In the gun-control debate two days ago, two of our commenters “quoted” George Washington as saying:
“Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the people’s liberty teeth.”
I said then that, in all the writings I’ve seen by Washington, I have never seen anything so succinct. He just didn’t talk or write like that. He never wrote a straightforward clause of nine words if it could be said more obtusely in 50 words. He was the greatest, most indispensable hero of our democracy, but he simply wasn’t the clearest, most direct writer.
Quotation invented. It didn’t take long to check out this “liberty teeth” statement. Washington never said it. Someone made it up. Fortunately, the “Pious Frauds” Web site has done the research on the words, often claimed to have been spoken by Washington at the second session of the first U.S. Congress.
Here is the full text of the firearms “quote” regularly attributed to the Father of Our Country:
“Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence. The church, the plow, the prarie wagon, and citizen’s firearms are indelibly related. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences, and tendencies prove that to insure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and the pistol are equally indispensable. Every corner of this land knows firearms, and more than 99 99/100 percent of them by their silence indicate they are in safe and sane hands. The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference; they deserve a place with all that’s good. When firearms, go all goes; we need them every hour.”
Alarm bells. Here is what “Pious Frauds” found:
This quotation, sometimes called the “liberty teeth”quote, appears nowhere in Washington’s papers or speeches, and contains several historical anachronisms: the reference to “prarie wagon” in an America which had yet to even begin settling the Great Plains (which were owned by France at the time), the reference to “the Pilgrims” which implies a modern historical perspective, and particularly the attempt by “Washington” to defend the utility of firearms (by use of statistics!) to an audience which would have used firearms in their daily lives to obtain food, defend against hostile Indians, and which had only recently won a war for independence. The “99 99/100 percent” is also an odd phrase for 18th century America, which tended not to use fractional percentages. It’s clear that “Washington” is addressing “gun control” arguments which wouldn’t exist for another couple of centuries, not to mention doing so in a style that is uncharacteristic of the period, and uncharacteristic of Washington’s addresses to Congress, both of which exhibited a high degree of formality.
According to “Pious Frauds,” Playboy Magazine used this quote in December 1995 and was forced to retract it in March 1996. (Somebody reads Playboy?)
“Bogus Founder Quotes,” a gun rights Web page, also warns against using this very dubious Washington “quote.”
Test on Washington. Think about it. Can you recall anything George Washington ever said? “I cannot tell a lie?” We’ll never know if he really said that. How about “Beware of foreign entanglements”? That seems to be the only Washington statement anyone tries to quote word for word.
But did Washington say “Beware of foreign entanglements” that directly? Was it just four words? Here’s the full context in his 1796 farewell address:
“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
Complex style. He never even said, “Beware of foreign entanglements.” He talked in long, complex sentences, or, where the sentences are relatively short, they seldom sum up a major point. His words are nothing like the poetry of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Washington really couldn’t have said, “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself.” That wasn’t his style.