George Washington? C. S. Wheatley? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Are you familiar with the “liberty teeth” speech attributed to George Washington? Researchers have been unable to find evidence that Washington delivered this address, and some phrases are apparently anachronistic. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in 1926 which was long after the death of the famous first president. Someone named C. S. Wheatley was the author of a short opinion piece about guns in a magazine called “Hunter-Trader-Trapper” based in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the statements in the article were identified as quotations from the 1700s; however, each of these remarks was carefully placed between quotation marks.
The term “Liberty teeth” occurred in the final paragraph of the article. Quotation marks were not used in this part of the text because Wheatley was presenting his own opinion. He was not presenting the words of George Washington.
Confusion emerged because the sentence immediately preceding the final paragraph mentioned an address delivered by Washington. However, the succeeding words in the article were not part of Washington’s address. Instead, the thoughts in the concluding paragraph were authored by Wheatley. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
In George Washington’s address to the second session of the first Congress, he urged promoting the manufacture of arms.
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 prairie wagon, and citizens’ 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 pistol are equally indispensable. Every corner of this Land knows firearms and more than 99 99/100 per cent of them by their silence indicate they are in safe and sane hands. The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference and they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good. When firearms go all goes, therefore we need them every hour.
C. S. Wheatley.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1975 a letter from Reverend John Battell of Sycamore, Illinois was published in the correspondence section of the “Morning Star” newspaper of Rockford, Illinois. Battell attributed a condensed version of the “Liberty teeth” passage to George Washington. The ellipsis was present in the original newspaper text: 2
The sentiments of the Founding Fathers on the subject of owning and carrying guns was ably expressed by President George Washington:
“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 prairie wagon, and the citizen’s firearms are indelibly related …When firearms go, all goes — we need them every hour.”
The prairie wagon has given way to the automobile, but the truth of what Washington said is still truth today.
In 1978 a newspaper advertisement featuring a passage attributed to Washington was placed in the “Santa Cruz Sentinel” of Santa Cruz, California by a person selling natural vitamins and survival foods. The ad did not list any source for the quotation: 3
Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence — From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences and tendencies prove that to ensure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and the pistol are equally indispensable — The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference — they deserve a place of honour with all that’s good.
In 1981 a book review by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. was published in the “Book World” section of “The Washington Post”. Yoder noted that the book “The Rights of Gun Owners” by Alan M. Gottlieb included an instance of the quotation attributed to Washington, but he expressed skepticism: 4
I wonder, too, whether George Washington actually said that “firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself” and “deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.”
Yoder was disappointed that the footnote for the quotation did not point to a specific speech by Washington; instead, it pointed to an issue of a periodical called “Vigilante” released in summer 1977.
The quotation has continued to circulate, and strongly skeptical evaluations of its ascription to Washington have also been disseminated. Below is an example of the latter: 5
No one can find this quote in any collection of Washington’s papers, in any official documents, or in any biographies. I have seen it attributed to a speech to the First Congress, Second Session, but if Washington said it there, it doesn’t appear to have been recorded in any of the official records of the First Congress. I have also seen it attributed to Washington’s Second Inaugural Address, but it isn’t in either of his Inaugural Addresses, or any other president’s inaugural addresses.
There are parts of that “quote” that sound very wrong for the time. The “99 99/100 percent” is an odd construction from eighteenth century America, which tended not to use fractional percentages.
In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the quotation originated in an issue of “Hunter-Trader-Trapper” in 1926. The passage was composed by C. S. Wheatley and not by George Washington. Unfortunately, the text was misread, and the words were incorrectly attributed to Washington. The faulty ascription was widely propagated in newspapers by the 1970s and 1980s.
Images Notes: Reduced-size low-resolution image of the September 1926 cover of “Hunter-Trader-Trapper” used for commentary and identification. Image of pistol by author: Michael E. Cumpston. Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. The image was accessed via Wikimedia Commons, and it has been rotated and resized. Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image was been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to the individuals who used the following twitter handles: mtobis, ClimateOfGavin, and capital_climate. These individuals initiated the inquiry and led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining scans of the important 1926 citation. Thanks also to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, the forum participants at Snopes, and Bill Ellson. Additional thanks to Barry Popik for his previous exploration of this topic.)
- Date: 1926 September, Periodical: Hunter-Trader-Trapper, Volume 53, Number 3, Section: Guns and Ammunition, Article title: Older Ideas of Firearms, Article author: C. S. Wheatley, Start Page 34, Quote Page 34, Publisher: The Hunter-Trader-Trapper Company, Columbus, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system) ↩
- 1975 June 17, Morning Star, Morning Star Mail Bag, (Letter title: Gun’s defended, Letter from: Rev. John Battell, Church of Christian Liberty, Sycamore), Quote Page A6, Column 3 and 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1978 March 28, Santa Cruz Sentinel, (Advertisement title: Notable Quotes and Quotable Notes, Advertiser name: Peter E. Monk, Advertisement products: Natural Vitamins, Survival Foods, Cosmetics), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1981 15 November, The Washington Post, Section: Book World, The American Way of Death by Edwin M. Yoder Jr., (Book review of two books: “Guns Don’t Die – People Do” by Pete Shields with John Greenya; and “The Rights of Gun Owners” by Alan M. Gottlieb), Start Page BW1, Quote Page BW2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- Website: Clayton Cramer’s Web Page, Article title: Checking Sources (PDF format), Date on website: Undated, Website description: Information from Clayton Cramer – software engineer, historian, and author, (Accessed claytoncramer.com on February 26, 2015) link ↩