…courtesy of America’s Finest News Source. The Washington quote is the high point.
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One of the most complicated and controversial battles of the Revolutionary War took place at Monmouth Court House, NJ on June 28, 1778. The war had just changed fundamentally, since France’s entry as a belligerent forced the British to contract their commitment in the colonies. This meant, among other things, abandoning Philadelphia, which they had captured the previous autumn. The British march away from the rebel capital presented Washington with an opportunity to inflict some damage on his enemy’s force as it crossed New Jersey. The ensuing engagement demonstrated that the Continental Army, so often defeated in the war’s previous two years, had become a formidable fighting machine. This battle and the events surrounding it are the subject of Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, by Joseph G. Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins, released this summer by Westholme Publishing. It is a book much wider ins cope than its title suggests.
The Revolution in New Jersey was a civil war, and the course of that civil war depended greatly on the fortunes of the regular armies. The Tory ascendancy in of 1776 in New Jersey proved relatively brief. British and Hessian rapacity alienated many civilians, Washington’s enterprising attacks at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that his army was not subdued, and an active local militia proved that while New Jersey was occupied, it remained unpacified. Fighting in the state continued through 1777, as both sides skirmished and foraged throughout the countryside.
The residents of Monmouth County experienced the effects of this fighting firsthand, both before and after the climactic battle that erupted among their homes in the summer of 1778. They also participated, often as militia or members of impromptu bands that coalesced in response to local military, social, or religious conditions. Organized Loyalists benefited from the presence of British regulars, attacking Whigs and confiscating their goods, but when control of New Jersey shifted to the Patriots, the tables were turned and Loyalists suffered accordingly. Some Tories joined armed bands of outliers, like the one led by an ex-slave that terrorized local Whigs from a base at Sandy Hook. Legal and extralegal Patriot groups targeted these Tories and those suspected of sympathizing with them, resulting in a kind of see-saw partisan conflict in which each side persecuted the other while operating in the shadow of whichever occupying force was most prominent at that particular time. Bilby and Jenkins use local records and correspondence to illuminate the inner workings of this struggle within Monmouth County.
The fortunes of the regular armies shifted back and forth, also. By the summer of 1778 the Continental Army was a matured fighting force. While the British had occupied Philadelphia, the Americans spent their winter at Valley Forge training under the tutelage of the colorful Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben. The British abandonment of Philadelphia, supervised by Sir Henry Clinton, was a necessary consequence of France’s entry into the war, but it meant marching across dusty roads in intense heat, exposed to an enemy more proficient at making battle than it had ever been.
Some of Washington’s subordinates urged their commander to use the British withdrawal march as an opportunity to attack. One who disagreed was General Charles Lee, a onetime veteran of the British Army who was also a critic of his commander and until recently a prisoner of war; while in captivity his behavior was sufficiently questionable as to bring his loyalty to the American cause into doubt. Lee warned that the army was not prepared for an all-out engagement, and recommended the use of small-scale harassment. Washington determined to divide his force and send a portion of it against the British flank and rear, seeking an opportunity to harass the enemy’s army and perhaps inflict serious damage. Once it became clear that this force would be considerable in size, Lee insisted that his seniority entitled him to command it. Washington relented, allowing Lee to take charge of a detachment faced with a task that he had vocally opposed. According to Bilby and Jenkins, Lee’s unfamiliarity with the troops under his command and with the terrain over which he would have to fight caused much of the confusion that followed.
When the two armies caught up with each other along the fields, marshes, and ravines near Monmouth Court House on June 28, the British counter-attacked. Faced with ever-increasing numbers of British troops, American units began to withdraw from the field, and shortly thereafter Lee himself ordered a general withdrawal and tried to establish a defensive position to the rear. Washington arrived on the field surprised to find his troops retreating; encountering a confused and flustered Lee, he failed to secure a satisfactory answer as to why the withdrawal was taking place. Washington himself then took command of the army and oversaw the establishment of new defensive positions along elevated ground, which the British found difficult to crack. After a two-hour artillery duel and a number of localized American attacks, the British completed their withdrawal from the battlefield, marching away to Sandy Hook for embarkation to New York that evening. The Americans had demonstrated their ability to stand toe-to-toe with British regulars in formal combat.
Still, the initial American withdrawal at Monmouth Court House ended the Revolutionary career of Charles Lee. The combative general insisted on a court-martial to clear his name and dashed off a series of insulting messages to Washington, which did little to help his cause. The American commander obliged Lee’s wish for an inquiry, which found Lee guilty of disobedience for failure to attack the British, conducting an improper retreat, and disrespect to his commander. Suspended from command for a year, Lee continued his crusade to vindicate his reputation, eventually getting himself removed from the army altogether. Bilby and Jenkins find Lee largely responsible for his own misfortunes. While the court-martial leveled accusations against Lee that were partly untrue (Washington had not ordered him to bring on a general engagement, despite the accusations of some of Lee’s enemies), and while his conduct of the defense following the confused retreat was admirable, the initial American withdrawal itself was, they argue, largely the result of Lee’s own ill-preparedness and his poor initiation of the battle. Likewise, the collapse of his military career was essentially his own fault, attributable to his belligerent behavior after the battle.
If Lee’s reputation suffered as a result of Monmouth, though, the Continental Army had vindicated itself after the embarrassing defeats of 1776 and 1777 by facing the British in a pitched battle. Over the next century, as Americans turned to the Revolution as a symbol of national unity and spirit, the battle and the field found their own places in American memory. The most prominent figure in the memory of Monmouth was (and remains) Molly Pitcher, a campfollower who supposedly helped man one of the artillery pieces. Bilby and Jenkins find that the Molly Pitcher legend, while embellished over time, likely has a basis in fact; it appears in some later participant accounts, and a likely candidate can be found in surviving records and recollections. The book concludes with a description of efforts to commemorate and preserve the battlefield, which is now a state park.
If all this sounds like more than a discussion of a battle, it is. The authors’ intention is to “tell the story of the Battle of Monmouth Court House in a holistic manner” (x). As such, much of the book is more concerned with the battle’s context than with the actual clash near Monmouth, delving into the course of the war in the Mid-Atlantic, its effects on the community, the organization and composition of the opposing armies, and eighteenth-century weapons and tactics. Much of this background material will already be familiar to students of the Revolution, but it does place the battle itself in a larger perspective.
As one of the most complicated and controversial engagements of the war, Monmouth seems ripe for the sort of painstaking critique of command decisions that characterize many battle studies, and some readers will probably find the authors’ reluctance to engage in such minute dissection frustrating. Still, this is a useful and enlightening account, one that clearly presents the story of Monmouth and puts that story within its proper place. It will be of interest to any reader interested in the Revolution or American military history.
…have new books out on the American Revolution, and they’re completely different.
Bernard Cornwell’s latest is The Fort, his second novel set during the War for Independence. It’s about the Penobscot Expedition, of all things. I’ve never read Cornwell, but I find it intriguing that he’d focus on an obscure subject like this.
Second, Ron Chernow has tackled the formidable job of a one-volume life of Washington. It’ll be interesting to see what place this bio finds on the shelf of Washington books. There are quite a few substantial, fairly recent, and still-popular one-volume lives of Washington out there—Willard Sterne Randall‘s is still in a lot of stores, and so is the acclaimed abridgment of James Thomas Flexner‘s work. Oxford brought out a new printing of John Ferling’s The First of Men earlier this year, too. Of course, Chernow’s got a built-in readership from his life of Hamilton, which was very well received, so that momentum may bump this book to the top of the stack of Washington bios as far as most readers of the next decade or so will be concerned. We’ll see what happens.
Last time I argued that in his book George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Peter Lillback occasionally sees meanings in Washington’s writings that aren’t there. In other words, he commits a fallacy that scholars of the Bible call eisegesis—reading meanings into a text, rather than extracting the original meaning out of it. He finds allusions to Scripture where I think Washington didn’t necessarily intend to make them.
Washington did quote or reference Scripture with some frequency, of course, as Lillback correctly points out. And he also correctly points out that his favorite allusion was to the image of the “vine and fig tree.” In the Old Testament this phrase connotes peace, comfort, and safety. In 1 Kings 4:25, it’s part of the description of Israel’s prosperity in the days of Solomon’s reign: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.” It’s also in 2 Kings 18 and Isaiah 36, when the Assyrians besieging Jerusalem try to convince the inhabitants to surrender, “and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree,” until the time comes for their deportation.
Most notably, the image of vine and fig tree appears in Micah chapter 4, as part of a vision of the restoration of Jerusalem:
1But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it.
2And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
3And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
4But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.
5For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.
Micah 4:4 was, according to Lillback, Washington’s favorite verse, and it’s hard to argue with him. Here’s just a small sample of Washingtonian references to this passage.
Washington to Charles Thomson (Jan. 22, 1784): “…I shall soon be enabled, I expect, to discharge that duty on which Nature and inclination have a call; and shall be ready afterwards to welcome my friends to the shadow of this Vine and Fig tree; where I hope it is unnecessary to add, I should be exceedingly happy to see you, and any of my late Masters, now representatives.”
Washington to John Quincy Adams (June 25, 1797): “I am now, as you supposed the case would be when you then wrote, seated under my Vine and Fig-tree; where, while I am permitted to enjoy the shade of it, my vows will be continually offered for the welfare and prosperity of our country; and for the support, ease and honor of the Gentleman to whom the Administration of its concerns are entrusted.”
Washington to Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (May 15, 1797): ”If to these I could now and then meet the friends I esteem, it would fill the measuse and add zest to my enjoyments but if ever this happens it must be under my own Vine and Fig tree as I do not think it probable that I shall go beyond the radius of 20 miles from them.”
Washington to Landon Carter (October 17, 1796): “A few months more will put an end to my political existence and place me in the shades of Mount Vernon under my Vine and Fig Tree; where at all times I should be glad to see you.”
Washington to Charles C. Pinckney (June 24, 1797): “As for myself I am now seated in the shade of my Vine and Fig tree, and altho’ I look with regret on many transactions which do not comport with my ideas, I shall, notwithstanding “view them in the calm lights of mild philosophy”, persuaded, if any great crisis should occur, to require it, that the good sense and Spirit of the Major part of the people of this country, will direct them properly.”
Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax (May 16, 1798): “Worn out in a manner by the toils of my past labour, I am again seated under my Vine and Fig tree, and wish I could add that, there are none to make us affraid; but those whom we have been accustomed to call our good friends and Allies, are endeavouring, if not to make us affraid, yet to despoil us of our property; and are provoking us to Acts of self-defence, which may lead to War.”
There are a couple dozen more, but you get the idea. Now, what I find interesting about this is the fact that Washington’s use of the “vine and fig tree” motif is quite radically different from Micah’s. Micah used it to describe a time in the “last days” when God would set things right, when Jerusalem would be restored to its rightful place and the nations’ proper relationships with each other and with the Lord would be established. It’s a classic instance of an Old Testament restoration oracle.
Washington uses it in a more everyday sense. He doesn’t refer to Kingdom Come; he just wants to go home to Mt. Vernon and stay there, away from the stresses of military command or political office. Lillback catches the Micah reference, but equally important here is the way Washington uses it to express the Cincinnatus ideal of the savior of the nation who hangs up his sword and heads back to the farm when his job is done.
I’m not denying that Washington got the image from the Bible. In fact, I’m quite certain that this is a conscious invocation of Scripture. I don’t, however, think there’s anything specifically religious about the invocation. It serves him as a figure of speech as much as anything else, and in this respect he’s not at all unusual.
In fact, the entire enterprise of trying to use biblical quotations or allusions to bolster the case for some historical figure’s religious beliefs seems dubious to me. The Bible was such an important cultural touchstone that even deists could quote it with ease. (For the record, I don’t think Washington was a strict deist.)
Lillback’s least convincing attempt to use this tactic is in the same chapter that deals with the vine and fig tree motif. Lillback notes a couple of instances in which Washington made humorous references to the Bible, such as a letter written to Annis Boudinot Stockton in 1783, and then makes the incredible contention that there is something distinctly Christian about this theological humor. Washington knows the Bible and Christian tradition well enough to kid about it, and therefore he must have had some intimate familiarity with it. “His humor avoids derision,” Lillback states, ”but still evokes a smile.”
I don’t mind telling you that this treatment of Washington’s words seems remarkably cavalier, and even a bit sloppy. How anyone could believe that allusions to such a well-known text as the Bible serve as a reliable indicator of personal faith is entirely beyond me. If Lillback ever decides to take a crack at Lincoln, that other famous American who never made a formal profession of faith but nevertheless steeped his words in Scripture, he’ll have a field day.
There’s a considerable amount of irony to all this. Lillback has tried to use Washington’s use of the Bible to build up his case that he was a Christian, and he’s become an intellectual darling of those who argue that the Bible played a critical role in America’s founding era. I think there’s a sense in which Lillback has unintentionally understated the Bible’s prominent place in early America.
He has assumed that since Washington quoted it, he must have had the same relationship to it that all orthodox Christians share. The truth is probably even more remarkable. The Bible was ingrained so deeply in the American mind that even a nominal churchgoer like Washington, whose Christian faith was and is a matter of dispute, was culturally hardwired to sprinkle it liberally throughout his writings.
If Lillback wants to make the case for a Christian America, he might more profitably explain why a guy like Washington could quote Micah in his letters and assume that his correspondents would catch the reference, as they undoubtedly did. Whether or not he was a Christian, he lived in a young nation that had already steeped in the Bible for so long that it was virtually saturated in it.
Since each copy of Peter Lillback’s book George Washington’s Sacred Fire is about the same size as a Kenmore refrigerator, I haven’t read the entire thing. What I have read has left me unimpressed, particularly the section on Washington’s relationship with the Bible.
It seems to me that this material contains very basic errors in interpretation. Lillback reads far too much into the evidence he cites. To borrow a couple of terms from Biblical studies, what we have in Lillback’s book is not exegesis of Washington’s writings, but eisegesis. Whereas the exegete finds the meaning in the text and interprets it, eisegesis is reading one’s own viewpoint into the text. Lillback’s book bristles with excerpts from Washington’s writings, but he finds meanings in those excerpts that aren’t really there.
To take an example, Lillback flatly states that “George Washington believed in the biblical doctrine of original sin.” Now, when we’re talking about the doctrine of original sin, we’re talking about something more than a belief that humans are fallible or even thoroughly evil. The doctrine is not just a belief about human nature, but a theological explanation of why humans are they way they are.
“Original sin” refers to the corruption of humanity resulting from the Fall of Man in Eden. Various theologians have formulated the concept in different ways. Some argue that humans are totally depraved as a result of primordial sin, while others that the Fall merely gave humans a propensity to sin. Some believe that mankind inherited Adam’s guilt as well as his sinful nature, while others hold that his descendants merely inherited his tendency to do evil. But in all these cases, the doctrine of original sin involves an explanation of human nature that relies somehow on the primordial transgression in the Garden of Eden. To believe that mankind is flawed or evil is neither specifically Christian nor religious. A belief in original sin is not merely a belief in human depravity, but a belief about the reason for it.
Lillback makes a convincing case that Washington had a low view of human nature, which of course is hardly new information. He cites a number of excerpts from Washington’s own writings, one of them from a letter sent to Lund Washington on December 17, 1778 in which the general said, “I see so many instances of the rascallity of Mankind, that I am almost out of conceit of my own species; and am convinced that the only way to make men honest, is to prevent their being otherwise, by tying them firmly to the accomplishmt. of their contracts.”
It’s worth noting that Washington’s concern here is as much practical as metaphysical. Taken by itself, the statement comes across as an almost dogmatic formulation about human depravity. In reality, Washington’s main point here is not about human nature, but his irritation at people who try to weasel their way out of a deal. Here’s the statement embedded within its surrounding text. I apologize for the length of the excerpt, but there is simply no other way to appreciate the sentence’s role in the letter:
I observe what you say in your Letter of the 2d. Instt. respecting specting [sic] the measurement of Marshalls land. I have already, in a letter about the last of November, given you full directions on this head, and in the one from Elizabethtown desired you to fix the quantity at 500 Acres, to save trouble; but to get it lower if you can, as, from Memory, I think the number of Acres less than that; but could tell almost to a certainty if I could have recourse to my Papers; however, I again repeat, that I had rather fix it at that quantity than let the matter lie open, or run the hazard of disputing with him about bounds. In short, than to delay a moment; for as I have mentioned to you in some former letters, I shall not be in the least surprized to hear that he has hit upon some expedient (if in consequence of his Sale he has not made purchases wch. he may be equally desirous of fulfiling) to get off his bargain with you; for when he comes to find that a barrel of Corn which usually sold for 10/ well now fetch £ 5 and so with respect to other Articles, he will soon discover that the great (nominal) price which he got for his land, is, in fact, nothing, comparitively speaking; for by the simple rule of preportion, he ought to have got £ 20 at least; as I would, in the best times of money, have given him 50/. or more for his land by the Acre. but this under the rose. We need not open his, or the eyes of others to these matters, if they do not already see them. This leads me to say, that I am afraid Jack Custis, in spite of all the admonition and advice I gave him against selling faster than he bought, is making a ruinous hand of his Estate; and if he has not closed his bargains beyond the possibility of a caval, I shall not be much surprized to hear of his having trouble with the Alexanders; notwithstanding your opinion of Bobs disposition to fulfil engagements. Jack will have made a delightful hand of it, should the money continue to depreciate as it has lately done, having Sold his own land in a manner for a Song, and be flung in his purchases of the Alexanders. If this should be the case, it will be only adding to the many proofs we dayly see of the folly of leaving bargains unbound by solemn covenants. I see so many instances of the rascallity of Mankind, that I am almost out of conceit of my own species; and am convinced that the only way to make men honest, is to prevent their being otherwise, by tying them firmly to the accomplishmt. of their contracts.
Washington’s aim here was not to issue a decree about human depravity, but to remind his recipient how important it was to lock down business transactions with solid agreements.
Still, whatever the context, Washington is undeniably expressing an extremely pessimistic appraisal of human nature. What he is not doing is appealing to the doctrine of original sin in order to account for it. He doesn’t mention a primordial Fall or inherited depravity. He simply states that you can’t trust people, and that when you’re doing business with them you have to take that fact into account.
Lillback also quotes a lengthy report submitted to a committee of Congress in 1778. Here Washington argues (as he argued often during the war) that it is necessary to create incentives to convince men to commit to lengthy terms of service in the army, since expecting them to do so without reward is naive: “It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.”
At first glance, this quote is a little more tantalizing. Washington even uses the term “depravity,” with all its connotations of Calvinist anthropology. But once again, this statement that human nature is deeply flawed does not invoke any specifically Christian explanations for why it is flawed. Nowhere does Washington connect his belief in human corruption to the original act of sin in the Garden of Eden. He merely states that the corruption exists.
Finally, Lillback cites a letter from December 1782: “The most hardened villain, altho’ he Sins without remorse, wishes to cloak his iniquity, if possible, under specious appearances; but when character is no more, he bids defiance to the opinions of Mankind, and is under no other restraint than that of the Law, and the punishments it inflicts.”
In other words, a man will try to hide his wrongdoing to preserve his reputation, but when that’s no longer a factor, “when character is no more,” the only thing that will make him think twice is “the Law, and the punishments it inflicts.” All this is textbook thinking for a Revolutionary officer. You can find similar sentiments about the importance of reputation in the letters of countless eighteenth-century aspiring gentlemen.
Once again, there is nothing in the passage that specifically relates to the doctrine of original sin. What we have is another observation about human nature with no reference to a primordial Fall or a specifically inherited propensity for evil.
In short, I think that in his attempt to paint Washington as a believer in original sin, Lillback is leaning on a very thin reed. He convincingly and correctly demonstrates that Washington believed in human depravity—but we’ve known this about him for quite some time. Lillback never ties these remarks to the specific theological assumptions that the doctrine of original sin demands. By this measure, anyone who placed little stock in mankind could theoretically qualify as a believer in original sin, whether he believed in the Edenic Fall or not. A disillusionment with mankind is an important corollary of a belief in original sin, but they’re not the same thing.
Of course, we can find numerous instances in Washington’s writings where there are clear and unmistakable references to Biblical passages. In a future installment we’ll have a look at the way Lillback handles these references.
As a fledgling history blogger, I’m conflicted about whether or not to keep posting about Glenn Beck’s ongoing historical shenanigans. On the one hand, it makes for great blogging fodder. It’s timely, controversial, and relates to fascinating questions about the way that historical memory intersects with contemporary politics and culture.
On the other hand, the fact that it does intersect with contemporary politics and culture makes me leery of it. I don’t want this blog to turn into another current events soapbox.
Let me therefore offer a possibly unconvincing qualifier. I’m about to say some rather unkind things about Glenn Beck, but my motives here are not political, and I’m not trying to score any ideological points. I’m not interested in doing so, and even if I were I doubt that either his ratings or his credibility would suffer due to the online rantings of an obscure adjunct professor of history. Indeed, I hope that my own political inclinations are a mystery to most of you, since this is not intended to be a political blog.
Is Beck’s engagement with history on his show important? I think it is. You might denounce him as a demagogue, as a blowhard, or as a laughing stock, but the unavoidable conclusion is that a lot of people listen to what the man has to say. After he plugged George Washington’s Sacred Fire, its sales on Amazon skyrocketed. In fact, when I searched for it to insert the link, its name appeared as a search suggestion as soon as I typed “George W,” despite the vast number of books on Washington that are out there. Its sudden popularity seems entirely owing to Beck’s endorsement, since this is a massive book from a relatively obscure publisher, written by an author without a track record of popular publications on the founding, and containing conclusions at considerable variance from the findings of most historians.
If Beck can send a history book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, then his remarks can potentially shape the way that a lot of people think about the past. And to be frank with you, I think that’s a problem—not because Beck’s historical interpretations are ideologically driven, but because he seems to be remarkably ignorant of basic historical knowledge.
In fact, he doesn’t seem to understand what constitutes general historical knowledge and what doesn’t. On May 21, he told his audience that he intended to ”show you some of the examples of where history is just wrong.” He then asked, “The New Deal — how many of us grew up in households that said the New Deal saved America, OK? All did. Now that you’re learning something about the New Deal, did the New Deal save America?” Why he’s convinced that this is some type of arcane knowledge that’s been lost to the ages is entirely beyond me. Both of the survey textbooks I used while teaching introductory survey courses last semester flatly stated that the New Deal did not end the Great Depression. So does academic historian David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear and any number of other books.
On the same show, Beck asked his audience, “How many of you had heard of George Whitefield before, what was it, last week or the week before?” He then noted that only three or four had. This is somewhat astonishing, since Whitefield is hardly an obscure figure in either historiography or in general surveys of early American history. If Beck and his audience were unaware of Whitefield’s existence or the New Deal’s shortcomings, the problem is not that history is being lost or that historians are engaged in some type of cover-up, but rather that they should have paid more attention in high school.
Similarly, in a May 28 piece, Beck discussed the Wilson administration’s anti-German propaganda and curtailing of civil liberties during WWI. He then claimed, “This history of the country has been so erased, we’ve been searching for days on images, pictures, anything on all of this stuff.” Again, none of this information has been ignored or neglected by historians or teachers. He and his staff would have found what they were looking for in any decent textbook, or even online; I’ve never had trouble finding visual representations of WWI propaganda on the internet for use in my lecture slides. Perhaps Beck needs to fire his research staff and hire some fourteen-year-old who’s familiar with Google.
Beck’s ignorance, though, doesn’t prevent him from speaking his mind or even from presenting himself as an expert, as evidenced by his recent remarks about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This segment possibly set a broadcasting record for the highest number of inaccurate statements made within a short period of time. After chiding his staff or not knowing what the scrolls are, he claimed that the scrolls were hidden away after the Council of Nicaea (they predated the council by centuries), said council having been organized by Constantine in order to build an army (it had nothing to do with an army) and resulting in death sentences for heretics (nope) and the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed (ditto). This is not just a slip of the tongue or a case of misspeaking; this is buffoonery on an epic scale.
And yet this is the guy sending history books to the top of the bestseller list, presenting regular history segments on his show, garnering honorary doctor of philosophy degrees, and assuming responsibility for educating America. I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity or his patriotism, but if he’s going to keep up this history bit, then he desperately needs to be better informed. If the blind lead the blind, it’s been written, both will fall into a pit. And just for the record, that’s not from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
…of the book on Washington’s religion that Glenn Beck has been plugging. Check it out.
If George Washington chops down a cherry tree in the forest and there’s nobody to hear it but Glenn Beck, does it make a sound?
The other day I was sitting in Pizza Hut with a friend of mine, enjoying a plate of boneless chicken wings, when I looked up at the TV mounted on the wall to find Glenn Beck talking about George Washington.
Beck’s new favorite book is George Washington’s Sacred Fire, by Peter Lillback. He’s been bragging that its sales have skyrocketed because of his endorsement, and evidently he’s right. As of my writing this, it’s ranked no. 1 on Amazon. I haven’t read the book, but as far as I can determine (and if anybody knows differently feel free to correct me), Lillback is trying to make the case that Washington was a more orthodox Christian than a lot of us believe. Personally, I think Washington was well along the deism end of the spectrum, though not as far as some of his contemporaries.
While I was looking for information about the book, I found out that Beck has been on a real Washington kick lately. On May 7, his guests were Andrew Allison and Earl Taylor. Allison is co-author of The Real George Washington; Taylor is president of the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the organization that published Allison’s book. Beck has been encouraging people to read that one, too, but based on the transcript of his interview with these guys, I think I’ll have to pass. Here’s a sample:
BECK: Yes, and [Washington] was trusted on making treaties. And people, they did. They trusted him. Tell me the story of — I’m trying to remember the name of the Indian that came up and made the George Washington prophecy. A, is it true? Tell me the story and then, is it true?
TAYLOR: That is true. This is actually in the French — during the French and Indian War when he in his early 20s was on aide to General Braddock – British General Braddock. And they were leading about almost 1,500 troops out to western Pennsylvania, Fort Duquesne, around Pittsburgh now. And Washington had warned — because Washington knew the area and he had warned Braddock that there are places that are real good ambush sites, I wouldn’t go there.
Well, General Braddock, he was a — he was a British general. And, you know, they’re — most of them are quite proud. And they know it. So they march right into — through this area. And almost 1,000, I guess the number is 700 French troops with Indians ambushed them and just started mowing them down. And out of the almost 1,500 that they started with, there was over 1,000 deaths and wounded. And among those were all of the officers including Braddock, except George Washington. And he wrote the next day to his family, he said, ‘I don’t know why I’m still here. It must be the hand of Providence that had preserved me. I’ve got bullet holes in my hat, through my clothing. I’ve had two horses shot out from under me.’
BECK: He was never wounded ever, was he?
TAYLOR: No. Not in battle.
BECK: And he — and the troops talked about bullet holes through his clothing and he was on a white horse.
TAYLOR: Oh, yes.
BECK: It would be like camouflage!
BECK: Camouflage your horse!
TAYLOR: Well, 15 years later, Washington — this was in 1770, Washington was with a group of men that were reviewing and kind of scoping out the same area. And an old Indian was part of an Indian band that discovered them and invited them to sit down in the council, around the council fire. And this old Indian chief gets up and he said, ‘I was there. As a matter of fact, I was in command when the Indians and the French drenched this area with the blood of the soldiers. And we killed a lot of them. But we could not kill that man.’ He said, ‘I had moved my best marksmen on him and I told them they cannot miss and they usually did not miss.’ ‘But this time,’ he said, ‘we couldn’t hit him.’
BECK: And is this the same Indian that said, you will be a great leader of…
TAYLOR: Yes. And that was his — that was his prophecy. He said, ‘I’m telling you, the great spirit is with that man. He will one day be the great chief of a great nation.’
ALLISON: Preside over an empire.
TAYLOR: ‘He cannot die — he cannot die in battle.’
Washington did indeed escape from Braddock’s defeat without a scratch, which is remarkable enough, but if the part about the prophecy sounds more like drama than history, it’s because that’s probably all it is. Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis wrote a play about the incident in 1828, claiming that he got the story from Dr. James Craik, a physician who was at Braddock’s defeat and on the 1770 surveying expedition. (He was also, incidentally, one of the attending physicians at Washington’s death.)
Years later, the tale turned up again in Custis’s Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, where he again attributed it to Craik but admitted in a footnote that Washington made no mention of the incident in his diary. Interestingly enough, the same footnote mentions a separate meeting with Indians during the same trip that is found in the diary, and for which (unlike the supposed prophecy visit) we have a specific name for the embassy’s leader. I suspect that Craik took this visit, embellished a few details, and turned it into the prophecy story after Washington was dead and elevated to the pantheon of early national heroes, but that’s just me.
This wasn’t the only bit of questionable history Beck and his guests were throwing around. Here’s Beck during the same show:
His country, Britain and then the United States of America, had him serving for year after year after year after year. After he won the Revolutionary War, he went back to be that farmer in Mount Vernon. And things started to fall apart. And they came knocking at his door and said, ‘George, we need you, because the whole thing is falling apart.’ I’m paraphrasing, but I think it was pretty close to — ‘Have I not yet done enough for my country?’ No. He went back and he didn’t say very much during the Continental Congress and the constitutional convention. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. He was a revered figure. He was — that’s my favorite painting of him. He was a revered figure. He was a guy — this was actually a painting done on the, just on the words of one of the — I think it was a farmer if I’m not mistaken. A farmer came into the field one day, and heard some noise and heard him standing there, in the field and he just watched him as he got down in Valley Forge on one knee and he prayed all by himself. He’s a guy that in the end could have been made king. He could have been made a ruler. He’s a guy who could have been really upset at Congress. Boy, oh, boy.
The “farmer” was supposedly a Quaker named Potts, who decided after seeing the general in prayer that soldiering wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and became a fervent supporter of the Revolution. That, at least, is the story as it originally appeared in the Washington biography by Parson Weems, who never met an anecdote he didn’t like. Since then it’s appeared in illustrated form so many times that the question of whether or not it actually happened is essentially moot. It probably didn’t. Weems is a notoriously unreliable source, and in 1918 Valley Forge park officials refused to allow the erection of a monument to the event when they were unable to find any evidence to substantiate it.
At one point during his Washington segment, Beck claimed that ”it’s ironic to me that we make up a lie about ‘I shall not tell a lie’ on George Washington when there are so many great truth stories with him.” That makes two of us—or maybe one of us. I’m glad he’s urging his audience to study the founders; I just wish he’d do it a little more carefully himself.
It seems George Washington checked out two books from the New York Society Library that were due back on November 2, 1789. He never returned them.
Keep an eye out for the mother of all yard sales at Mt. Vernon.
…did anybody watch that documentary on facial castings of historical figures that aired a couple of nights ago? If you didn’t, it’s running again in early November.
If you didn’t catch it, they took life masks and death masks of notable individuals, scanned them into a computer, and added color and other enhancements to create three-dimensional representations of what these guys actually looked like. The idea is that what you end up with is as accurate as a facial cast, but you can move it around and manipulate it. You can make Lincoln smile and blink, you can take out Washington’s dentures to see the natural shape of his jaw, and so on.
It was morbidly fascinating, and parts of it were instructive. (Who knew Washington’s mouth was so flabby without his false teeth in there?) It’s hard to deny the captivating power of facial casts, and the insight they give us into a person’s appearance that transcends anything you can get from a painting or sculpture.
I got a little irritated, though, at all the overselling of results. Now, for the first time, we can see Washington as Martha saw him! Here, for the first time ever, is the real face of Lincoln!
Scientists, doctors, and technicians who dabble in history have this tendency to overstate the implications of their work. I don’t deny that the hard sciences sometimes offer historians a certainty that’s very appealing. The only catch is that what they can tell us is often so very limited. They can reconstruct Washington’s appearance, but not his world. They can show us Lincoln’s face, but not what was going on behind it. No high-end scanner or empirical test is going to answer these types of questions, the questions that demand the kind of research and analysis that historians have been doing for a long, long time.