President Dwight D. Eisenhower—the president who personally presided over the changes to both the U.S. motto and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag—offered some pietistic observations on early American history and the issue of prayer at the Dedicatory Breakfast of the International Christian Leadership on February 5, 1953, an event which has been held annually ever since and is now known simply as the National Prayer Breakfast. During his speech that morning, Eisenhower segued to the topic of history with the sentence, “Let us study a little bit of what happened at the founding of this Nation,” thereby blazing a path for public servants in this country of glossing over early accounts of religious diversity in America in pursuit of a false narrative of Christian religious unity that they have continued to tread ever since.
In his speech, Eisenhower recalled the remarks elder statesman Benjamin Franklin made during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 at a moment of “stormy consultation” when “the convention was on the point of breaking up” because the delegates, especially those from the smaller states, could not reach agreement on the issue of state representation at the federal level. In Eisenhower’s relaxed retelling, Franklin arose at the pivotal moment to propose: “Gentlemen, I suggest that we have a word of prayer,” and this rather casual suggestion produced the following result:
“[A]fter a bit of prayer the problems began to smooth out and the convention moved to the great triumph that we enjoy today—the writing of our Constitution.”
Eisenhower, who just four days earlier had referred to America during a special recorded address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” program as “this great American family of free, God-fearing people,” went on to draw a moral from his brief tale: namely “that all free government is firmly founded in a deeply-felt religious faith.” And lest we get the impression that the President had in mind any and all deep religious faith (i.e. some form of religious pluralism), we should note that, in speaking about “our human rights” which “we cherish…so sincerely…because they are God-given,” Eisenhower grounds the importance and inalienability of human rights in a specifically Judeo-Christian religious conception, saying: “They [i.e. human rights] belong to the people who have been created in His image.”
On December 16, 2009, Rep. Louie Gohmert followed Eisenhower’s example, bringing up the episode involving Ben Franklin’s 1787 call for prayer in a speech delivered on the House Floor. The topic of his speech that day was the “Religious Heritage of the United States.” Like Eisenhower at the first National Prayer Breakfast, Gohmert dwelt in his remarks on the issue of “praying in public,” signaling his desire to “address an area that some people have just not had education about…to make sure that the record is correct.” The Congressman noted that the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate begin each day with prayer and asserted that: “[m]any are ignorant from [sic] the place in which that tradition started, where it came [sic].” Gohmert—who is a frequent associate of David Barton’s, appearing on Barton’s daily internet radio program in 2010 and making regular speeches before meetings organized by WallBuilders, the organization Barton founded to further his aim of “presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined”—then launched into his own recounting of the “history” of Ben Franklin’s call for prayer at that moment of crisis during the Constitutional Convention. Amid the turmoil, an 80-year-old Benjamin Franklin arose and posed the rhetorical question:
“[H]ow has it happened…that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? … [H]ave we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?”
The elder statesman then proceeded to affirm his belief in the providence of God and in God’s sure guidance of humankind, saying:
“I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men…. We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we, ourselves, shall become a reproach and a byword down to future age.”
He next gave voice to the proposition that the Convention begin every subsequent session with prayer and that a local clergyman be employed to lead those services. Gohmert concluded his telling of this episode on the House Floor similarly to the way Eisenhower had closed his version at the first National Prayer Breakfast, asserting:
“His motion was seconded, and then Ben Franklin’s motion was adopted unanimously. And from that day to this day, we do not begin Congress in this body without a prayer to begin [sic!].”
Unlike President Eisenhower’s abbreviated remarks on the subject, Gohmert’s obviously longer recounting of this episode follows quite closely Benjamin Franklin’s own unpublished statement concerning the matter—which in turn agrees entirely with the official notes of the Constitutional Convention kept by James Madison—except, that is, for the one particular in which both Gohmert and Eisenhower are equally wrong: the dramatic ending. Benjamin Franklin in fact concludes his own personal notes about the proposal he made before the Constitutional Convention for opening sessions with prayer with this statement:
“The Convention except three or four Persons, thought Prayers unnecessary!!”
You read that right: the man himself wrote in his journal that the famous unifying prayer he proposed before the Constitutional Convention in 1787 never actually took place. Not only that, but a majority of the other delegates apparently thought such a thing was, in Franklin’s own words, “unnecessary.”
Though Representative Roger Sherman of Connecticut, the second-oldest delegate after Franklin, is said in the official notes to have seconded the senior statesman’s motion, his lay among the measure’s only vocal support. Alexander Hamilton, joined by “several others,” voiced apprehension over the proposal on the grounds that, since the Convention had already been in session for over a month, to adopt such a course of action might lead to embarrassing pubic notice of the dissent plaguing the meeting. Sherman “and others” countered that such external pressure might, to the contrary, do the body some good, encouraging them to reach a compromise. However, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, himself a minister earlier in his life, noted the Convention had not earlier adopted opening prayer because it had no funds with which to engage a member of the clergy for the purpose. Edmund Randolph of Virginia offered a counter-proposal “in order to give a favorable aspect” to Franklin’s floundering motion, namely that a sermon be preached at the behest of the Convention on July 4th to mark the anniversary of Independence and that “thenceforward prayers be used in ye [the] Convention every morning.” Franklin is said to have given his second to this new motion. However, the entire matter of both prayer and sermon was ultimately put off without a vote either way, and the Convention simply adjourned. The matter must have proven fairly contentious for the minority who supported it right to the bitter end, though, because the journals of the Convention record that the motion for adjournment carried “at length” only after “several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter [of the prayer proposals] by adjourng [sic].” Two other deputies present at the time, Robert Yates of New York and William Few of Georgia, confirmed in their private writings both the content of Franklin’s speech and the ultimate ill fate of his proposal.
In a letter to American lawyer and social activist Thomas J. Grimké dated January 6, 1834, James Madison likewise ratified the above accounts both of Franklin’s proposal and the largely negative reactions it engendered, adding as well an additional reason for the measure’s lack of success: namely, the religious diversity among the delegates and in the city of Philadelphia. Madison observed that the proposed prayer would likely have run afoul of local Quaker mores and may have been prevented at any rate by “the discord of religious opinions within the Convention, as well as among the Clergy of the Spot.” That is, Franklin’s original proposal to unite the assembly in purpose by uniting them first in prayer failed, at least in part, due to the very real diversity of opinion and practice in matters of religion in the city of Brotherly Love.
There is a profound irony in Gohmert’s prefatory remark that “[m]any are ignorant from [sic] the place in which that tradition started…” when compared with Madison’s own observation that “the place where the Convention held its sittings, might not have been without an influence,” by which he means “[t]he Quaker usage, never discontinued in the State” and the religious diversity both of the delegates to the Convention and the clergy of Philadelphia. Gohmert sees “place” as a simple, singular moment in time and space when his fantasy of American religious unity under Christian prayer received early expression, while, for Madison, the word evokes the messy particulars of a spot rich in religious pluralism—at least among different Christian denominations—so much so that it would likely have been impossible to bring everyone successfully together in joined prayer without trampling on somebody’s toes.
So where, precisely, did Gohmert’s and Eisenhower’s erroneous ending to the tale—you know, the one where Franklin’s prayer actually takes place and really does unite the delegates “under God,” allowing them to finish their great and holy labor—originate? Here’s where hagiography and significant historical revisionism come in.
In 1825, a letter by one William Steele to his son Jonathan offered an account of Franklin’s speech and its reception at the Constitutional Convention that differed signally from both the official published records and Franklin’s own personal reckoning. This divergent account is said to have come from the recollection of Jonathan Dayton, the youngest delegate to the Convention, aged 26 or 27 at the time, who hailed from New Jersey and would later become heavily involved in land speculation in Ohio, giving his name to the city of Dayton. Dayton’s account—which is very complimentary toward Franklin, calling him the “Mentor of our body” and possessed of “a mind naturally strong and capacious, enriched by much reading and the experience of many years”—says that the elder statesman actually proposed both the three-day adjournment of the Convention, so as to allow the tempers that had flared to cool down and the opinions voiced to become more moderate, and the hiring of a chaplain in order to:
“introduce the business of each day by an address to the Creator of the universe, and the Governor of all nations, beseeching Him to preside in our council, enlighten our minds with a portion of heavenly wisdom, influence our hearts with a love of truth and justice, and crown our labors with complete and abundant success!”
Notice already the distinct difference between the language this account applies to the divine and that in Franklin’s own version. Here, God is not merely the source of sought-after enlightenment, but also the universal creator; He doesn’t just govern in the affairs of men, but is, in fact, “Governor of all nations,” already the ultimate head of political entities.
In Dayton’s account, Franklin’s first motion for a three-day pause is said to have brightened George Washington’s countenance and to have brought “a cheering ray” to the gloom of the deadlocked proceedings. His second proposal, for prayer, is said to have produced the following effect on Washington:
“[N]ever…did I behold a countenance at once so dignified and delighted as was that of Washington, at the close of this address!”
“Silent admiration” and “assent and approbation” are said to have been “strongly marked on almost every countenance.” All, that is, except for Alexander Hamilton’s, who, in this version of the story, assents to the motion to adjourn but vigorously gainsays the appointment of a chaplain. The letter proceeds quoting Dayton’s account as follows:
“He [Alexander Hamilton] then commenced a high-strained eulogium on the assemblage of wisdom, talent, and experience, which the Convention embraced; declared the high sense he entertained of the honor which his constituents had conferred upon him, in making him a member of that respectable body; said he was confidently of opinion that they were competent to transact the business which had been entrusted to their care—that they were equal to every exigence which might occur; and concluded by saying, that therefore he did not see the necessity of calling in foreign aid!”
Dayton’s story records that Hamilton’s “impertinent and impious speech” produced “a mixture of surprise and indignation” in Washington, and no one offered a reply. Rather, all assented to both of Franklin’s proposals, which carried with near unanimous support, Hamilton’s being the “solitary negative” vote on the chaplain motion. After the three-day pause, with tempers calmer and attitudes more dispassionate, the Great Compromise was reached, but only following the chaplain’s prayer and some more sage words from Benjamin Franklin. As the editor of the records of the Constitutional Convention Max Farrand observes in a footnote, the New York Gazette published William Steele’s letter in full. Then, in 1826, a leading political newspaper of the time, the National Intelligencer, picked it up and republished it as well, followed in 1850 by a popular weekly magazine called Littel’s Living Age. Through such widely circulating publications, the letter and its flawed account passed into the popular imagination, and beyond.
James Madison, however, observed in his 1834 letter to Thomas Grimké that the Dayton account as published in the National Intelligencer constituted what in today’s parlance would bear the ignominious label of “fake news.” Madison wrote: “That the communication was erroneous is certain.” In an earlier letter to Unitarian minister and later President of Harvard College (now Harvard University) Jared Sparks dated April 8, 1831, Madison likewise referred to the account in the National Intelligencer as “so erroneously given,” even though it possessed “every semblance of authenticity.” One obvious way in which the Dayton account gets matters wrong when compared to the records of the convention—apart, that is, from attributing a wholly opposite outcome to Franklin’s motion for prayer than that which it actually engendered—is that Franklin never proposed the three-day adjournment. Such a pause did occur, but not in response to any proposal from Franklin. Rather, the purpose was, as Alexander Hamilton states, to give the committee time to consider the matters before it and to permit the delegates to attend July Fourth celebrations. Madison’s refocusing of Sparks’ attention to the official record of the event would prove important, as Sparks was at the time preparing a biography of Franklin. His finished book, The Life of Benjamin Franklin: Containing the Autobiography, with Notes and a Continuation first published in 1848, includes only the version of Franklin’s proposal recorded in the official notes of the Convention and corroborated in Franklin’s own writings, countenancing nothing from the variant included in the 1825 Steele letter.
Although Madison stated in his letter to Grimké that he couldn’t be certain whether the error of the National Intelligencer account resulted from “misapprehension or misrecollection,” Villanova University School of Law professor Louis J. Sirico, Jr., has noted that the version’s anti-Hamilton bias could relate to the fact that the story’s reported source, Jonathan Dayton, was kin and an ally to Aaron Burr, who would later kill Alexander Hamilton, his political nemesis, in an illegal duel on July 11, 1804. Burr and Dayton had grown up together in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), New Jersey, and would be remembered by history as having been “hell-bent on winning power and wealth.” The men would later fall under joint suspicion of plotting together to establish an independent nation in Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Mexico that now lie within the southwestern portion of the United States. Dayton, who had attended Princeton with Burr, was said to have bankrolled the plot, but also to have written the encoded letter that would later lead to Burr’s and his own arrest on charges on treason. Along with some other associates, the pair were indicted but ultimately acquitted in Virginia in 1807 in a case that hinged on the Constitutional definition of treason. The pair’s reputation in politics never recovered. Given the long association of Dayton with Burr and the latter’s open animosity toward Hamilton for, among other things, having helped break the tie in electoral votes between Burr and Jefferson in the election of 1800, deciding the vote in Jefferson’s favor and leading Burr to become Vice President instead, it stands to reason that Dayton would have a vested interest in besmirching Hamilton’s reputation. Hamilton would later oppose Burr again in 1804—this time in the latter’s run for the governorship of New York—on the grounds that Burr had become involved in a Federalist secession scheme in the state. For his part, William Steele, the letter’s proximal author, was born and lived much of his life in New Jersey, Dayton’s home state. He married Mary Dayton, whose father was a physician named Jonathan Dayton from Springfield, NJ, and the uncle of Jonathan Dayton, the statesman, who allegedly provided Steele with the variant account of Franklin’s prayer idea to begin with.
Two additional telling facts about the Dayton account contained in Steele’s letter bear mention as well, though. First, Steele himself reports to his son that his retelling of Dayton’s account comes after a time interval of ten years, and he admits that, while he has done his best to get the facts right as far as memory serves, his wording may differ from Dayton’s own:
“Thus, my dear son, I have detailed, as far as my memory serves me, the information which I received personally from General Dayton. It has been done from a recollection of ten years, and I may have differed much from General Dayton in his phraseology, but I am confident I have faithfully stated the facts.”
In the final paragraph of his epistle, the elder Steele returns to concentrate on the factuality of his narrative, writing:
“In committing this anecdote to paper, I have been actuated not only by a wish to gratify you, but by a desire to perpetuate the facts, if, as I fear, they are not elsewhere recorded.”
Like Gohmert’s concern to “make sure that the record is correct” in his preface to his “historical” remarks on the subject of the Religious Heritage of the United States, these notices from William Steele would seem to conceal a possible polemical or apologetic program beneath the surface of the document. At the very least, they betray a self-conscious awareness of the tendentious nature of its narrative, pushing “facts” that are “not elsewhere recorded.”
Second, as Dayton tells it in Steele’s recounting, the real moment of Constitutional crisis that precipitated both of Franklin’s proposals was not simply deadlock over the question of how to structure state representation in the U.S. Senate, but rather specific disgruntlement on the part of the smaller states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, and New Jersey (Dayton’s own) over the fact that the Convention had already voted on the matter and determined that state representation in the Senate should be proportional to the population of the states. The four smaller states met after that vote and determined that they would demand a recension of the vote and reconsideration on the grounds that Senate representation ought to be completely equal. Barring that, they determined:
“[W]e would secede from the Convention, and, returning to our constituents, inform them that no compact could be formed with the large states, but one which would sacrifice our sovereignty and independence.”
Jonathan Dayton himself was chosen to relay this ultimatum-cum-exit plan to the rest of the body, possibly, he reasoned, because “young men are generally chosen to perform rash actions.” As Dayton records, when he rose and read out the declaration of the four smaller states, great consternation broke out in the chamber, and it was in the midst of this confusion and the “acrimonious feeling” that “rupture appeared almost inevitable” that Franklin arose to make his calming, guiding proposals. Thus, in the narrative as structured through Steele’s decade-long recollection of another’s first-person account, Dayton has a vested interest in the vindication offered by the invocation of God’s assuring presence in the proceedings that ultimately led to the adoption of a plan for state representation in the senate that seems rather similar to what the smaller states, with their secessionist threats, had originally opposed. In this way, Dayton’s political career—tainted as it had been through association with secessionist plots from that which he co-planned with Burr to the New York gubernatorial race to, apparently, even his role in the Constitutional Convention—receives a convenient and tidily pious apologia on almost the one-year anniversary of the statesman’s death, which had occurred on October 9, 1824.
Of course, none of this stopped Christian apologist “historian” David Barton from latching onto the Steele narrative in his own writing. He first makes use of the false narrative in his 1992 book The Myth of Separation, where Barton passed Steele’s narrative off as truth, writing:
“Franklin’s admonition—and the delegates[’] response to it—had been the turning point not only for the Convention, but also for the future of the nation. While neglecting God, their efforts had been characterized by frustration and selfishness. With their repentance came a desire to begin each morning of official government business with prayer and even to attend church en masse, as government officials, to hear a minister inspire and challenge them” (p. 110)
In his subsequent 1996 book Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, and Religion, Barton “corrected” his error, noting rightly that “Franklin’s motion was…tabled,” but then adding immediately thereafter in parentheses: “However, some accounts indicated that prayer did later occur as a result of Franklin’s request.” In the footnote to this bit of agnotology, Barton cites only a single source, the Thanksgiving Day sermon preached in 1850 by one Clement Moore Butler. Butler was an Episcopal clergyman who served as Chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1850 to 1853. In his sermon on that Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1850, Butler provided the perfect model for a false narrative of American unity. The clergyman seems at great pains at the beginning of his speech to emphasize the racial, ethnic, and linguistic unity of Americans, ignoring any and all immigrant populations of the kind to which the nativist Know Nothing Party sprang up as a response in the mid-1850s, as well as the obvious fact that European settlers did not actually find the North American continent uninhabited when they arrived. Butler said:
“The very extent of our land—the occupation of a country so gigantic by one race, of one origin and tongue…is itself a subject for vast thanksgiving.
It is a new thing in the history of the world. Great Empires, in past times, have been composed of diverse people, whose races, histories, languages, institutions, arts, sciences, and general culture, have been most various and conflicting. They have been conglomerates, fused into a shapeless and heterogenous mass by the fires of despotism. … Never before was there a land so vast as ours, under one government, inhabited by one people, speaking one language, and subject to one law. It is a new thing in the history of the world.
And it is a thing which it required a long history to accomplish. God preserved this continent from being inhabited, until, in another land, men were gradually trained to begin the work which is here and now in progress.”
It was in this ideological context that Butler repeated the essentials from the fictitious narrative of the Steele letter, preaching:
“The whole plan of Union seemed to be on the verge of ruin. States threatened to withdraw. Under circumstances of great excitement and alarm, the venerable Franklin counselled an adjournment for some days, and recommended that when they again assembled, their deliberations should be opened with prayer. It was done. The dissenting States, at the re-opening of the Convention, agreed to the measure they had so strenuously resisted, rather than that the Union should not be formed. Thus against the preferences of many, even of a majority, and after the acknowledgement that they were at their wits end, and a resort to God in prayer, was that feature of the Union perfected, which is now regarded, with scarcely no dissenting voices, as its crowning excellence and wisdom. Say not that God was not there!”
Even apart from Barton’s disingenuous use of this problematic source to improperly cast doubt on the prevailing historical narrative, his discussion of the Franklin prayer proposal in the ’96 book proves deceptive in another key way. He correctly mentions the counter-proposal by Edmund Randolph of Virginia to have prayer on July 4th and thereafter every morning before the Convention, but he omits the truth that this counter-proposal, like Franklin’s original motion for prayer, was tabled without vote on its merits. Instead, Barton links Randolph’s motion to the real three-day adjournment which Hamilton attributes to the twin need for the Committee to consider the delicate issue of state representation in the Senate and for the delegates to attend Independence Day celebrations. Barton writes that the break from Monday, July 2nd, until Thursday, July 5th, was called specifically “to accommodate that proposal.” He goes on to suggest that a talk delivered on July 4th, 1787, at the Reformed Calvinist Church in Philadelphia by lawyer James Campbell and preceded by a prayer offered by Reverend William Rogers was the very July 4th prayer that formed the aim of Randolph’s failed motion. In his diary entry for the day—two variant versions of which can be found online here and here—George Washington mentions being present at that particular event and hearing an “Oration on the Anniversary of Independence” at a “Calvanist [sic] church.” The Supplement to Max Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 contains a snippet from a letter written by William Rogers to one Enos Hitchcock, dated June 27, 1787, which confirms the basic facts of Washington’s diary entry as follows:
“Wednesday next being the Anniversary of Independence, Race Street Church has been procur’d for the Delivery of an annual Oration. … We go in Procession from the State House, honor’d by the Company of the Convention and Executive Council.”
It appears that Washington and many other members of the Constitutional Convention did attend an event held at the Calvinist German Reformed Church on Race Street in Philadelphia. However, the occasion was an “Independence Oration” that was delivered by an attorney. The prayer portion took place by way of prefatory remarks from an ordained minister. The event was not a public occasion of prayer per se, nor did it occur at the behest of Edmund Randolph’s conciliatory proposal, or anyone else at the Convention for that matter. Despite these facts, the website for David Barton’s Wallbuilders organization still contains the inaccurate text:
“In response to Benjamin Franklin’s call to seek God that was made on June 28, 1787, the Rev. William Rogers prayed before the service that was held at the Reformed Calvinist Church in Philadelphia on July 4th of that year.”
Moreover, this statement appears directly above an image that shows a copy of the August 15, 1787, edition of the Massachusetts Centinel newspaper which printed the introductory prayer offered by Rev. William Rogers on that occasion in its entirety. That article also makes clear, though, that the event was for the delivery of “an oration, commemorative of the great event” and that the speech was performed “in presence of the Federal Convention,” not at their request. Indeed, the Centinel article specifically attributes the occasion as having been orchestrated “by the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati,” in whose company Washington notes in his diary entry he dined that evening as well.
Barton’s continuing error has obviously influenced conservative Christian historical apologists online, like this one. It has also exerted a clear and predictable influence over the thinking of Barton’s friend, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert who, in his statement on the 2016 National Day of Prayer, asserted the same false equivalency between Franklin’s and Randolph’s failed proposals for prayer and the event at the Reformed Calvinist Church on July 4, 1787, just as Barton and his Wallbuilders peddle. Gohmert said:
“In 1787, after about 5 weeks of yelling and accomplishing nothing, the Constitutional Convention voted to recess and reconvene in a local Philadelphia church where they would all worship together on our nation’s birthday, and then come back and work on a Constitution after that. Well, it worked. They recessed and convened on July 4, 1787 at the Reformed Calvinistic Church where the Rev. William Rogers prayed that God would ‘favor them, from day to day, with Thy inspiring presence; be their wisdom & strength; enable them to devise such measures as may prove happy instruments in healing all the divisions & prove the good of the great whole.’
It worked. God heard and He granted that request. The result was the U.S. Constitution.”
Intriguing as the Steele letter is, it may not stand alone as a witness to hagiographical tendencies in the historiography of its day. The same Parson Weems who wrote the first biography of President George Washington and bequeathed to modernity the apocryphal tale of a young Washington’s having chopped down a precious cherry tree also penned a work covering the life of Benjamin Franklin: The life of Benjamin Franklin: with many choice anecdotes and admirable sayings of this great man, never before published by any of his biographers, first published in 1817. At least by the time of the 6th edition published in 1822, Weem’s Life of Benjamin Franklin included an anecdote from Rufus King, who had served as a Massachusetts delegate to the Constitutional Convention, attesting to the religious character of Benjamin Franklin. Weems prefaces his inclusion of the story by repeating a point he had made several pages earlier in his account, namely that King maintained of Franklin that, while not entirely orthodox in his faith, he was nonetheless “very much a christian [sic] in practice.” The anecdote—which gets the year of the convention wrong, calling it “the Convention of ’88” (an error Weems also makes in his first mention of Rufus King’s opinion of Franklin’s religiosity)—relates what purports to be an extended quotation from Franklin’s speech calling for prayer interspersed with some editorial remarks. Curiously, one of those editorial remarks seems suspiciously similar to a parenthetical editorializing remark in the Steele letter.
Weem’s King story begins as follows:
“‘We have been here, Mr. Speaker,’ said he [i.e. Benjamin Franklin], (George Washington was in the chair,) ‘a long time, trying to act on this important subject, and have done nothing; and in place of a speedy and successful close of our business, we see nothing but dark clouds of difficulty and embarrassment gathering before us. It is high time for us, Mr. Speaker, to call in the direction of a wisdom above our own.—(The countenance of Washington caught a brightness at these words, as he leaned forward in deepest gaze on Doctor Franklin.) Yes, sir, it is high time for us to call in the direction of a wisdom above our own. …’”
Note the second remark in parentheses which, in the original, neatly bisects the anecdote, creating two balanced halves. In the similar space between Franklin’s purported call for a three-day recess and his call for prayer, the 1825 Steele letter contains the following strikingly parallel aside:
“(Here the countenance of Washington brightened, and a cheering ray seemed to break in upon the gloom which had recently covered our political horizon.)”
The positioning of this parenthetical remark in both accounts between a segment of Franklin’s speech in which he dwells on the impasse of the Convention and one where he calls for opening prayer, as well as the mention of the brightening of Washington’s countenance in comparison to metaphorical “dark clouds” and “gloom” that had fallen over the gathering, possibly hint at a shared oral/anecdotal source for both the King story and the Steele letter or perhaps a partial dependency of the Steele account on the King story. Weem’s King anecdote contains only Franklin’s call for prayer and says nothing of the outcome, but this one particular detail is at least suggestive of a larger hagiographical tradition surrounding Franklin’s proposal and the desire on the part of some in the early nineteenth century to make the elder statesman out to have been nothing if not a pious Christian.
In part three of this series, we’ll take a look at another, if less brazen, example of hagiographical and revisionist treatment of an episode from U.S. history bearing on prayer and public religion, this one from the Constitutional Convention of 1774 and events that played out even before the nation’s official birth.
To continue directly to Part III of this series, click here.