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Washington's Mother
Written January 18, 2016

Sometimes during the six months of a baseball season, TV producers run out of ideas.  Their job is to create unique telecasts — six of them every week, on average.  When a special occasion comes along, they welcome the opportunity to break the routine by weaving the celebration into the show.

Thus it was that for a Pirates baseball telecast scheduled for Mother’s Day a few years back, we prepared “Hi Mom” greetings from the players.  Also, my coordinator collected some inspirational sayings about motherhood.  But I balked when I had to type up this quote from George Washington:

My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw.

All I am I owe to my mother.

I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.

That’s nice, I said, but it doesn’t sound like George Washington.  It certainly doesn’t resemble the rather formal language that our first President would have used.  It seems more like it was made up by Parson Weems, the 19th-century hagiographer who invented the fable about Washington and the cherry tree.

However, I couldn’t prove that the quote was bogus, so I dutifully typed it into the graphic.

Later research revealed that Seth Bruggeman agrees with me.  “Although ubiquitous, these words are not Washington’s.”  The first sentence was probably made up not by Weems but by a 20th-century woman, with the remainder added later.

2018 UPDATE:

The remainder might have been a reworking of this quote attributed to another President.  Scholars are unsure whether he actually made the remark to his law partner, as alleged.

They also wonder whether it refers to Lincoln's beloved stepmother or to his birth mother, now in heaven.

In a similar situation, a local blogger quoted Thomas Jefferson in language that did not sound like Jefferson’s style.  I pointed this out to the blogger, he checked his source, and it turned out that the quote was actually from a modern historian summarizing Jefferson’s policies.

Here’s another example.  In his first State of the Union message as President, George Washington urged the nation to manufacture its own armaments rather than depend on imports from possible enemies.  (Two centuries later, a similar argument would be made for energy independence.)  He wrote:

“A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.”

The words of this Founding Father have been tampered with.  Nowadays the National Rifle Association claims that Washington said:

“A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”

“Not only armed but disciplined” has become “not only armed-and-disciplined but overwhelmingly armed.”  And those stockpiles of guns and ammunition are to be used, if necessary, against their own duly-elected government officials!

Washington would never have condoned such disloyalty.  In fact, as President he was obliged to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, in which distillers in western Pennsylvania took up arms against the United States because they didn’t want to pay the federal tax.

In his closing statement at the debate for Republican Presidential candidates on February 14, 2016, supposedly-patriotic Ben Carson dared to criticize our exceptional nation, asserting that “Our country is headed off the cliffs.”  How can this be?  Carson quoted a Soviet dictator:  “Joseph Stalin said if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things:  our spiritual life, our patriotism, and our morality.”

But TPM reports that “the online hoax debunking site Snopes.com notes there's no evidence Stalin ever said the line.  The language ... doesn't sound like something Stalin would have said, the site said, and it hasn't found any verifiable source for the quote after searching collections of Stalin's writings, interviews, and speeches.”  Snopes traced the meme to a Facebook post.

Finally, there’s this aphorism attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato:  “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Ian Chadwick observes that this quote is “far more modern than anything Plato ever wrote.  It just seems to me like another touchy-feely saying, attributed to someone ancient to give it a patina of credibility.  ...But it isn’t from Plato.”  He found hundreds of sites that repeated the words, but none of them identified a specific book by Plato from which the quotation was allegedly taken.  Many of these sites did specify sources for other Plato quotes.

Chadwick thinks the sentence in question is probably from Robin Sharma.  “Quotations attributed to the wrong author discredit both the poster and the quotation.  It’s part of the general dumbing-down the Internet is doing to us all.  It makes it very difficult to repeat anything we find online because few, if any, bother to track content backwards to confirm a source.”

So which quotations are we to believe?  For example, the gospel writer Matthew claims that Jesus said, “Don’t suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

But Matthew doesn’t cite his source.

This quotation doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels.

And it doesn’t sound like something Jesus would have said — the Jesus who preached “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the Jesus who told Peter in Gethsemane to put away his sword.

Did Matthew falsely attribute this quotation to the Prince of Peace?  Was it actually concocted by the National Sword Association?  I’m just asking.



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