June 20, 2004

I Might Have Guessed Parson Weems Would Figure In There Somewhere

In response to the discussions that Geoff Pullum,. Bill Poser, and I have been having about the syntax and meaning of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, a lawyer named John Brewer writes to suggest that the phrase might be best understood as a rendering of "sub Deo":

If you Google "sub Deo et lege" (less common variant add another "sub" before "lege") you will see that it's part of a phrase used in English legal, political and constitutional rhetoric since circa 1200, with a revival by Lord Coke in the 17th century during the struggles between Parliament and the Crown, which was a bit of history very well-known to 18th century Americans.  The phrase is strongly associated with the tradition of limited government which we inherited from England and then elaborated ourselves. ... I would paraphrase the point of the phrase as traditionally used as being that legitimate political authority as distinct from tyrannical force must be sub Deo et lege.

An interesting observation, but "sub Deo" doesn't seem to have played any role in inspiring the wording "under God." In fact, the actual story has some interest of its own.

 Credit for the inclusion of the phrase is often given to  the Rev. George Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, who argued for the change in wording in a sermon given at a Lincoln Day observance on February 7, 1954 at which President Eisenhower was present. In proposing the phrase "under God," Docherty made explicit reference to the Gettysburg Address:

What, therefore, is missing in the Pledge of Allegiance that Americans have been saying off and on since 1892, and officially since 1942? The one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this country. This was seen clearly by Lincoln. "One nation under God this people shall know a new birth of freedom," and "under God" are the definitive words.

It's notable that Docherty scrambled Lincoln's wording so as to make "under God" a noun modifier -- the Address actually reads "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom," where its adverbial function is clear.

In fact, the sermon wasn't actually the origin of the proposal, which had been floated by the Knights of Columbus several years earlier (Docherty himself had given the same sermon two years before the 1954 date, but it got no attention the first time around). And the phrase was widely understood as a reference to the Gettysburg Address. As a May 23, 1954 New York Times article explained:

Over on the House side where fifteen such resolutions have been introduced, it was Representative Louis C. Rabaut, Democrat of Michigan, who offered the granddaddy of them all. On April 20, 1953, he dropped his resolution int the hopper at the suggestion of H. Joseph Mahoney of Brooklyn, N. Y. In a postscript on a letter to Mr. Rabaut, Mr. Mahoney wrote: "Why don't you recommend the addition to the pledge of allegiance of the words 'under God.'"

The suggestion impressed Mr. Rabaut greatly because these were the very words found in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. He dropped in a bill.

It's likely that Docherty's endorsement had the effect of making the change in wording acceptable to Protestants who may have been chary of adopting what seemed a Catholic proposal.

But where did Lincoln get the words? In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Wills points out that contemporary newspaper reports had Lincoln  saying "This nation shall, under God...," rather than "This nation, under God, shall..." (if the papers' version had prevailed, we might have been spared the  subsequent reanalysis of the phrase as a  noun adjunct, whatever the loss to rhythm). Wills notes that some  people have suggested that the phrase was a spontaneous addition inspired by Edward Everett's use of "under Providence" in the speech immediately preceding Lincoln's.

But according to a 1930 book by William E. Barton, also called Lincoln at Gettysburg (referenced by Wills but not in this context), Lincoln took the phrase from the writings of Parson Weems, the confabulator of the story about Washington and the cherry tree. The phrase occurs several times in Weems' biography of Washington:

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father--around the last bed of him to whom you and your children owe, under God, many of the best blessings of this life.

As James Piereson points out in an article in the Weekly Standard, Weems may have taken the phrase from Washington himself, who in his daily orders of July 2, 1776 wrote:

The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves. . . . The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army."

Piereson, who is executive director of the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, goes on to say that "When Congress added these words to the Pledge of Allegiance, it drew upon a phrase that had a long and meaningful association with the great statesmen and events in the history of the Republic."

Maybe so, but it's worth noting that Washington, Weems, and Lincoln used the phrase adverbially. Its functional shift to a noun adjunct in the Pledge is a small but significant reinterpretation of the past to make it more congenial to current ideological purposes. Not that Parson Weems would have had any problem with that.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at June 20, 2004 08:57 AM