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Parson Weems’s Law

July 2024
1min read

Governments pass laws constantly, but the only ones with any lasting force are those unofficial ones provided us by Newton, Gresham, Acton, Parkinson, and others like them who have observed the basic cussedness of things. In the business of history we have a little rule of this kind that is (or ought to be) known as Parson Weems’s Law. It has given us Washington and the cherry tree, Pilgrims jumping onto Plymouth Rock, young Lincoln courting Ann Rutledge, the unstained innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti—but enough examples. Let us state the law:

Historical fancy is more persistent than historical fact.

The law at work is demonstrated, to the deep regret of the editors of our new American Heritage History of the 20’s and 30’s , on page 321 of that book, in the account of President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court. The book states that one of the Court’s then members, Justice Pierce Butler, of Minnesota, “had failed in constitutional law at college.” That was the fancy circulated at the time of the battle over “nine old men” who were supposed to be impeding justice, right, reform, and All That Is Good. A recent work of erudition on Justices of the Court perpetuates the error and was routinely consulted on the point by our book’s checker.

Now, however, we hear from the late Justice’s indignant daughter, Mrs. Edward K. Dunn, of Baltimore, who possesses a transcript of his grades at Carleton College in Minnesota. In 1887–88, his senior year, he was given a mark of 7.6 (on a scale of 10) in constitutional law, which is clearly passing. We apologize to Mrs. Dunn and assure her that any future editions of the book will be corrected. But we cannot promise that, even in this carefully checked magazine, Parson Weems will not strike again.

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