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.
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
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
(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:
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
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
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.