See this meme?
You can find it all over the net. The quote contained in it is extraordinarily popular in right wing circles. This should surprise nobody of course. It has George Washington singing the praises of private gun ownership as a means of preparing the population for possible war with their own government. The price of freedom, it seems to suggest, is the need to be ever vigilant against one’s own government, to be prepared at all times to rebel against that very government.
If you were to boil down the thinking of the Insurrectionists on January 6th, it might well be this quote right here.
There are different variations of the meme, to be sure, but the quote itself is near and dear to right wing America. They share it with each other, and with the rest of us, on a regular basis. I first encountered it when a friend posted it for my benefit on Facebook. I have seen it there many times since. The quote finds its way onto twitter every day. It certainly found its way into Parler a number of times before that crappy service found its way into oblivion. You can find the quote on Instagram. It’s all over Pinterest, compliments on websites like Zazzle and BrainyQuote. It certainly makes its way around Tumblr. You can find this quote on merchandise at various online outlets, …T-Shirts and such. I could go on, but you get the idea. This quote gets around. It’s popular.
I mean, it’s REALLY popular!
And it’s fake.
To be a bit more specific, the first 11 words of this quote are from the fourth paragraph of George Washington’s first address to Congress. Everything after that has been doctored so as to make it into a talking point for gun owner’s rights.
Here is the fake quote:
“A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined, but they should have significant arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might abuse them, which would include their own government.”
Here the original:
A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufacturies, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.
So, what happens when you call people out on this? Well, sometimes, folks get the point. Some decent people actually take the correction and get on with their lives. More often, they refuse to believe they are wrong. Some just ignore you. Some sources, I suspect, are bots, programed to simply post this and other propaganda over and over without regards to any efforts to engage them. The most common response, I get, however is to tell me that the quote above is actually a paraphrase of something Washington actually said. Some even provide me with a link to the actual speech. (Whether or not they have read the speech is another question.)
In a parallel development, I have noticed a lot of people taking to twitter in recent years to post the actual quote above. This might well be a response to the fact that some of us keep addressing the fake quotes wherever we find it. Realizing they don’t need the fake quote, they use the real thing for pretty much the same political purpose. In their minds, the real thing is still very much a statement about the importance of the Second Amendment. It may not contain an explicit prescription for revolution-readiness, but at least it makes the case for private gun ownership, ad we all know what that means…
The problem is, it doesn’t.
If you read the rest of Washington’s speech, you can see quite clearly that its overwhelming theme is the exercise of the Federal government’s newly expanded powers. Yes, that’s right, Washington was actively working to expand the powers of the Federal Government, as did many of the founding fathers now celebrated by those whose very definition of evil is encapsulated in the phrase “big government.” One of the powers Washington was most happy to have at his disposal was the ability to outfit a viable military force. THAT is what this paragraph is about. It is nestled in between two other paragraphs that are most explicitly about troops and preparations for war. Keep reading that same speech, and you find Washington speaking quite explicitly about the prospect of war with Indians in the present-day southeast.
Among the many interesting objects, which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.
A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.
The proper establishment of the Troops which may be deemed indispensible, will be entitled to mature consideration. In the arrangements which may be made respecting it, it will be of importance to conciliate the comfortable support of the Officers and Soldiers with a due regard to œconomy.
What Washington is actually talking about is the ability to field an army. He sees this as an essential exercise of the powers newly granted to the Federal Government under its new Constitution. He is urging Congress to encourage the manufacture of weapons so that the armies of the United States will not have to rely on foreign powers to arm them in the event of any future war.
Just to be clear, the prospect of such future wars certainly does include the possibility of open rebellion, but Washington isn’t arguing that citizens might need to rebel against their own government. If anything, he is mindful of the prospect that he might need to put down such a rebellion. Remember, it was Shays’ Rebellion that triggered the urgent need for a constitutional convention in the first place. Its purpose was to fix perceived weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, specifically, the inability of the central government under that plan to tax the population directly so as to give it the means of fielding an army capable of putting down such an insurrection when it happens again. That’s right. The trigger for creation of the U.S Constitution was the need to put down rebellions, and Washington himself was fully down with that very agenda. Lest anyone think this might have been idle speculation, one has only to remember the whiskey rebellion.
When private citizens decided to rebel against the Federal government over taxation while Washington, foreshadowing so many of the themes of modern right wing politics, far from backing the rebels, Washington sent troops to put down that very rebellion.
Now there is an interesting detail here insofar as the troops in question took the form of a militia. I reckon some might say, “See! See, that’s what we are talking about,” but of course that ignores the difference between the actually regulated militias of Washington’s day, and the self-appointed weekend warriors who call themselves militias today. More to the point, it ignores the fact that the militia in the Whiskey Rebellion was not defending itself from “their own government”; it was actually serving as the arm of enforcement for that very government. You see, that Constitution whose powers Washington wants to flex here gives Congress authority over the militia, a provision quite controversial at the time, and arguably one of the inspirations for the Second Amendment still in draft form as Washington made this speech. One of the newly expanded powers of the Federal government Washington is actually trying to build upon in this very speech is power to arm and control the militia.
The enumerated powers of Congress includes the following:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
Hopefully, you caught the part about “suppressing insurrections.”
Because that’s what Washington actually did on his own watch.
This meme would have us believe Washington would side with the rebels. This meme would have us believe that Washington was hyping the virtues of an Amendment not yet ratified as a means of countering the very power he was actually seeking to build in his First Address to Congress.
This meme is a lie.
It is not a paraphrase of Washington’s actual statement, and it is not (as several folks have assured me) an honest description of Washington’s actual views. It is not an honest mistake; it’s not a different point of view.
It is a lie.