WASHINGTON – Early last Wednesday, Republican Sen. Mike Lee rose in the Senate to recite a quotation from George Washington. It was, Lee said, Washington’s own account of his last day as president in 1797.
Lee was explaining why Washington, if he were alive today, might agree with Republicans in the fight that led to the federal government shutdown.
“I was plain George Washington now, neither general nor president,” Lee said, reading Washington’s account of walking down a Philadelphia street. “Suddenly I realized I was not alone. People were following me. At first only a few, then a swelling crowd. For a long moment, I stood face to face with them — the young cobbler, the carpenter, the storekeeper, the laborer.”
The Utah senator concluded with Washington’s point: “Our country rests in good hands, in the hands of its people.”
Washington, Lee explained, believed in the American people. The American people, Lee added, do not like the Affordable Care Act. Therefore, it has to go.
Lee might be right about the health care law — that depends on your politics, and your polls. But he was wrong about what Washington said.
“This quote from Sen. Lee is not from George Washington,” said Douglas Bradburn, head of the new George Washington library at Mount Vernon, Virginia. “It’s completely apocryphal.”
This has been a busy week for the Founding Fathers. In the debate that led up to the shutdown, legislators name-checked at least three of the Federalist Papers and 28 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz alone mentioned 27 signers during his marathon 21-hour speech on the floor of the Senate last week.
The point, in each case, was that the country’s founders would clearly be on one side in the current fight. Which side, of course, depended on who was talking.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, for instance, saw Thomas Jefferson as an obvious opponent of the Affordable Care Act. “Large initiatives should not be advanced on slender majorities,” King quoted Jefferson as saying. The quote was not exact, but close enough.
He continued: “(Jefferson) would have said that large initiatives should never be advanced on partisan majorities. That’s what happened with ‘Obamacare.’ “
But Democratic Rep. David Scott cited Jefferson in making an opposite argument: that the disagreement over the health care law was not a reason to shut down the government.
“Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson hated each other so much. But that hate that they had for each other did not come before the love of their country,” Scott said, addressing Republicans. He went on: “Your hate for this president is coming before the love of this country. Because if you loved this country, you would not be closing it down!”
“Once again, the chair would ask members to address their remarks to the chair,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, the Republican chairman of the session, reminding Scott of a House rule: Members are not to demean each other directly; only obliquely.
Of course, it’s always tricky to bring 200-year-old words uttered by long-dead men into modern political fights. The Founding Fathers never faced the question of an “individual mandate” to buy health insurance. They never dealt with a wide-scale threat to shut down the government.
“It’s always anathema to historians, because how could you know what Jefferson would think today?” asked Andrew O’Shaughnessy, director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.
But in this situation, O’Shaughnessy said, “It doesn’t matter what historians think.”
In recent days, Republicans have repeatedly cited James Madison to defend a controversial tactic: withholding funding for the entire U.S. government to force a weakening of Obama’s health care law.
Another Rep. Ron DeSantis cited a passage from Madison’s Federalist No. 58: “This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance.”
That, DeSantis said, means “the notion that you must always fund everything that happens to be in law is just not true.” Therefore, he said, Republicans are employing a legitimate tactic in trying to defund the Affordable Car Act.
But even here, the Founding Fathers are inconveniently hard to pin down. Madison went on to say, in effect, that it’s hard to imagine anyone would go so far as to shut down the government.
“Will not the House of Representatives be as much interested as the Senate in maintaining the government in its proper functions?” he wrote.
“OK, so lemme pull open my Federalist Papers here,” DeSantis said. There was a pause. “He is cautioning against having an absolute inflexibility. And I concur with that.”
He said that it was not the House but the Democratic Senate that was being inflexible now. They were the ones doing the thing that Madison wouldn’t like.
Lee, the Utah senator, quoted Madison, Jefferson and Washington during speeches on the Senate floor. Historians said he got his facts right — every time but one.
“I can say categorically: Washington never wrote that,” Edward Lengel, editor of the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, said after reading a transcript of Lee’s speech about Washington’s last day.
So, if Washington didn’t write the account that Lee read, who did?
“Those words are based very loosely on a passage in my book, “First in Their Hearts,” which was published many years ago,” author Thomas Fleming said Tuesday. But the passage in Fleming’s book is in the third person: “He was plain George Washington now, neither general nor president.” It is not presented as Washington’s own words.
Fleming wrote Tuesday: “The senator puts the words in Washington’s mouth. I do not take such an unwarranted liberty.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.