We Hold These Truths

We Hold These Truths

Examine iconic American rhetoric in Paul Aron’s new book, “We Hold These Truths.”


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.

On rare occasions in history, ordinary nouns and verbs are combined so artfully that they exceed their potential on the page, becoming phrases that transcend their age. Paul Aron is the author of "We Hold These Truths," a book that explores touchstones of American rhetoric.

I am curious: you’re going together, going through putting your book together of things that everybody in the world knows were said. Were they really said?

Paul Aron: Well, I hate to duck the first question you ask, but it, in many cases we simply don’t know. A lot of these sayings we know something was said, but we often don’t have contemporary records. We did not, after all, have radio or TV or even podcasts there to record what people said. Sometimes it was decades later that people first wrote down a variation.

Take, for example, one of the most famous of words spoken in Williamsburg, which was Patrick Henry’s speech. The one that famously ends, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” We certainly know that Henry said something along those lines. We have Henry Wirt, but it wasn’t written down until 1817 in a biography by William Wirt, which, if I can quote it since I love the way Wirt described it. Wirt is describing a scene that took place in May, 1765 when the 29-year-old Henry addressed the House of Burgesses to protest the Stamp Act.

This is Wirt: "He exclaimed in a voice of thunder and with the look of a god, ‘Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell and George III. 'Treason,’ cried the speaker. ‘Treason, treason,’ echoed from every part of the House. Henry faltered not for an instant, but rising to a loftier attitude and fixing on the speaker an eye of the most determined fire, he finished his sentence with the firmest emphasis may profit by their example.‘If this be treason, make the most of it.’"

We know that Henry said something along these lines. We know that Henry’s words stirred the Burgesses to pass resolutions condemning the act of parliament, yet we really don’t know for sure if he ever suggested making the most of treason.

The only contemporaneous account we have of this speech came from the journal of an anonymous Frenchman that didn’t surface until 1921. The Frenchman tells a different story in which Henry confessed, confronted with the accusation of treason immediately apologized to his audience and backs off and pledges loyalty to the king. So do we know for sure? No. Did Wirt make up this story? Probably not. There were other eyewitnesses, including Jefferson, who remembered the cry. But, as for the exact words, we just don’t know.

Lloyd: There are some very stirring things said during the Revolutionary period, and I’ve always wondered, were people that good at ad-libbing? Because that’s a difficult ad lib to come up with, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Paul: Well Henry, I believe, was that good at ad-libbing. His contemporaries all thought of him as a great speaker. So there’s no question that Henry was capable of eloquence along those lines. After all, it’s Henry who also gave the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. We, you know, we do have a clear sense of the impact of his speech and it must have been effected by a tremendous amount of eloquence and I think certainly others were capable of ad-libbing, these people.

Some of what their ad-libs that seem amazing to us were probably less so to them. They were steeped in classical culture and literature, and therefore were more likely to, were drawing on previous eloquence in ways perhaps that today’s politicians might not.

Lloyd: Yeah, I think Thomas Paine was so successful because he did not write in a classical sense. He wrote in ordinary barroom language and got along because people understood him.

Paul: Paine was very unusual. He was certainly eloquent, but it was a different kind of eloquence. While Henry might have been quoting or paraphrasing Cato or Addison or others along those lines, Paine was really speaking to the public, to the uneducated public in a way that Henry and the others weren’t. Jefferson listed, for example, in his Declaration of Independence, the injuries done to the colonies by George III, but it was only Paine who would have the nerve to refer to the king as a royal brute, or as the crowned ruffian.

The impact was huge. Washington, after reading “Common Sense” gave up on reconciliation with Britain. Franklin, who had given Paine a letter of introduction when he met Paine in London, frequently mentioned the great effect on the mind of the people. The timing helped. This was January 1776 when Paine wrote “Common Sense,” and perhaps the colonists were more ready to move from being subjects to being citizens. But it wasn’t just the timing.

Lloyd: You have written this book, now do you have a favorite?

Paul: Well, I suppose the politically correct answer, this being a book published by Colonial Williamsburg and me being a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation employee, would be to make sure that we choose a favorite that has, that was spoken in Williamsburg. So it could possibly be, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Maybe George Mason, some lines from George Mason’s Declaration of Rights, which was certainly also influential well beyond Williamsburg, but written right here. Mason’s words.

Lloyd: I was quite surprised at how often they were used in other documents.

Paul: Including by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. It’s remarkable how close they are. Mason’s were, “All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, namely the enjoyment of life and liberty and pursuing and obtaining happiness.” Jefferson’s, you know, Jefferson declared that, “All men are created equal, that they have certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s remarkably close and Mason’s words were also a model for the Bill of Rights, they were a model for the Declaration for the Rights of Man in the Citizen, which was to the French Revolution what Jefferson’s was to the American.

I mean, I think, and they’re sort of among my favorites not just because they were spoken in Williamsburg, but because of their influence. Mason is just such an interesting character among all these famous founding fathers, he’s probably one of the least – despite his significance – he’s probably one of the least remembered of the founding fathers. It’s not entirely clear why that’s the case. Partly it’s because he never wrote his memoirs or preserved his papers, and he never sought higher office.

Lloyd: I have always thought of him as among the founding fathers, probably the more modest of those who are now thought of.

Paul: He was modest in the sense that he really didn’t want fame. He didn’t want higher office. I wouldn’t say he was modest in the sense of having no ego. This is a man with a huge ego. When they appointed a committee to write the Declaration of Rights, Mason arrived late and he was in a bad mood. He was suffering from gout. But he was mostly annoyed by the committee, this was something he said to Richard Henry Lee, “The committee appointed to prepare a plan is, according to custom, overcharged with useless members, who shall in all probability have a thousand ridiculous and impracticable proposals.” He immediately took over writing the draft.

He was not an easy man to get along with. Later, he became – and this is one of the reasons perhaps why he was not, why he is so little remembered – he was a strong anti-Federalist. That is, he was opposed to the Federal constitution. He was very difficult to get along with at that point. Washington came to refer to Mason as his “former friend,” and when other Federalists alluded to the effect of his age on his mind, Mason replied, and this certainly showed an ego, “ Sir, when your mind fails, nobody will ever discover it.” He was modest, but he had an ego and a nasty streak in there if somebody crossed him.

Lloyd: You have found, I think, probably the more famous of all the things that were supposed to have been said, and were said, to one degree or another. How did you go through and choose the ones you would include in your book, and the ones you would leave out?

Paul: I think I tried to focus on those that had the most influence, but I also frankly tried to focus on those that had fun stories behind them, where there was something surprising or something unknown.

Lloyd: My favorite is John Paul, who we know as John Paul Jones, because he probably was a murderer, although he was never tried for it, when his name was John Paul. So to hide himself in the colonies, he called himself John Paul Jones.

Paul: John Paul Jones is, but again, it’s another of those stories where we know the words, his most famous words of course, “I have not yet begun to fight.” But the story behind it is murky, and not just because of his murky past, but even the actual events that led him to say it. Again, we have a debate over, we know he said something along those lines after or during a 1779 naval battle.

We know that the story as it comes down to us is that the British captain asked, “Have you struck?” or said something like “quarters,” which means basically, “Are you ready to surrender?” and Jones, we think, said, “I have not yet begun to fight.” We have plenty of contemporary accounts, but none where those exact words were spoken. Jones himself wrote two versions of the battle. In one, he answered the British captain, “In the most determined negative.” And the other, he was in a report to the French king, and this was written in French, so the translation which I have here, well, the translation was, “I haven’t yet thought of surrendering but I am determined to make you ask for quarter.” Hardly as punchy and pithy as “I have not yet begun to fight.”

But Jones is also a fascinating, it was not only his how he how he came to America that was sort of questionable, but how he left America. He always longed to command a true squadron, and perhaps there just wasn’t one, there was no American Navy Squadron he could command at the time, so he ended up joining the Russian Navy of Catherine the Great, hardly perhaps certainly as great a tyrant as George III ever was. And he did lead the Russian fleet I think to two victories over the Turks.

Lloyd: I suppose good for him, but you do sort of wonder about his inner belief in …

Paul: In the cause of American freedom? Perhaps. He’s unusual in that case. I would say certainly most of the quotes in this book, there’s no doubt the sincerity of these words. Words mattered then, I think words matter now. Words don’t always equal action. They don’t always translate into action, but they do matter. That is part of what I hope is the message of this book.

We know that the founders’ ideals, the founders’ actions, did not always live up to their ideals as expressed in their words. There’s, you know, we know that Jefferson was a slaveholder. We know that Washington was a slaveholder. We know that their treatment not just of African Americans, but of women left a lot to be desired by the standards of 20th and 21st century Americans.

But I don’t think it’s therefore to say as some more cynical, as more cynical historians might argue, that therefore they don’t matter, that these were just hypocrites. Uhm, there was an element of hypocrisy, but their words did matter. They did inspire people then, and they continue to inspire people today.

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