What did George Washington want for his country?

Daniel McCoy
May 13 · 6 min read
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George Washington

I recently saw an ad for some slogan t-shirts and one particular slogan caught my eye. It was a quote attributed to George Washington that I wasn’t familiar with:

The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference and they deserve a place of honor with al
The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference and they deserve a place of honor with al

I’m always curious about quotes and sources, so I did some searching and found an article about this particular quote on the excellent Quote Investigator website. The QI folks tracked this “quote” down as a misattribution and actually the words of someone named C. S. Wheatley:

Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s Liberty teeth and keystone under Independence. The church, the plow, the prairie wagon, and citizens’ firearms are indelibly related. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences and tendencies prove that to insure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable. Every corner of this Land knows firearms and more than 99 99/100 per cent of them by their silence indicate they are in safe and sane hands. The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference and they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good. When firearms go all goes, therefore we need them every hour.

This is from an article Wheatley wrote entitled “Older Ideas of Firearms” published in the September 1926 issue of Hunter, Trader, Trapper. (A further reference to this misattribution can be found on Wikiquote.) It’s easy to see where someone’s sloppy reading of Wheatley could lead to the misattribution. The opening of the extended quote says “In George Washington’s address to the second session of the First Congress, he urged promoting the manufacture of arms” and this is true. However, there are no quotations marks and there is a paragraph break, so one shouldn’t assume the rest is a quotation from Washington. But confirmation bias is strong and the misattribution is sadly out in the wild.

I was curious about what Washington actually said about firearm manufacture, so I looked up Washington’s first state of the union address to see. What Washington did say on the subject is:

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.

This has a distinctly different flavor from the Wheatley quote. At that time in American history, so soon after the war of independence, the issue of the federal government keeping a standing army going forward was a controversial one. This is in part because of the example of King George’s army being used against the United States and not wanting to fall into that pattern of actual tyranny. Washington is here coming down decidedly in favor of an army. I’m sure many people read this and what immediately sticks out to them is “A free people ought … to be armed”, but in context, what he’s saying is that “A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined”. My reading is that “a free people” means the United States as an entity, not individual Americans. And the fact that he goes on to talk about “The proper establishment of the Troops which may be deemed indispensiblemeans he is talking about supplying the US Army. The fact that he says “a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite also seems to me that he is thinking of an army, not a bunch of individuals with guns. This all reminds me of how many people ignore the part of the second amendment where it talks about “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State”. The fact is that the big controversial debate at that time in our nation’s history was about whether or not to have a standing army, not whether people could have personal weapons at the ready.

There are many other things in Washington’s address that seem to be of great importance to him that are all too often ignored by sort of people who would cherry-pick the quote about being armed. Washington’s desires are also being ignored or under-valued by our current government. So what sorts of things were important to George Washington? Here are a few:

Paid professionals in the State Department:

A path for the foreign-born to citizenship:

The Post Office and transportation infrastructure:

The science and literature:

Support for the rule of law, understanding of rights and being able to tell the difference “between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority” and “discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness”:

George Washington was no saint. He owned slaves and had a problematic relationship with Native Americans. The stories about his wooden false teeth leave out the fact that he had false teeth with teeth of slaves in them. But Washington was a thoughtful and educated man of his era. When quoting him, we should quote what he actually said, and we should look at the breadth of what he said, not just cherry-pick convenient words.

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