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Misquoting Washington


Listening to John McCain’s stump speech on C-SPAN over the weekend (in this case from an event in Missouri, at which McCain put on a fairly good show), I was struck by a particular quote McCain seems to refer to quite often in speeches. Discussing his commitment to veterans, and especially veterans’ health care (the only context in which McCain seems animated about health care issues), he told the assembled that he always carries in his pocket a paper with the following quote from George Washington: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” He said Washington said that in 1789, and it’s just as true today.

The quote sounded suspiciously modern. Phrases like “our young people” and “no matter how justified” were certainly uncommon in the late eighteenth century, and the whole point of the quote seems odd for Washington and his day. McCain is certainly not the only politician to have used this quote, as a quick Google search demonstrated, but no one seems to attribute it with any specificity of date or circumstances.

My colleague Adam Keiper is a serious student of all things George Washington and, finding the quote quite suspicious himself, sent it along to Edward Lengel, one of the editors of the Washington papers at the University of Virginia and a noted biographer of Washington. He received this response:

We at the GW Papers project have often received queries about this quote, and I know that politicians have a fondness for it. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Washington wrote or said it. We have never tracked down where it originated (though that might be an interesting project), but I suspect that it was in the nineteenth century. The Victorians had an affinity for fabricating quotes from the Founding Fathers.

Ed Lengel
Associate Editor
Papers of George Washington

I don’t think this in any way reflects on McCain (although he is a kind of Victorian in his own way), just on our interesting common desire to put our own views in the mouths of our founders. But McCain should still take it out of the repertoire, I’d say.