Of Deathless Remarks…


The public not only edits, shortens, and polishes, but it also invents, repeating words that were never uttered until they become imbedded in the national consciousness just as surely as if they had been truly spoken in the first place. Sherman, again, on his march to the sea was approaching the key supply depot at Allatoona, Georgia, when he learned that the place was under critical pressure by the enemy. Surveying the situation from Kennesaw Mountain, thirteen miles away, he sent off two messages to the Allatoona commander. One included the phrase “hold out” and the other “hold fast,” and both included Sherman’s promise he would soon arrive with relief. The two dispatches were subsequently condensed in the popular mind into “ HOLD THE FORT! I AM COMING .” Though the phrase was never actually used, “Hold the fort!” became a Union slogan and was put into a rousing revival hymn that swept the country.

No historic personage, no matter how eloquent or exalted, escapes this touching up, revision, and embellishment by the public, which seems to have a fairly infallible ear for the right sound and shape of a saying. When Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister in Britain’s most precarious hour of World War II, his first address to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, included the sentence “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The resonance and rhythm of the words was such that he subsequently used them over again, in the same order, on other crucial occasions during the war. They have been quoted thousands of times since—but seldom in the way Churchill first said them. The public ear apparently detected a hint of redundancy in “toil” and “sweat,” and there was something in the word order that did not seem quite right. So, by the usual mysterious process of instinctive editing, the saying was revised to read “blood, sweat, and tears,” which is how almost everyone now says it, including a rock group currently using the phrase as its billing. Anyone who quotes Churchill’s original word order today sounds as if he has got it wrong.

It makes no difference at all how many times the correct form of a word or saying is brought before the public; if people decide they like another version better, that version will prevail. Tens of millions of draft notices, from World War I to Vietnam, have gone out with the plain, unmistakable salutation at the top: “Greeting.” But in print and by word of mouth, the singular greeting from the government invariably comes out plural, as in the title of the recent movie about the draft, Greetings . But if s is added here where it doesn’t belong, it sometimes arbitrarily disappears where it does belong. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s group of academic and intellectual advisers was labelled a Brains Trust by James Kieran of the New York Times , but for some reason the plural offended the public ear and by tacit agreement was quickly dropped, though the British still keep it.

The public’s insistence on having things said in its own way regardless of what actually was said has caused distress to more than one public figure. Herbert Hoover went to his grave insisting that he never called Prohibition “a noble experiment,” and he didn’t. What he called it was “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive,” which is not the same thing. But for as long as the subject is written about, “noble experiment” will be quoted derisively as a Hooverism, like “Prosperity is just around the corner,” which he didn’t say either.

Worse, perhaps, than being saddled with something one did not say is to fade into history bereft of credit for a memorable mot one did in fact produce. “Founding Fathers” is one of the most durable, useful, and ubiquitous of all the phrases in the American lexicon. It is impossible to reach the age of twelve without coming across it or to write about the American past without using it. Yet it recently took a massive search by the Government and General Research Division of the Library of Congress to discover its author.

The search was instigated by the present writer, who needed the phrase for the script of a historical documentary. Twenty-three standard reference works were consulted without success. The best efforts of a professional researcher also proved fruitless. A number of authorities in the field confessed that they too were baffled. One of them had just completed a fat and exhaustive dictionary of American sayings but admitted he had no entry under “Founding Fathers”; rather than admit this inability to trace its origin he made no mention of the phrase at all.

Through the good offices of Representative Ogden Reid of New York, the Library of Congress was put to work on the matter. After several months of searching, which included combing through all the relevant historical literature from George Bancroft to the present, the originator of “Founding Fathers” was established as firmly as it is ever likely to be. His name could hardly have come as more of a surprise.

It was Warren Gamaliel Harding.

The first use of the phrase that the combined efforts of the experts at the Library of Congress have been able to find occurs in an address by Senator Harding before the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, on George Washington’s birthday, 1918. “It is good,” Senator Harding began, “to meet and drink at the fountains of wisdom inherited from the founding fathers of the republic.”