toil” and “sweat,” and there was something in the word order that did not seem quite right. So, by the usual mysterious process of instinctive editing, the saying was revised to read “blood, sweat, and tears,” which is how almost everyone now says it, including a rock group currently using the phrase as its billing. Anyone who quotes Churchill’s original word order today sounds as if he has got it wrong.

It makes no difference at all how many times the correct form of a word or saying is brought before the public; if people decide they like another version better, that version will prevail. Tens of millions of draft notices, from World War I to Vietnam, have gone out with the plain, unmistakable salutation at the top: “Greeting.” But in print and by word of mouth, the singular greeting from the government invariably comes out plural, as in the title of the recent movie about the draft, Greetings . But if s is added here where it doesn’t belong, it sometimes arbitrarily disappears where it does belong. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s group of academic and intellectual advisers was labelled a Brains Trust by James Kieran of the New York Times , but for some reason the plural offended the public ear and by tacit agreement was quickly dropped, though the British still keep it.

The public’s insistence on having things said in its own way regardless of what actually was said has caused distress to more than one public figure. Herbert Hoover went to his grave insisting that he never called Prohibition “a noble experiment,” and he didn’t. What he called it was “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive,” which is not the same thing. But for as long as the subject is written about, “noble experiment” will be quoted derisively as a Hooverism, like “Prosperity is just around the corner,” which he didn’t say either.

Worse, perhaps, than being saddled with something one did not say is to fade into history bereft of credit for a memorable mot one did in fact produce. “Founding Fathers” is one of the most durable, useful, and ubiquitous of all the phrases in the American lexicon. It is impossible to reach the age of twelve without coming across it or to write about the American past without using it. Yet it recently took a massive search by the Government and General Research Division of the Library of Congress to discover its author.

The search was instigated by the present writer, who needed the phrase for the script of a historical documentary. Twenty-three standard reference works were consulted without success. The best efforts of a professional researcher also proved fruitless. A number of authorities in the field confessed that they too were baffled. One of them had just completed a fat and exhaustive dictionary of American sayings but admitted he had no entry under “Founding Fathers”; rather than admit this inability to trace its origin he made no mention of the phrase at all.

Through the good offices of Representative Ogden Reid of New York, the Library of Congress was put to work on the matter. After several months of searching, which included combing through all the relevant historical literature from George Bancroft to the present, the originator of “Founding Fathers” was established as firmly as it is ever likely to be. His name could hardly have come as more of a surprise.

It was Warren Gamaliel Harding.

The first use of the phrase that the combined efforts of the experts at the Library of Congress have been able to find occurs in an address by Senator Harding before the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, on George Washington’s birthday, 1918. “It is good,” Senator Harding began, “to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the republic.”

He used it again in his speech on being officially notified of his nomination for the Presidency at Marion, Ohio, on July 22, 1920, and yet again in his inaugural address on the Capitol steps on March 4, 1921. (“…I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers.”)

Since Harding now gets into the quotation dictionaries, if at all, chiefly on the strength of his neologism “normalcy” or in connection with the notorious “smoke-filled room,” the revelation that “Founding Fathers” is his should raise him a considerable notch in future reference works. Not every President leaves an enduring phrase behind him. (Curiously, it was an Englishman who put the Library of Congress researchers on the right track. They found that Sir Denis Brogan, in his Politics in America (Harper, 1954), had correctly attributed the phrase to Harding. When I queried him as to how he had managed this feat when no one in America, apparently, could have done it, Sir Denis replied: “I arrived in the U.S.A. in September of 1925 when the memory of W. G. H. was fresh if not fragrant, and the information may have been common knowledge then. I may have picked it up by osmosis.”)

Perhaps Harding’s connection with his coinage was lost from sight because it seemed so unlikely. “Harding,” said H. L. Mencken, “writes the worst English I have ever encountered; it reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” His usual oratorical style is best described by a word he himself used—“bloviate”—which meant to make bloated speeches full of political clichés. Finding an imperishable phrase in a Harding speech was as unexpected as finding a pearl in a meatball, an event so unlikely that people, including scholars, refused to believe it happened and quickly forgot that it did. The public, usually guided by the press, tends to displace reality with drama and fitness in these matters. What more fitting, historically, than for General,John J. Pershing, the most soldierly of soldiers, to step ashore in France at the head of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I and say: “Lafayette, we are here”?

The fact is, though, that the words were spoken as the tag of a speech at Lafayette’s tomb in Picpus Cemetery, Paris, on July 4, 1917, by an officer otherwise unknown to fame, a Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. Stanton, the chief disbursing officer for the A.E.F. Similarly, it wasn’t Pétain, the defender of Verdun, who said: “ Ils ne passeront pas! ” though it should have been. It was his subordinate, Robert Georges Nivelle, an admirable phrasemaker but a catastrophic general.

The list of famous sayings attributed to the wrong persons is a long one. It was Jefferson, not Washington, who warned against “entangling alliances.” It was not Horace Greeley who first trumpeted “Go West, young man!” but J. B. L. Soule, the editor of the Terre Haute Express , whose slogan Greeley merely popularized. And it was not Franklin D. Roosevelt who began a speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution with the words “Fellow immigrants.…” Though this keeps getting reprinted and will probably never be scotched, it was never uttered. It is, once again, the work of a ghostly unknown who distilled it out of a longer and more labored formulation that F. D. R. used.

With increasingly accurate and instantaneous methods of recording and reproducing speech, the role of the posthumous and retroactive ghost writer, to whom we owe so many of our famous sayings, is diminishing, if not disappearing. In our technological time there is no longer as much possibility for the phraseology of statesmen and leaders to be touched up, altered, and improved once the speech or saying is uttered. In most instances both are firmly cemented into the record at once, just as they are delivered. The ghostwriting must now be done in advance and is generally inferior to the ex post facto variety, probably for the same reason that the best lines and wittiest cracks always occur to one after the situation that should have prompted them is past. And freehand invention, no matter how inspired, is no longer possible. Nobody in the future will be able to make up a speech for, say, Dwight D. Eisenhower and get it accepted into the record, as William Wirt did for Patrick Henry or, going farther back in time, as Thucydides did for Pericles in the case of the classic Funeral Oration.

The temper of the time itself is working against the creation of great sayings. Rhetoric and eloquence are out of fashion and are almost everywhere regarded with either suspicion or derision, and usually both. The times being rigidly pragmatic, most men who find themselves in heroic situations make a point of being as hardheaded and unromantic about it as possible. When Edmund Hillary descended from his conquest of Mount Everest in May of 1953, ne announced his victory by saying: “We knocked the bastard off.” The man who becomes celebrated for daring and high enterprise today is likely to be a skilled technician of some sort, and a flair for language is seldom coupled with technical proficiency. So our astronauts, while performing feats that astound the world, are themselves liable to react with expressions like “Boy, what a ride!” (Alan Shepard) or, if really stirred to their depths, “Man, this is the greatest. Charlie babe, it’s fantastic!” (from the Apollo 10 spacecraft).

But the actual landing on the moon, in contrast to the preliminary whirls around it, did produce a memorable saying. It also provided, as an unexpected side effect, a memorable instance of how confusion and misquotation can distort even the most historic remark right at its birth.

Neil Armstrong knew that the whole world would be listening for what he said as he put the first human foot on the lunar surface. He had been prodded on the subject in preflight television interviews. Esquire had run several pages of possible sayings by writers and celebrities under the rubric “What Words Should The First Man On the Moon Utter That Will Ring Through The Ages?” A New York radio station had called upon its listeners to submit their own suggestions, and hundreds did. Armstrong would have to deliver something fairly notable or mar the whole mission. It is unlikely that any famous saying in all history was produced under greater pressure than Neil Armstrong’s as he stepped from the lunar module at 10:56 P.M. (E.D.T.) on July 20, 1969.

What he said was transmitted instantaneously across more than 200,000 miles of space, was heard by millions, and printed in countless newspapers—incorrectly.

The way his saying was reproduced on the air and in print around the world was: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Hardly anybody seemed to notice that there was something wrong with it. It really didn’t make much of a point, since there was no contrast between “man” as used in the saying and “mankind.” They both meant the same thing, which left the remark a little flat.

It took Neil Armstrong himself to set the matter right when he got back to earth. Going through the official transcript during his quarantine period, he discovered—no doubt to his horror—that he had been misquoted in every possible medium and language. The line that he must have hoped would ring at least for an age or two was being repeated over and over across the earth with a word missing. The missing word was the smallest one possible in the English language, but its absence ruined his line.

What he had actually said up there on the moon was: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The indefinite article on which his meaning depended had somehow gotten lost in transmission, probably in static. The ‘ New York Times subsequently printed Armstrong’s revision, and the wire services sent out corrections; but the original and erroneous version will no doubt crop up here and there from now on. It is already embedded in the moon-walk “memorial” issues of the Times and other newspapers and is thus irrevocably filed away for the misinformation of future generations.

If astronaut Armstrong’s words, even the correct ones, seem somehow inadequate to the stupendous event that prompted them, whose words would have been equal to it, short of shooting a Shakespeare into orbit? It may be that we have reached a point where events have outrun man’s capacity for responding to them. Once it was possible to get into history, and into the quotation books, by winning a comparatively small naval engagement and announcing: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” That was succinct, it told the story, and it was equal to the occasion, which was all that was required of a famous saying at that time. But how could anything like it, or anything at all, be equal to what happened on the morning of August 6, 1945, at Hiroshima?

The most lastingly significant occurrence of our time, or of any time, produced no memorable saying, not when it happened and not since, though libraries have been written about it. Captain Robert A. Lewis, who witnessed it as copilot of the Enola Gay , said all that anybody could say under the circumstances. What he said was: “My God!”

Captain Lewis’ comment is not much of a coinage, and it does not appear in the quotation books. But it may be the only possible response to most of the major developments of the future.

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