“Say What?”


You remember them…those famous quotations that immortalized the heroes of the American Revolution.  Who can forget Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty or give me death,” or John Paul Jones’, “I have not yet begun to fight?”  “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” will always be associated with the heroes of   Bunker Hill.  And we all know that the ‘Big Guy’ himself, George Washington, said, “I can’t tell a lie.”  Right?

Uh, actually, probably not.

Granted, our first President had a reputation among many of his fellow founding brothers for his honesty.  We even know that a fifteen-year-old George wrote “Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.” But frankly, there’s no record of his ever having said, “I can’t tell a lie,” at least not until 1808, years after Washington’s death, when Mason Locke Weems wrote his bestseller, The Life of Washington.  That’s where we first hear the story of George and that unlucky cherry tree.  Weems’ source?  An unnamed “excellent lady” who told Weems an anecdote that was “too true to be doubted.” No doubt, she also sold Weems a bridge in Brooklyn.

How about, “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes?” Weems again.  This time, Weems was writing about the Battle of Bunker Hill, which was probably named after the wrong hill (it’s okay to say, “I’m so confused.”).  A British historian reported that the ‘whites-of-the-eyes’ order was given by a Prussian general 30 years earlier in a different battle, in a different war, and on a different continent. True, the initial success of the Patriots at Breed’s Hill can be credited to the fact that they were able to get off devastating volleys of musket fire at close range against the British regulars.  But according to the book Bunker Hill, that’s because our boys were ordered not to shoot until they “could see the enemy’s half-gaiters.”

“Give me liberty or give me death?”  Patrick Henry may have used this phrase in his 1775 speech, but we have no contemporary record of it.  In fact, Henry’s speech wasn’t ‘reconstructed’ until 33 years after the speech was delivered. As his source, the author used the recollections of several of the delegates who were present.  But Henry was famous for giving blustery speeches in which, according to Thomas Jefferson, one might get the meaning without remembering the words.  Perhaps the listeners remember the words from a popular play, Cato, A Tragedy, from 1712, in which the hero says, “It is not now time to talk of aught/But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”

And does Cato’s regret that he “can die but once for my country” sound suspiciously like Nathan Hale’s regret that he has “only one life to give for my country?”  Hale was caught in an ill-conceived attempt to spy on the British after the Battle of Long Island. No American was present at Hale’s execution, and what Hale said wasn’t recorded. Instead, we have the statement of a British officer who was present and told an American officer that Hale had died honorably. The American officer was William Hull, Hale’s college buddy and a fellow member of Yale’s literary club, where they both (coincidentally?) had studied Cato.

Then, there’s John Paul Jones.  Jones had been involved in a bloody sea battle with a British ship off the coast of England.  Nearly half the men on both ships had been killed or wounded, and Jones’ ship was literally sinking out from under him.  But when asked whether he was ready to surrender, John Paul Jones is supposed to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” and went on to win the battle.

What did Jones really say? According to eye-witness accounts, the noise of the cannon firing and of the men dying around him was so loud that no one, even the people standing nearest to Jones, could hear what he said.  One of Jones’ officers tried to surrender, at which point Jones tried to shoot the man; when his pistol misfired, Jones knocked him out with the butt of his gun.  Decades later, an elderly veteran of the battle is quoted as recalling that Jones told the British captain that he hadn’t even started fighting.  But in a report that Jones himself wrote to Benjamin Franklin just weeks after the battle, Jones quotes what he said when he was asked to surrender, without ever mentioning the words that have come down to us through more than 230 years of history.

What can we get from this?  Disappointingly, we find that famous people didn’t always say those famous things that we were taught they said. And yet, by looking more deeply at what actually happened, we discover that these misquoted heroes turn out to be bigger and better than we thought they were.  Patrick Henry was actually risking his life when he gave his “liberty or death” speech; in fact, the entire group he was speaking to was meeting in hiding because they believed that if they were caught, they could be hanged as traitors.  Tragically, whether they saw the whites of their enemies’ eyes or not, many of the young Americans who fought on Breed’s Hill died that day at the hands of their enemy, or died later in British prisons.  John Paul Jones persevered and won a battle he should have lost, inspiring a nation and generations of American sailors to come. And Nathan Hale, at 21, really did give the only life he had for his country.

So, maybe George never said, “I can’t tell a lie.”  Who cares?  The truth behind the words is what matters.